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POSSE and the Indieweb is Big Tech Bullshit

IndieWebCamp was not about "owning your data". It was about sharing your Facebook content with Google - at your own expense.
Bob Leggitt
26 January 2023

POSSE. Publish Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. It may seem like a grassroots concept to those who have encountered it in the wild, but if you trace it back to its roots, you'll find yourself deep in Silicon Valley, in the company of Big Tech developers.

The POSSE acronym and slogan were first coined in their current form at a Mozilla-funded Microformats event in San Francisco, on the night of 20 June 2012. But the version of the slogan that emerged that night - "Publish Own Site, Syndicate Everywhere (or Elsewhere)" - was not the first. It was actually a revised version of a previous maxim...

POSE: Publish Once, Syndicate Everywhere.

And POSE, in turn, was a re-spin of an even earlier version in use during mid 2011: the rather less memorable...

PTSR: Publish Then Syndicate (and) Replicate.

Going further back in time, the slogans can be traced to OwnYourData.

From one perspective, the current POSSE slogan can be seen as a call for users of Big Tech silos to relocate their main base to a website they control. But it could equally be seen as a call for independent website owners to spray their content into the clutches of a Silicon Valley platform. Maybe a platform that was just opening when the brand behind the slogans - IndieWebCamp - launched in 2011. Like Google Plus, which just happened to hit the scene at exactly the same time.

Indeed, if the slogans were not meant to drive privately hosted content towards Big Tech, why suggest syndication at all? Why suggest replication? Why EVERYwhere? Why would a genuine independence movement not just advise people to ditch Big Tech, run independent sites, and link them together, as people did in the 1990s? That would be grassroots. "Publish and then push to Big Tech" sounds rather more like something that would emanate from the bowels of... Well, Big Tech.

Google's singular goal was to prize content off the crawler-inaccessible Facebook, put it on the Open Web where Googlebot could reach it, and then, as a tidy bonus, advocate pushing it to G+. That, in a nutshell, is what POSSE was about.


You don't have to look that far before this suspicion is confirmed. The group behind these slogans was the Indieweb movement - a supposed flagbearer of creator autonomy and independence. If you check out the Founders page on the Indieweb site, you'll see the birth of the movement credited to Aaron Parecki and Tantek Çelik.

In 2011, when Indieweb first began reaching outward as IndieWebCamp, Parecki was working on OAuth - a data access project that had been championed by Google from the drawing board stage. Çelik was the Open Web Standards Lead at Mozilla. He'd recently been hired to help keep the web openly accessible in the face of Facebook's creeping walled garden, by an organisation overwhelmingly funded by Google. Upon hire, he ended a CNET interview with the quote:

"Ask yourself, who isn't afraid of Facebook?"

But when Klint Finley covered an IndieWebCamp event for Wired in summer 2013, he gave a rather different account of the movement's foundation. In Finley's version, the movement was founded by one Brad Fitzpatrick.

At the time of Finley's article, Fitzpatrick was a longtime Google developer, and he wasn't the only Googler involved in IndieWebCamp. Brett Slatkin was also cited. And I found evidence of other Google staff working on the project during IndieWebCamp's launch period. Ryan Barrett was involved, developing a reverse syndication utility compatible with both Google Plus and Facebook.

Whilst it's clear that Mozilla's Tantek Çelik was the leading contributor to the Indieweb/POSSE effort, it's not clear why Fitzpatrick - whose involvement in the concept's early timeline predated that of Çelik, and who was still involved more than a decade later - gets no mention on the Founders page at all. Other than perhaps a wish to obfuscate the project's direct ties to Google.

Google has an incredibly secretive and disingenuous modus operandi. Its very life is one long catalogue of information and propaganda laundering. It's the kind of organisation that will go to the trouble of setting up an entire fake NGO rather than lobbying under its own name. So we, as outsiders, will never know how early Google's involvement in the Indieweb project dates back. What we do know, is that IndieWebCamp was the product of Big Tech developers. Not artists. Not photographers. Not authors. Big Tech developers.

We also know that Google has directly funded IndieWebCamp, as has its stooge Mozilla. There are Google ties with other funders too. For example, Bridgy (an implementation of the reverse syndication concept mapped out by Mozilla's Tantek Çelik) is maintained by Ryan Barrett - one of the Indieweb devs who was working at Google during IWC's launch period. The thing is, Bridgy has no revenue stream and says it doesn't need one. So with whose money has it sponsored IndieWebCamp? I would bet actual trifle that this was just another Google funding proxy, like Mozilla.

Whilst we don't know how early Google got involved, it's probably fair to tie the onset of Google's serious interest in the "Indieweb" package to Tantek Çelik's appointment as Mozilla's "counter-Facebook operative", in spring 2010.


So why would Google care so much about something that pitched itself as a route to independence from Big Tech? Why would PTSR, POSE or POSSE be of value to Google? One word: interoperability.

If you search the Twitter feeds of gold star Google shills like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (@EFF) and Public Knowledge (@PublicKnowledge), you will find relentless harping for interoperability. Indeed, before the i-word was in quite such common use, the EFF even filed amicus briefs against Facebook after Zuck took legal action to stop power.com from 'indiewebbing' his walled garden. This was going down at the exact time when Çelik was appointed to defend the open web at Mozilla.

And the reason for this longstanding obsession with interoperability among paid Google cheerleaders? Simple:

Google's biggest advertising rival - Facebook - utilises aggressive retention practises to prevent its users from lifeboating out to competitors. Most people on Facebook stay put not because they love Zuckerberg's piss-pump of an algo, but because Facebook doesn't provide them any means of export. In short, they can move elsewhere, but their life stays on Facebook. Enshrined into law, interoperability would kill Facebook's stranglehold over social media and allow the public to move away from Zuck's empire without losing contact with their friends, families, colleagues or content. Power.com perfectly illustrated how this would work in practise. That's why Google's lobbyists endlessly lobby for interoperability. An interoperability law would basically destroy Google's arch rival, Facebook.

Sounds great. And it is, per se. But in Google's eyes, every emancipation from Facebook is a potential capture for Google. And that would just mean more of the same...

As far as Google is concerned, there is no such thing as "your own site".

Certain Google shills like to whine about "the death of Google+ as a direct result of Facebook's contrived and legally-enforced lock-ins". What they're not so keen to recall is that Google itself used horrifically anti-competitive tactics to build the G+ userbase. Like forcing, yes FORCING users of various other Google services to hold a G+ account, whether they wanted it or not. And like (yawn) threatening search visibility penalties to browbeat compliance from creators and indie publishers. If, as an author, you refused to join G+, you would be outranked in websearch by those who signed up. You may remember the high-vis G+ author profile containers on Google search. They were always at the top of the results, complete with thumbnailed G+ mugshot, even when the content behind them was useless trash.

Still not satisfied that it had the data integrity to rival Facebook's social ad pump, Google then threatened to ban users' entire Google accounts, including their email and Adsense monetisation, if the G+ accounts they'd been forced to accept were not designated in their real, legal name. Only amid woeful publicity, in a last-gasp bid to save the nosediving G+ brand, did Google relax these digital mafiosi tactics and issue a "Clarkson apology" to the marginalised groups who'd been sent to Hell and back as a result of them.

Never imagine that Google would be a better steward of the social web than Facebook. They're two arms of the same abuser.

To return to our plot, how did the Indieweb/POSSE concept integrate into Google's plans to take on Facebook? In two ways:

There is absolutely nothing "indie" about Big Tech. This is bullshit. Just like everything else that crawls out of Silicon Valley or has anything to do with it.

In short, Google's singular goal was to prize content off the crawler-inaccessible Facebook, put it on the Open Web where Googlebot could reach it, and then, as a tidy bonus, advocate pushing it to G+. That, in a nutshell, is what POSSE was about.


Indieweb solidly explains why anchoring your online presence around your own domain is a good idea. But it doesn't explain how pumping your content back into Silicon Valley silos and walled gardens once you've done that, helps you "own your data/content".

The idea of spreading content around multiple venues can make some sense, but even when it does make sense, there are caveats.

For example, it can arguably increase the creator's reach, on the basis that syndicating to five or more different platforms increases the potential audience. But potential audience and actual audience are two different things, and there are reasons why focusing on one venue could result in higher reach than trying to supply many.

The websearch ranking penalties associated with duplicating content could, for instance, lose more search referral traffic than could be gained through a share to external sites. So publishing once only, with no syndication, could produce the greatest reach.

Then there's the attention-vacuum effect. Because Web 2.0 is socially-transactional and algorithmically prioritised on engagement, people perform much better on social platforms when they're perceived to be present and attentive. If you're trying to spread your attention across six or seven platforms, it may be that none of them see you as sufficiently present or attentive to engage with, and you end up less visible than you'd have been on just one platform with high transactional engagement driving the algo's.

Indieweb also argues that syndication helps protect against loss of content/data, in the event that a silo shuts down. If you don't have your own web property, that's true - assuming you don't back up locally. If you back up locally, it doesn't apply. And as soon as you do have your own web property, you control the storage anyway, so no one's gonna do a moonlight flit with your digital presence. Within POSSE, this argument doesn't add up. And when arguments don't add up, they're usually propaganda.

Most importantly, as soon as you syndicate, the actual source of the content becomes irrelevant. Where content has multiple sources, it is effectively owned by the one with the biggest reach.

That brings us to the main point of this article.


We should not conflate owning a web property with controlling the content on it. This is something which, in my opinion, the POSSE concept has tried to trick us into doing. It implies that owning one domain on which the content resides, meaningfully asserts ownership of the content. Search "source: pinterest" or "source: google" on Twitter, and you will see how diabolically false this is.

As far as Google is concerned, there is no such thing as "your own site". Google bankrolls a band of anti-copyright lobbyists and litigators whose express mission is to degrade protections on creative intellectual property to the point where Big Tech (always the source with the biggest reach) essentially owns everything on the Internet. In parallel, elite cybertech has collectively and deliberately normalised copyright infringement, training the public to proxy stolen content to Silicon Valley silos at industrial scale. Owning a web property does not have any impact at all on this unauthorised redistribution of content.

The reason Google wants everyone to anchor their content on a web property they own is that this way, it can be pretty sure of gaining access to both the content and the visitor insights. Personal and small independent web properties tend to keep their gates open and use Google's free supporting and analytical services, which gives Google a 24/7 dip bag. In contrast, Google's rival ecosystems have a habit of walling themselves off or pulling up the drawbridge, leaving Google starved out of the content loop and having to pay if it wants data. Tiktok, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and a large number of other walled gardens have shut Google out of their vast communities. That's a gargantuan threat.

Owning a domain and a web property has many benefits, but don't let Silicon Valley persuade you that setting up a personal site will somehow enforce your intellectual property rights. Or, indeed, that there's any point in having a personal site at all if you're just gonna pump all of its content onto every megaplatform you can find. All you're really doing under those circumstances is funding a silo-bypass for Google.


Ultimately, do what feels right to you...

Above all, remember that if it sounds too Googley to be independent, it probably is.