I'm gonna be honest: as someone who's always had an interest in getting people off of platforms and onto their very own, individual little islands in the vastness that's the Internet, the past few weeks have been quite nice.
With Twitter on the verge of collapse (or at least someone at the helm who doesn't seem to mind if it does), there's been renewed interest not only in alternatives like Mastodon, but there's a growing sense that maybe platformization is in fact not the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Instead, the concept of decentralization is actually being discussed not only in some nerdy corners of the Internet, but also in mainstream publications.
Which makes me think that - once again - the time is right to remind you of the one thing you can do to never be as dependent on a platform as you have on Twitter:
GET YOUR OWN WEBSITE!
Of course, most of the time the reply is: I have neither the ability nor the time to set up and maintain a website. So let me talk about the two.
Why "I'm not a nerd like you, I don't know how" is rubbish
Back when I set up my first website, with its very own domain and all that jazz, the year was 2000. I wasn't exactly a tech-genius then, as I am still not now, but I knew I wanted a website, simply because I found the idea of having my very own space on the Internet exhilarating.
So I started building a website in, I think, Microsoft Frontpage. It was ugly, it was bad, but after some wrangling with an FTP-program, I managed to upload it all to webspace I'd rented. And there it was, my very own website!
Soon after, I found out that there's actual content management systems out there. The most prominent back then was Movable Type, which cost money and needed access to a database. Wordpress was already around back then as well, but it too required a database. Since my webspace was, initially, the one I was provided with through my university, without access to a database, I found a content management system that could do without. It was called Grey Matter, and it served me nicely (it's still around today, even though it's rarely updated).
The years came and went, as did my various webspaces, content management systems and domains. What didn't change was the ease with which it was possible to set up your own website. Hell, it had become even easier!
These days renting your own (virtual) server is a walk in the park, software is now as simple (or as complex) as you want it to be and there's nothing out there to stop you from creating your very own virtual headquarters.
Why "I don't have time to maintain it" is short-sighted
Now, these days you can set up your own website via, say, Wordpress.com, simply by signing up for the service, but for the sake of argument, let's say you went the self-hosting route, setting up your very own server or webspace.
This, and I grant you that, will be more work than just signing up for a platform. But hear me out: there's a reason why you want to be on a platform like Twitter or Facebook: you want your voice to be heard and you want to have a well-curated network of people you enjoy exchanging ideas with.
If that's the case, then you're in it for the long haul: you want your ideas, your texts, your photos to be around for a while, and you want those connections to be permanent.
So why not, then, make sure that all of that is actually yours? Yours to alter, yours to move around, yours to maybe expand or scale down?
Look at it like this: you spend ages formulating your thoughts, writing up your little pieces, then putting them online. Shouldn't you afford the same care to the place where all of this will end up? And here's the kicker: you might invest some time maintaining your website, but you will never have to start from scratch because someone decided they want to act on their megalomaniac impulses and buy the platform you thought of as your virtual home.
Also, having your very own website rocks. It's got your name on it, it displays your own artistic sensibilities (if you have any) and it'll still be there once Twitter or Facebook or any other platform have gone into administration.
So, how do I do it?
If you're already convinced, here's a (very) rough guide on how to get your first website up and running:
- Find yourself a cool domain name. This is one of my favourite parts of the whole process. You can use your name, or you can use whatever you want. THIS IS YOUR WEBSITE! So go wild, make it your own!
To register a domain I use Gandi, but there are a number of popular services out there. Just make sure you steer clear of GoDaddy.
- Find yourself some webspace (or a VPS). Back in the day, people signed up for webspace, which was not much more than designated space on a big server, usually shared with hundreds, if not thousands of other websites. There's nothing wrong with that, but you can run into resource issues, if one of those other websites proves very popular, hogging bandwidth or processing power, dragging all the other sites on that webspace down with it.
Fortunately, for a few bucks a month, you can get your very own virtual private server (VPS). While this, technically, is still just part of a big server, it behaves like a separate server with guaranteed processing power and RAM. And if you already know you want to publish via Wordpress, companies like DigitalOcean provide you with a VPS pre-installed with Wordpress. Same holds true for Ghost or a number of different content management systems.
- Connect domain and server Now that you've got your own VPS, just tell your domain registrar where it is. If you happen to go with DigitalOcean, just enter the DigitalOcean nameservers in your registrars backend. This might sound complicated, but it's really one of the easiest things to do, and documentation is plentiful.
- That's it, there's nothing else That's not entirely true, of course. Because now begins the fun part. You've now got your very own website, and publishing is just a finger-tip away.
Once you've set up your very own website, there's nothing stopping you from making this place your very own hub on the web. As long as you keep paying for your domain and your server, the sky's the limit. Most content management systems provide a plethora of plugins or extensions, allowing you to make this whole thing as big or as small as you like. Texts, photos, videos - whatever you choose to share, you can do it right there.
Don't wait for the next new platform to put all of those things into a walled garden - choose openness, interoperability and decentralization instead. Trust me, in a few years, when yet another platform goes bust and all those carefully curated albums, texts or discussions invariably disappear, you'll be happy to have this one place on the web that's all yours, for as long as you like.
One more thing: if you want to make all of this even easier, there's now services that do most of the heavy lifting for you. I use one of them, Cloudron, which lets me install new software with one click and takes care of all the little things that usually force me to stay awake way past my bedtime. It takes care of all the big things too, so you don't have to worry about updating software and all that jazz.
ADDENDUM: As Dan has pointed out in the comments, a starting point could be to use a one-click solution like Wordpress or even Squarespace, with some proper support via phone or e-mail, so people can get their feet wet. I agree in the sense that it'll show them what it's like to own their own place. I'd argue, though, that putting everything, from domain to software to hosting into the hands of just one player can have its pitfalls. So, yes, definitely a starting point but ultimately, for the sake of actually having control over all the moving parts, doing these things separately should be an end-goal to aspire to.
If you want to learn more about hosting your own software instead of relying on big platforms, head on over to selfhostedweb.org. It even has its own podcast (well, a few episodes at least).