My recent post about owning our digital homes prompted some good feedback and discussion. When I talk about this topic with the people in my life who don't work daily in the world of websites, domain names and content management, the most common reaction I get is, "that's sounds good in theory, I'm not sure where to start in practice."
So, here are some of the basic things that pretty much anyone can do to get started having and owning your digital home.
Find a domain name
On the Internet, your domain name is the root of your digital existence. It's the address on your home, your entry in the phonebook, the shingle you hang out so that anyone and everyone can find you. While the domain name system (DNS) has changed a lot over the years, it's still the starting point for establishing a long-term presence on the Internet that you control, independent of other tools, services and providers you might use.
My domain name is "chrishardie.com." It's not only the URL/address of my website, but it's the domain where my primary email address lives. Whatever content management tool might power my website at any given time, and whatever server my email might live on or whatever email program I might use to read messages, I will always have my domain name to point me and others to those places.
Having a domain name is relatively inexpensive; in most cases it's $10-15/year, less if you register it for multiple years at a time. When I see people who pick email addresses derived from their Internet Service Provider (e.g. Comcast, Verizon) or from some free online email provider like Gmail, and then see the time it takes them to inform friends, co-workers and family when they change that address to something else, I know it's worth those few dollars to have a consistent address that doesn't change unless I want it to, and that doesn't depend on someone else's business model to exist at all.
In my opinion, your domain name should be something personalized, but not so specific to where you live, how you make a living, or what you find interesting right now that it will become outdated when you move to a new place, change jobs or update your interests. Your domain name doesn't even need to mean anything at all, as long as it's memorable enough for you and the people you share it with. If you're having trouble finding a domain name you like, this generator will help with some ideas.
Domain names can use a number of different Top Level Domains (TLDs) like .com, .org., .info and so on. It used to be conventional wisdom that you needed to have a ".com" domain for any kind of serious Internet presence (especially if you're doing business there), but that's no longer the case. You might avoid using a TLD that belongs to an unstable nation-state, but otherwise pick a TLD that works for you.
There are many places you can register your domain name, called domain registrars. Some are big and advertise during the Super Bowl, others are small and just work with a few different kinds of domains. If you don't already have a favorite, I recommend Namecheap for their relatively uncluttered user interface and purchasing process. (If you use that link, I may receive a small commission on your purchase.)
Keep your domain name
Back when I ran a web hosting business, one of the most common problems that our clients encountered with their domains was forgetting to renew their ownership.
It might seem like a simple thing to do, but between the sometimes confusing communications that come from the actual domain registrars and the deceptive advertisements people would receive from unscrupulous companies trying to get them to switch, not to mention changes in contact information over the years, it was understandable that some people had trouble keeping up.
But it's really important. If you commit to having your domain name be the heart of your online home (especially if you print it on things, build a business around it, or just spend a lot of time on it), you have to keep it.
Do this by making sure your contact information on file with the registrar is always current, that security mechanisms (like two-factor authentication) to prevent someone from moving it away without your permission are in place, and that someone is paying attention to the domain ownership and renewal as a part of your regular accounting/record-keeping processes. Set a calendar reminder for yourself to check these things at least once per year. If you get a notification about some kind of change to your domain, pay attention (but make sure it's legit). And if you have any questions, call your registrar and ask them to verify that things are as they should be.
Set up an email home
As I mentioned above, in the context of establishing a digital home tying your email account to your Internet Service Provider or some other free provider is a bad idea. I tend to think that tying it to a free email service where the content of your messages is used to turn your personal information into advertising gold is also a bad idea.
So, I recommend setting up an email home that uses your domain name (e.g. email@example.com) and that allows you to have the features you need without becoming someone else's product, usually for a small annual fee. If you need to change providers later, you can do it without having to update your address everywhere.
I've blogged before about how to set up email, contacts and calendaring without relying on your ISP or Google/Hotmail/etc. for these services. I wrote there and still believe that Fastmail is a great option for setting up your email home, whether for personal use or business use. (I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase using that link.)
Set up a WordPress site
Maybe having a domain name and an email address is all you really need to set up your digital home. But keep in mind that if someone searches for you online and you haven't created a web presence for yourself that is easily findable, they will likely find the wrong person, or may find information about you that you don't want coming up first in Google search results. At best they might find a link to your Facebook profile or other social media presence that might be walled off behind a prompt to log in or provide their personal info just to see information about you.
For this reason, I recommend setting up even just a basic, one-page website for yourself and/or your family that you have 100% control over the content of.
If you don't want to deal with a lot of technical configuration or decision-making, WordPress.com is probably the best option for this. (Full disclosure: I am employed by its parent company.) You can create a simple web presence in a few minutes, and then customize and extend it later as you need to. If you want to move it to a self-hosted version of WordPress, you can. And if you want to move away to a completely different content management tool, you're not locked in to WordPress.
I do recommend paying the small annual cost of using a custom domain on your WordPress.com site, instead of using the default naming scheme "yourname.wordpress.com." This goes hand-in-hand with having your domain name be the centerpiece of your digital home; your web presence can be independent of what tool you use to build it the first time around, or what providers you use to host it over time.
Another option is to use the About.me service, which provides you with a simple way to set up an identity landing page which can then link to other places you're online. It has a few bugs (their RSS feed display feature seems broken, I have trouble updating my profile image, etc.) but is a fine starting point - here's my About.me page. If you go this route, consider their $4/month Premium upgrade that allows you to use your domain name instead of having your page at "about.me/yourusername."
Set up connections to other services you use
If you want to do more than just have a one-page web presence -- maybe you want to start a blog, or share content on your Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds -- a WordPress site at a custom domain is still the right place to start.
The nice thing is that a WordPress site can be the foundation for almost all kinds of online publishing and sharing. (If organizations like Time Magazine, Facebook, Wikimedia and TED can use WordPress as their publishing platform, you can too.) You can create content on your main site (including uploading images, video and audio clips) and then share links back to those posts on as many different services as you want. See my earlier post about why this is worth doing.
If you're on WordPress.com, this is as easy as using the Publicize feature there. (If you're on a WordPress.org self-hosted site, Jetpack has an equivalent Publicize feature.) Set up connections to the social media accounts you use (a one-time authentication process), and then the next time you want to publish you can write it in one place and choose which destinations to share it out to. You don't have to log in to each service to post a link, but you can still carry on follow-up conversations on those services if you want to.
Most importantly, when people engage the content you're creating, they're encouraged to come back to your main site, your digital home, where you control what's shown and how it's shown. It remains linkable, searchable, browse-able and portable in ways that aren't always true if you only publish within a social media service.
It is worth thinking about what kind of sharing strategy you want to have in place; are you publishing to express yourself, to build an audience, or for some other combination of reasons? As my colleague Brandon recently reflected, sometimes it's best to publish without pushing links out to social media accounts. On my site I set my Publicize connections to be off by default so I have to intentionally choose where I share my posts.
Other tips for digital home ownership
Once you have your digital home established, there are a few other things you can do to make sure you protect it and get the most out of it:
- Keep ownership of your domain name. See above, but worth emphasizing again.
- Monitor critical parts of your digital home for unexpected changes and outages. I use UptimeRobot to automatically check my personal website (whether it's working at all, and whether certain text appears on the home page), some other business sites, the availability of mail servers I use, and even whether my home Internet connection is up. If there's a problem, I can get notifications by email, SMS, push notification, RSS feed or other methods. If your hosting provider is having trouble or, even worse, someone has compromised your accounts, you want to know about it as early as possible.
- Keep software you manage up to date. Subscribe to critical updates from tools and services you depend on. If you're using a web host, email provider or other service provider as a part of your digital home, find the blog or status page where they post updates about big changes, outages, security issues and related items, and subscribe to it. Some providers offer email updates, others provide RSS feeds, some just use Twitter - figure out the best way to track these for your own reading habits.
- Practice good security hygiene. Use secure passwords, don't re-use them. Use a password manager. Use two-factor authentication. Be mindful of what data you're uploading to the cloud. Set a password on your computer and mobile devices. Shred sensitive paper documents that you're getting rid of. And so on. This all may seem only indirectly related to digital home ownership, but I've encountered so many people over the years who give up on having an established online identity because they lose a password, get hacked, etc. You shouldn't have to change email addresses or start a brand new website, social media account, etc. because you're being targeted by a hacker.
Wait, why should I do all that?
Wrapping up this post I'm realizing that the above steps could still feel like a lot of work, especially for someone who doesn't navigate these kinds of tools and services on a regular basis. In so many ways, it's easier to grab a free email address at Hotmail and a simple website with someone else's brand in the URL, and not worry about issues of long-term ownership and online identity.
In the end, maybe that's okay for most people. Maybe it's a small number of people who, in the scheme of things, really need to care about digital home ownership. But I write about these options because I think we've already ceded so much of our personal lives to business models where our writings, postings, connections and experiences are being productized and exploited, and I want people to know there's a better way...if they're interested. I hope it's helpful.
Do you have other ideas for establishing and maintaining digital home ownership (and why we should or shouldn't bother)? Please share in the comments.
Photo by Richard Garside