The perils of a non-independent web

25th September 2013 | More information

In the earlier days of the personal website, you needed technical knowledge to maintain your own website. Then “personal publishing” services like Blogger and Geocities came along. Authors looking to jump into the sphere of personal publishing were able to begin publishing content with little or no technical knowledge. An example of such an author is my aunt Anna, who blogged until 2009 under the name “Self Winding”.

The blog became the medium through which many people chose to share their thoughts and lives and millions of websites sprung up; both on Blogger’s own hosting platform or at services like Geocities. Photoblogs sprung up amongst those who wanted to share more images than words and their popularity gave rise to Flickr in 2004; around the time when the social network phenomenon started to gain traction.

We don’t need to discuss how many such networks have grown up in the subsequent nine years, but a major result of their prevalence is the decline of the personal blog. A great many people who used blogging systems to share information with friends and family switched to communities like Facebook, whilst their loved and well-tended blogs quickly withered and dried up. This showed that many of these users didn’t really want to maintain a public creative space, but preferred to focus on sharing their thoughts with a targeted group of people: often just friends, family and acquaintances.

The migration of so many users from blogging services led to internet giant Yahoo! taking over the Geocities service in 2009, after which the plug was pulled on over seven million personal sites after dubious explanations of data privacy and the real reasons of saving a fortune on hosting costs. Although many of the sites were frivolous, a great number were long-running sources of information. Despite their questionable aesthetics, the deletion of such a huge swathe of information was a great loss for the internet.

In more recent years, smaller start-ups and great solutions like Posterous, Picnik or Friendfeed often get subsumed by larger companies at the cost of the users’ freedom and data. The parent company can’t be bothered to maintain the technology of its new acquisition and so the system either remains in mothballs, or worse, gets deleted with the loss of all its users’ data. Often, the take-over is a commercial way to stop such smaller services challenging the parent company’s own offering.

One has to wonder what will happen to Tumblr, now that the system and all of its users’ data belongs to Yahoo!. Will it suffer the same fate of so many other free and (formerly) “independent” creative spaces?

The founder of U.K.-based web agency Clearleft, Jeremy Keith, goes into more details of the perils of leaving your data in the hands of services beyond your control in his address at a recent conference. It makes for a thought-provoking 45 minutes: the benefits of self-hosted solutions for creative people wanting to maintain a stable and long-lasting online presence – independently of the social media giants – are quickly clear.

The video is linked in the header of this blog post – in English after a brief German introduction – and is transcribed on Jeremy’s website.

Mark Howells-Mead