Since this is a new newsletter with next-to-no readers, this first issue is less of a missive to subscribers and more of a love letter to the IndieWeb.
Sometime in 2005 I bought a domain name and web hosting from Quality Host Online. While the level of service never lived up to the name, the price was right: $11.40 per year for premium hosting. “Premium” meant that you could use a MySQL database and consequently that you could install WordPress for yourself. After some futzing around with PHP and CSS—two acronyms I would soon be Googling a lot—I had made some questionable design choices and published some even more questionable posts, all of which would be lost to history were it not for the Wayback Machine.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that without having learned to mess around with websites I would not have much of a career as a historian. I certainly wouldn’t have had the blind dumb luck (a.k.a. providence) to get hired while ABD, and so I wouldn’t have avoided the cruelties of the academic job market that have tormented most of my generation. Nor would I have the good fortune to work at a place where I can collaborate with colleagues to build scholarly websites for a living.
That domain name is also personal. The 14 years that I have continuously owned lincolnmullen.com is longer than I was in grad school (5 years) or have held the same job (also 5 years), lived in the same house (3 years), been a parent (8 years), or been married (11 years and counting). Measured against being a father or husband, a domain name is a light thing. But still. Other than being a son, brother, or Christian, I’d be hard-pressed to name anything else that has been a part of my identity for longer.
The term “IndieWeb” has been gaining traction of late, and thanks to Cal Newport it has even made it into the New Yorker. The proprietors of indieweb.org define it as a “people-focused alternative to the ‘corporate web’” and defend it in somewhat overblown terms as a matter of “owning your content, your identity, and your self.” Cal Newport calls it “a loose collective of developers and techno-utopians.” A combination of well-founded anti-corporate suspicion and unrealistic hopes that the web can return to an era before Facebook and Twitter certainly seems like an apt characterization of the IndieWeb to me.
Exhaustion with social media is what led me to leave Twitter behind for good and to take up with the IndieWeb crowd on Micro.blog and now Buttondown. I can scarcely claim to have been an independent thinker. No doubt I would not have left Twitter if Alan Jacobs hadn’t set the example first, and the closest thing that I have to a social media strategy is following Dan Cohen around to various web platforms. (I’m not sure why you are reading this newsletter: go subscribe to Cohen and Jacobs instead.) The comparison of social media platforms to the seven deadly sins seems less a joke and more a bitter reality. But after about a year of being pretty much absent from the internet, my hope is that this newsletter might provide an outlet for once again writing about history and history-making.
But for me, the appeal of the IndieWeb primarily lies in building. Almost everything I know how to do, technologically speaking, has its roots in learning to do things on my website. I only happened to be lucky that others had already blazed the path from web servers to scholarship. Alan Jacobs has listed things students ought to know to be full participants of the web, and they are the same things I unintentionally started learning when I signed up with Quality Host Online. I’m not optimistic that the IndieWeb can replace big corporate social media because tinkering with the tech is an element of its appeal. (See also Bethanie Nowviskie’s meditation on “resistance in the materials.”)
People who know me probably have realized that exhaustion with social media is symptomatic of broader exhaustion. The title of this newsletter—“working on it”—is mostly because people seem to like reading about how history and especially digital history is made. But it is in part because I’ve found myself having to write back to so many people saying, “yes, I’m still working on it,” about one project or another. In looking for a path back to doing meaningful work, the best route that I have found is returning to my IndieWeb roots.
For a long time, I felt stuck—mired, really. But over the past couple months, I’ve gone back to tinkering with the basic building blocks of the web and figuring out what to do with the blank canvas of an open <html> tag.
All that to say: I love you, IndieWeb.
Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States (Harvard, 2018) locates the early history of computing not in Defense Department initiatives like ARPANET or the creations of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Instead, she takes readers on a tour of other sites, such as Dartmouth College and public schools in Minnesota, where users turned computer networks into networked culture. This is a history from the bottom up focused on what users made of technology instead of how technology made them. It’s a story of interest to anyone who wants to know about the roots of the modern internet—especially those who want to get back to them.