Owning our digital homes

Over the course of my life, I've built few things that reside permanently in the physical world. There's a small foot-bridge over a winding creek a few miles from where I live that I helped to bolt together. There's a school building in southern Alabama whose ceiling joists I helped frame in. I weathered a few splinters to help build the deck on our house. A few half-finished knitting projects linger. I've installed a window here, hammered some metal in a forge there.

Beyond these and some similarly inconsequential offerings, most of my life's work and creations have come in the form of things published in the digital world: essays, photos, lines of code, blog posts, songs, podcasts, and database rows. Where a carpenter might wander the streets of his city admiring the houses he built, I must wander the hard drives, websites, .zip/.tar archives and code repositories of my world to remember what I've created.

Where these digital products of my life and work reside, who has control of and ownership over them, and how long they might persist is important to me.

This is why I try to use this site, chrishardie.com, along with a few other carefully chosen services to make up my digital home. It's part of why I love WordPress as a tool for publishing. And it's why I worry about others who take for granted that the digital things they create will always be there, accessible, under their control, searchable/viewable in a way that makes sense to them.

If I'm going to put time and care into publishing myself, I want to, by default, fully own the things I create. I want to fully understand the security and privacy issues involved in where they are stored and how people get to them. I want to know I can back them up, export them, move them from one place to another, or even delete them when I want.

I don't want commercial entities dictating how, when and what I can publish, or exploiting what I do publish for their own gain without my explicit permission. If I'm to contribute meaningfully to online dialog, I don't want it to be deleted as soon as someone gets tired of hosting that particular conversation (or worse, decides they want to delete dissenting thoughts). And if one of the services I do use decides they no longer want to operate in a way that matches my needs or values, I want to be able to switch to a replacement without an additionally painful decoupling of my content from their platform.

When I use a WordPress site as my digital home, this kind of ownership is built in. I can post content - words, images, audio, video, and much more - and store it in a single place that is self-contained and unquestionably mine. Yes, I can share that content out to other places online, and some people may even consume the content entirely in some other place, but with the right linking those "shares" become paths back to the original and canonical location for that content. I can control the appearance and layout, I can move it from one host to another or create my own using open source tools, and I can export my content into a standard format if I ever want to move to a non-WordPress system.

By comparison Facebook (for example) is a relatively fragile digital home, and yet so many people use it as the primary or only place where they create content and express themselves. But a corporation with a profit motive ultimately controls its features and functionality. Content is not easily searchable or sortable, and disappears into the past quickly. Some people won't see or may not be able to see content posted there. Content and conversations can be deleted on a whim. And while unlikely, if some day Facebook decides to completely change their business model, a life of status updates, photos and other content might be at risk.

This doesn't mean Facebook or any other social media tool is bad, or that they shouldn't be used to complement a digital home that's located elsewhere. Some of these services are starting to build tools for hosting content in more permanent ways. But in an age where more people are writing, uploading, posting and commenting than ever before, it seems important to think about the nature of the environments we do that in, the costs for residing there, and what will become of those spaces over time.

In many cases, services like Facebook, Instagram, Wix and Squarespace offer intuitive and simple user experiences that may seem hard to beat. But renting an apartment can be easier than buying a house in many ways too, and the long term cost is much higher (even if it seems free now), the level of control much less. Yes, owning your home can require a little more work and in some cases is a privilege of greater wealth than what renting requires. And yes, some people don't mind being life-long renters.

I'm totally biased as someone who works for the company behind it, but this is why I think WordPress.com is such a great option for folks who want the benefits of "ownership" and the lower hassle of "renting" -- I recommended it often well before I became an Automattician. You can sign up for a new online home in just a few minutes at no cost, start publishing and sharing right away, and then change or move things around later without losing your content, customizations or ownership.

Whether you use WordPress.com, a self-hosted WordPress site, or some other option altogether, I hope you'll take pride in establishing an online home that reflects the value and significance of what you contribute to the world. If you have questions about how to do this, or reflections on these ideas that might be helpful to others, I hope you'll share in the comments.

Update: if owning your digital home sounds good but you're not sure where to start, I've written a follow-up post with some initial instructions.


Photo by Bill Ward

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Chris Hardie

Chris Hardie is an Internet tech geek, problem solver, community-builder and amicable cynic.

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