Marius Masalar
March 23rd, 2024

How indie can you really be?

Jason Velazquez recently wrote about the uncomfortable reality of the modern web.

It’s a reminder that underneath all the fanfare about new technologies and how they’ll change our lives, a small group of companies have manoeuvred themselves into a place of unimaginable power.

Nearly every platform, every app, every website, every AI model, everything that constitutes the recognizable surface of our online lives...is powered by this burgeoning corporate oligarchy.

...those technologies require a metric fuckton of computing power to operate. That fact may be devastating for the earth, indeed it is for our mental health, but it’s wonderful news for the four storefronts selling all the juice.

It’s a cynical take, but where’s the lie? Sure, the article goes some places I wasn't willing to follow. But it does make me wonder about the limits of what it can mean to be "indie" on the web these days. A while back, I wrote:

We all accept that “owning our online identity” is important, but what does that mean? A particular visual representation of my ideas? A domain name? A style choice?

Is the content more mine if I put it on a website that I hand coded instead of on a managed platform? How much of the stack do I need to own before I’ve sufficiently established my identity? I can own the code that contains the words, but I only rent the server that hosts it and the domain that you access it from.

Content is portable—that much works in our favour.

Most of us will one day find ourselves having to pick up and move from one platform to another. Some will go to great lengths to distance themselves from any managed platform in an effort to assert a semblance of independence.

The trouble is: at some point, you have to trust someone. You can choose to do so when using a business-owned platform to publish your work, or you can move the goalpost further up the chain. You might make it as far as owning and operating your own server equipment. But why?

Doing it that way impacts others' ability to know you exist. It limits the chances that they'll discover your work. It puts us back to the earliest days of the web, where reaching anyone at all was a triumph. Most of what we've built since then has been in pursuit of more connection.

Isn't that what we're after? We're publishing online because we want to be seen. Otherwise we'd just keep a journal (some of you do both)! We want to be part of this online community, to commit our writing, our art, our ideas to the ledger of history.

So how do we balance that against the desire to retain an individual identity in this space? And what does it mean when it's no longer practical to own the entire stack of technology that transports your ideas from brain to society via the internet? At least before you had the option.

The four largest corporations in the world won’t just roll over and let us have the quirky indie web we all want. They’ve moved one layer up so that they remain our gatekeepers no matter where we go.

Why would it matter to them? Why would those companies care about the indie web at all? They're making money through the infrastructure layer either way.

I suspect the implication is that these companies will use the power they've accrued to influence society's means and, thereby, freedom of expression. This is likely true. But it seems to me that it's true regardless of which companies—or even what kind of power—is involved.

Asserting control is the natural self-defense mechanism of power. But I'm not sure I'm prepared to demonize any particular company for operating within its environment. For other things, sure, but not for working to build value and scale as befits their ambitions. We live in a capitalist world, whether we like it or not.

Power can influence us, it's true, but so long as we too can influence power—with our choices, with our wallets, with our votes—the system is working as designed. For better or worse.