IndieWeb and Respect Network: Two roads to decentralizing the network

independence day fireworks

Independence — it’s hot! On the verge of July 4, here’s some info about a couple of independence-oriented Web projects.

When I kicked off the Wordyard Project, I wrote about my sense that we’ve reached “peak Facebook” — and are now entering a phase of digital history in which the pendulum will swing back from the collective to the individual, from the centralized to the distributed, from the corporate data silo to the personal digital homestead.

Over the last several days I’ve had brief immersion experiences in two very different — yet reasonably compatible — projects that aim to give that pendulum a big shove. One, the IndieWeb, is a classic Internet-era bottom-up movement trying to build and test working technologies and tools for autonomous, empowered individuals; the other, the Respect Network, is an attempt to jumpstart a new identity system and financial network based on individual trust and privacy. One is led by idealistic developers, the other by idealistic businesspeople.

IndieWeb Camp

Let’s start with the IndieWeb, which I introduced briefly last week. The idea here is to build systems centered on the individual and use the domain-name system as a de facto basis for identity. If you own wokcity.com (uh, someone does but they’re not doing much with it), the IndieWeb developers want to make it possible for you to use that address as home base. You could use it to sign in to other sites; to publish your posts and messages and converse with other people, in public or private as you wish; and to serve as a home for your personal data store. (Dan Gillmor’s piece earlier this year is another valuable overview of the IndieWeb vision.)

The IndieWeb effort — whose prominent contributors include folks such as Tantek Celik, Amber Case, Kevin Marks, and Aaron Parecki — is resolutely organized around diverse small projects that participants are using right now on their own sites, sharing open standards that build on existing Web technology. In other words, there are no boil-the-ocean attempts here, which is refreshing: It’s a lot easier to dream about a completed utopia than it is to take the first few steps toward an incrementally better near future. In the first situation, you get manifestos and blueprints and (often) pipe dreams; in the second, you get working demos.

At IndieWeb Camp this past weekend, enthusiasts gathered, chiefly in Portland and New York, for unconference-style discussions and a day-long hackathon-like building session. The namebadges read “Hello, my URL is…”

Here are some of the projects I saw demoed:

  • Ben Werdmuller, Aaron Parecki and Emma Kuo whipped up a prototype “Indieweb Reader” — basically, a Google Reader-ish content aggregator pulling in RSS/Atom syndicated posts along with Indieweb-style messages.
  • Bridgy is a nifty IndieWeb service that takes Twitter and Facebook responses to a post on your blog and feeds them back to you in the form of comments. Right now Bridgy only works if you send out a link first, so it knows the post is yours; Kyle Mahan showed a way to bypass this requirement.
  • Indie-auth is an Indieweb-style single sign-on protocol that uses your domain name to authenticate your identity. It’s still more developer-focused than user-friendly, but it keeps evolving. For the moment, the most common implementation involves a slightly confusing trip to Twitter or Facebook or Google+ to associate your domain with some already-authenticated account. But Aaron Parecki showed a method for using public-key encryption (GPG) to bypass that step.
  • Known is a startup that’s building a platform for personal publishing based on the Indieweb approach. The founders are Ben Werdmuller and Erin Jo Richey; you can see it at work on Werdmuller’s site at Werd.io.
  • A parallel project that’s less further along in terms of publicly viewable work is Shane Becker’s Homesteading — but I’m guessing that it’s powering his own site here.
  • Johannes Ernst put together a one-click “install WordPress with Indieweb extensions pre-installed” package for his Indiebox project.
  • Amber Case showed how to build a quick-and-dirty private social network using WordPress and its Twitter-like P2 theme.
  • Ward Cunningham — wiki inventor and pattern-repository founder — showed off the latest work on the Federated Wiki project.

There was lots more in Portland, and I’m sure even more in New York that I couldn’t track. (This wiki page has more details.) As you can see, the IndieWeb approach is to tackle its agenda of autonomy from many directions at once, with quick, agile-style stabs at getting stuff working. The result has some minuses for users: code is in flux and not always well documented, installing stuff isn’t always easy, a lot of things just don’t work yet. But the pluses, for users who are adventurous and handy with technical details, are hugely attractive — chief among them the chance to help shape the tools and platforms growing up around this privacy- and autonomy-oriented movement.

(One of my goals for Wordyard is to keep up with and write about the IndieWeb effort — while using some of the projects myself right here. For the moment, that means using Brid.gy and WordPress to collect mentions and conversations around my posts that happen on Twitter and Facebook and feed them back to my own comments system here. It’s not working perfectly yet, but it’s working, as you can see here.)

Respect Network

The Respect Network tackles the whole “take back the Web” idea from the opposite direction of the IndieWeb’s grassroots-developer tinkering. The project actually emerged from the community around the Internet Identity Workshop — a gathering very similar to IndieWeb Camp in spirit, and that has been around longer. But the Respect Network is much more conventional and institutional in its approach.

That’s understandable, given what it’s trying to accomplish: It aims to engineer an alternative financial and data infrastructure built on personal ownership of data and shared principles of trust; the model seems to be Visa/Mastercard, but where you own your data. (There’s a detailed “Trust Framework” that participating businesses must adopt.) The key elements here are:

  • “Cloud names” — global personal (or business) identifiers that use an equal sign rather than, say, email/Twitter’s “@” sign or the domain-name system to represent an individual user (for example, I am “=scottros”).
  • Cloud service providers — companies that provide cloud name registration and personal/business data storage under Respect Network principles.
  • A single sign-in button (like the ubiquitous “sign in with Facebook/Twitter” buttons) for sites to deploy so users can log in to multiple services using their cloud names.
  • All of this works under a technical standard called XDI, which should allow for the emergence of a system of competing businesses all sharing the same infrastructure. XDI has been worked on for some time now but there isn’t a ton of actual services and products using it today.

(More details at GigaOm.)

The Respect Network founders have assembled an alliance of infrastructure companies, service providers and creative thinkers — people like Doc Searls, Phil Windley, and Jerry Michalski — and begun to sign up partners and customers. Tuesday was launch day for the network in San Francisco (it’s in the middle of a global road show).

It was clear at the event that, right now, there isn’t a huge amount of Respect Network services that anyone can yet use: About all you can do is reserve a cloud name. The network’s goal is to sign up a million people for this at a special $25-for-life introductory rate. You can go today to providers like Emmett Global and do this, as I did. But you can’t do much with it yet. Eventually, the idea is that this name will serve as the address for all your data, and when you interact with businesses and other people you’ll be able to set the terms.

Respect Network is trying to bridge the worlds of privacy activism and Internet marketing, and that is unquestionably a tough challenge: The company’s leaders need to persuade the business people that they mean business, while demonstrating to the idealists who will be their first participants and customers that they are not sell-outs.

It’s hard to say how far they’ll get. On the one hand, the free/ad-supported model is powerful and everywhere today. It’s not going to just wither and die. On the other, the logic of the simple “you should own your own data” principle is potent; the world of advertising keeps finding new ways to overstep public tolerance; and the keepers of corporate silos keep stepping into their own booby traps.

Emmett founder Lionel Wolberger gave his pitch at Monday’s event with a memorable joke, envisioning what phone calls would be like if they were ad-supported the way so many web services are. The idea of companies listening in to our phone calls so they could break in and pitch products sounds ludicrous, unimaginable — yet somehow we are willing to tolerate this same dynamic in our online communications. The Respect Network will test our appetite for alternatives.

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