The web isn’t (just) a garden.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ephemeralness of the web and, more particularly, data in general. Just today, I got the same rather inconvenient message that I tend to get every few months: startup disk full. Hi, my name is Adam Croom, and I’m a bit of data pack rat. I don’t delete emails. I also like to keep files locally. BUT, this time, I finally gave in and moved one-third of my local data over to an external hard drive. To seemingly perpetually exist.

As I continue to evangelize across campus for openness of learning, I tend to lead conversations with the data issue because it does feel incredibly important to me. “Store your widgets in places in which you can keep it forever! Don’t you want to keep your widgets?!” Not surprisingly, I’m usually met with blank faces. I’m starting to get the sense students don’t exist in a world of time. Some seem to be–on one hand–convinced they are invincible and yet unmoved by the thought of what the consequences of such an existence would entail.

“Alright then,” I’ll spout back, “Consider this: you could put all your thoughts and work on a website which could then be viewed and assessed by a future employer! A real, linkable portfolio!” Blink blink, goes the class.

But this one hurts a little more. I really like the idea of the student as a gardener. It’s a bit romantic (and eco-friendly). You sitting in your own garden; tending to your space–your domain–living a sustainable, self-sufficient life. This garden then becomes a reflection of you, as a learner and thinker, and–in some respects–an extension of you. Sure, it’s possible. But this lifestyle isn’t necessarily practical. Or, at least, that’s what my wife says every time I tell her I’d be happiest if we just went on that Tiny House Hunters show and got some land in Maine.

I say it doesn’t feel practical is because we don’t live our lives in one space; much like we don’t only live our lives in our house. We are mobile, social creatures who tend to idolize change. It’s the hero’s journey for God’s sake. Not the hero’s inertia!

So what that means is that the web isn’t just a garden (or even a set of gardens–a metagarden). It isn’t a place where everybody comes to live sustainable lifestyles. Sure, some people garden, and they are very good at it and have spent a lot of time learning how to present their gardens as both beautiful works of art as well as spaces healthy enough for consumption. But there are also folks who wish to spend no time doing the act of gardening or becoming a gardener.

Where this thinking leads me is to the question of how do we show the value of the open web to those who just want to eat and who plan to stay for a very little time? It has me thinking about how to promote the value of openness without having one having to choose anarchy.

The first idea is the farmer’s market analogy. Indie web/indie edtech has to be approachable in a way that someone can see the fruit of open (I’m going to pun this analogy into the GROUND) without having to fully engage in an open lifestyle. We have to be continually advocating for the value of what it brings and allowing people to see, touch, and interact with it. And, to that end, that means alternative lifestyle needs to be, at minimum, respectable to the commercial alternative. This means that institutions need to support open web and not just with “tax incentive” models but with spaces for open to flourish as well (I’d argue Domain of One’s Own is a good starting point). It also means supporting those who make and build the indie web. Further, it means a shift away from technology procurement and a shift towards technology (and knowledge of technology) curation.

Second, we need to encourage ephemeral use cases of open technology. This means not grading technology only based on hard and fast metrics like “adoption” or “completion.” We need to be cognizant of the desire of some to fluidly move in and out of technologies.

For instance, I worked with a staff group this week who wanted a webspace where they could simply capture the conversation of a conference presentation by giving attendees writers prompts. They setup a WordPress instance and I worked with them to install BuddyPress to allow for user registration and custom profile fields to capture user data. And that’s all it was. It’s not meant to record their thoughts on everything in perpuitity. But does serve a very real purpose and that is a good thing.

We shouldn’t have to present a specific lifestyle in order to serve these needs. Small tech has its place. And, what’s more, is that we can win a lot more folks into a lifestyle over time if we only give them respect, choice, and time rather than just regulations, fixed options, and ambitious timelines.