Lifebits, the Next Corner of Cyberspace?

Net artist Olia Lialina will be presenting at the Transmedial conference later this month and she reached out in preparation for her talk with a question for me and other folks who run similar projects to Reclaim, such as Neocities, tilde club, and

Do you still see need or potential for your project in 2020? are people keen to build their “corner of cyberspace”?

This was a bit of an honor for me cause I am a big fan of Olia’s work, her detailed work on the early aesthetic of the web is brilliant. Her discussion of the Prof Dr. Style websites from the 90s remains a real inspiration for me—I’ve referenced it in talk after talk I have given. 

Her ideas of this moment of the web when “user was equal to developer” has transported me back to more than a few HTML workshops I ran in the mid-90s for faculty. It is a powerful reminder that what we were asking folks to do then seems insane to us today: write markup language, grok file structure, FTP files, check file permissions, and make sure links are relative, etc. It’s a fundamentals course that has aged pretty well, particularly over the past 5 years or so as we are seeing a move away from database-driven CMSs in favor of static web sites for a variety of reasons: security, forward compatibility, speed, and ease of archiving. Turns out what was old could be new again 🙂 

In fact, while most of us were still under the spell of Web 2.0, Olia was scouring through the Geocities wreckage in order to salvage and re-publish the single biggest repository of the Web 1.0 aesthetic. But the revival of static sites doesn’t necessarily answer the question of whether or not web building services that enable folks to create their own “corner of cyberspace” are still relevant. I see proprietary web building services like Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly as a sign that there’s still a desire amongst some to create a personal site, and there’s also significant financial value to making that process as easy as possible.*  People are creating those sites for a variety of reasons. But if our experience at Reclaim Hosting is at all representative, it often starts as a means to create a resume-like site. Which, ironically, is not unlike those Prof Dr. sites from the mid 90s Olia wrote so much about. Yet, while that might be where it begins and ends for some, we have literally thousands of faculty and students that are using web services to create and publish information outside the siloed industry of social media for a variety of reasons.

Given we are an education-focused company, our focus has always been first and foremost on a sense of web literacy. For most of our users, the value of exploring applications like WordPress under the hood in order to understand basic HTML or how scripted code interacts with a database or thinking through file structure remains foundational for understanding how the web works. What’s more, often-times educators are faced with real limitations from templated social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. For one, these services are often predicated on convenience, which comes at the cost of preventing users from accessing the underlying technology.  The inability for faculty and students to build custom experiences leads to their need of adding functionality, integrating other web services, and/or providing a simple means to extract their data—all of which can lead them towards open source applications like WordPress, Omeka, Drupal, etc.

But, at least in my mind (and this may be moving into the aspirational part of my answer), I want to believe that these personal spaces as a reflection of identity on the web remains important. The notion that there is a certain amount of pride of ownership in having your own space on the web. But, truth be told, social media silos like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook can at times shake my confidence on this front a bit. But I think the question of digital identity in this regard is more complex, and increasingly it has as much to do with where and how your data lives. For almost two decades we have been comfortable off-loading our thoughts, images, and videos (what Jon Udell calls our hosted lifebits) to various third party services at little or no ostensible cost (if you are not counting your data), and with equally little guarantee of permanence (Geocities anyone?). That is not to say these lifebits won’t be around, but there is a larger sense of these pieces of our personal histories being strewn around the web with little or no cohesion. So, this is where the idea of one’s “corner of cyberspace” might be understood a bit differently than it was during Web 1.0. Rather than a Geocities site or an HTML page hosted by one’s university, what if a personal site was a robust series of connections to the various services and networks wherein we share these personal lifebits via syndication, yet our personal sites aggregate, and by extension archive, these various web-based shards of our online identity.

And what if the personal site’s functionality was not limited to our personal online effects like images, videos, and text? (though I believe it must start there) -what if we can have more control over the data points the various people, services, and institutions we interact with have access to about us? So, rather than simply providing our personal info on myriad commercial sites again and again, what if we provide them a link that connects back to our authoritative personal information on our corner of cyberspace that we control. Which means, at some point in the future, we can just as easily revoke those connections. This is akin to a model that the MyData organization frames as  a”human-centered data economy,” and for me the idea of a site and its relationship to our online identity has far more depth of possibility than ever before, which makes me think the concept of having one’s own site online might never be more relevant given how “homeless” our digital presence is online currently. 

*A convenience folks will pay a whole lot for if the monthly cost of Squarespace is any indicator.

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