travis vachon

itme.online pre-alpha release

itme.online pre-alpha release

Our team at itme taken the exciting step of releasing an extremely alpha and entirely experimental version of itme.online. This is a major milestone toward the completion of our Grant for the Web project and an important step toward the launch of the Personal Online Datastore hosting cooperative we have planned for later this year. I'd like to take this moment to reflect on the path I've taken toward this release as I'm hopeful it will be an important step toward the expansion of the Solid ecosystem and the creation of a fundamentally different Web.

the origins of the itme project

In 2017, almost twelve years after I got the good news about the 2005 Google Summer of Code internship that started my career in the tech industry, I resigned from my engineering managment position at CircleCI in an attempt to find deeper alignment between my career and a vision of the future I believe in. My work at CircleCI was fine, the team a delightful collection of people I'd happily work with again, my ability to influence hiring and career development toward visions of greater equity and diverse representation satisfying as far as it went, but ultimately I could not shake the feeling that my labor was primarily going to enrich a small group of people whose fortunes did not need my help.

I spent the next three years exploring new directions - I volunteered as the technical lead for internet argument platform Whysaurus, entered the world of anti-racist community organizing with SURJ San Francisco, reconnected with my friends at CoLab Cooperative to lead mobile and web application development for a variety of mission-driven organizations and generally spent time saying yes to various tangential projects. While I treasure this time - the space it gave me to deepen a newly developed relationship the woman who would become my wife, the freedom to choose my projects on a day-by-day basis, the flexibility to dedicate time to various family and community projects that presented themselves with varying levels of urgency - it was also a time of deep self-doubt, ongoing frustration with the state of the world, and deep insecurity about the future both personally and on a societal scale.

As I worked on technical projects that shared a vision of the future I believed in, I nevertheless continued to feel pangs of dissatisfaction with the limitations I continually confronted on my ability to build tech for poorly capitalized projects. Why, I said again and again, do I need to saddle grassroots organizers with the responsibilities and obligations of running the servers and databases that powered the apps I built. What would happen when the grant funding that supported their ability to pay professionals to run these important resources ran out? Who would continue to monitor and upgrade software dependencies in the face of constantly evolving security threats? These and other dragons raised their ugly heads in seemingly every corner of my professional life, and in their face I seriously questioned whether I would find visions of the future of my industry that seemed both plausible and ethical.

oh hey: a new hope

In at least one case, one of these wicked problems nearly killed a project in its tracks. After working on Whysaurus, I spent time building a spinoff named ohhey.fyi focused on letting users express what they believe in ways that illuminated the underlying reasoning that lead them these beliefs. After building a basic frontend and building out a data storage system based on Datomic I came to a disturbing realization: if I were to be wildly successful in my goals for this project, it would create a database of the beliefs of my users and deep analysis of the ways these beliefs interacted. As this realization came concurrently with news of the dark ways data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data to manipulate voters, it carried extra gravity and I realized I could not ethically continue down this path.

By luck, it was right about this time in mid-2019 that my Omnifocus project review process dug up a long neglected TODO to check out Solid - sadly it is lost to time where I initially saw it referenced, but this rediscovery proved to be momentous in my search for new career directions. After reading about the vision of decentralized Personal Online Datastores at the core of the Solid Project I realized this was a plausible solution to so many of the problems I had been frustrated by again and again. ohhey.fyi would no longer be forced to create a centralized dataset of the world's beliefs. Small grassroots organizations could focus on creating interesting applications for their users without being required to worry about the increasingly complicated world of personal data storage or compliance with the expanding web of government regulations on organizations that collect and store data from users on the Web. This latest evolution in the architecture of the World Wide Web, driven by its creators in response to the deep structural problems created by some of their original design decisions, inspired me and filled me with hope that a better future might indeed be possible online.

The next several months saw me bumping up again and again against the limits of the motley collection of tools available for interacting with RDF files and Linked Data services on the Web. The experience was unfortunately fairly miserable, with poor or out-of-date documentation galore, broken links and impenetrable vocabulary definition files at every turn, and a user community apparently focused on projects that appeared to me to be largely academic in focus and goals, but through it all I followed a bright beacon of hope: a December 2018 post from Ruben Verborgh with a call to action that resonated with me deeply:

By enabling front-end developers, we open up a highway for creativity that will make the decentralized Web reach end users much faster and better. Moreover, we can use the same libraries and tools to accelerate our own development. So we profit from a whole army of new talent, and are at the same time able to better leverage our own. Enabling front-end developers is enabling users, and ultimately enabling ourselves.

This focus on empowering "front-end developers" to build applications in lightweight, flexible ways on top of the "social network as an API" that the Solid specification creates was inspiring. In a Solid world, the authentication, authorization and data storage services that I have spent 80% of my career designing, building or maintaining would be further specialized - the expertise and regulatory compliance needed to ethically run these services pushed to a comparatively smaller group of decentralized identity and data storage providers who would be able to invest deeply in security and legal compliance, stemming the tide of constant data leaks we see in 2020. This incentive to protect data points toward what I hope will be a deep alignment of interests between these companies and their customers: the people who create data on the web. They would have an enormous opportunity to build deep relationships with their users in service of gaining the trust to represent those users' interests in the already vast global marketplace for personal data.

what a concept!

I continued to fiddle and experiment with Solid through the end of 2019 and into the beginning of 2020, and was exploring the possibility of finding a full time position that would allow me to continue this exploration with the resources of a well funded organization when the Covid-19 pandemic roared on to the scene and left me at home with time on my hands. Through the dark and anxious days of February, March and April 2020 I spent more and more time building an "embarrasingly simple clone" of Notion - a note taking and digital organizing tool I had been enjoying - on top of Solid. It was slow going, but Concept is still live (if essentially unsupported and only partly functional) and I learned a lot about how to build applications on top of Solid thanks to lots of trial and error and some very friendly feedback from the Solid community.

As March and April rolled on I checked in on my two ex-housemates, Ian and Tani, who had both been abroad in Asia when the pandemic started. I had the great fortune of catching them at a moment when they were trying to figure out a new plan, the old ones trashed entirely by the virus and the restrictions on travel and daily life that it forced on us. I had come to the conclusion that in order to do serious product development on the Solid platform, I would need to build a Personal Online Datastore hosting service that would allow me to give my early users a suitably sophisticated user experience and acceptable user support. My skills as a full stack web developer and organizer, plus Tani's deep background in business operations and digital currency, plus Ian's expertise in the latest containerized digital operations infrastructure made for a potent combination - I knew that we stood an excellent chance of building the services I imagined. As we continued to talk, it became clear that we were also aligned in wanting to build on new economic institutions like cooperatives, and, as I'll detail in a future post, we believe we've found an opportunity to build a business that is uniquely well suited to this increasingly popular style of business incorporation and operation.

With their help I redoubled my efforts to build sophisticated Solid applications. Our Art n' D product discovery process yielded some promising early results over the summer, and a grant application for a Grant for the Web yielded exciting news in the fall - a $100,000 grant to build a Web Monetization-powered social platform on top of Solid. Autumn 2020 saw us diving into product discovery and prototyping as we continued to work to find ways to make our work sustainable in the long run. As we recruited allies and grounded ourselves in the deep well of decentralized web projects, we circled closer and closer around metaphors of digital ecologies, inspired by organizations like the Zebras Unite, RadicalxChange, Oakland's Anti-Police Terror Project and the Sogorea Te Land Trust, Showing Up for Racial Justice, writers like N.K Jemison, adrienne maree brown, Ada Palmer, John Michael Greer, and many many more. The idea of building a zettelkasten-like digital garden, a place for bidirectional links, collaborative networked thought and communal metacognition, seemed too compelling, too needed for our own work, too urgently missing from our lives to ignore.

it's you, online

itme.online is already fun to use: if you have a Solid POD you can use it to log in at https://itme.online. It's quick and easy to write down thoughts and connect them to related concepts, going down a Wikipedia-like rabbithole of creation and mind mapping. Thanks to the magic of Web Monetization, itme.online users are already getting paid for their content when people interact with it. The product is quite simple at the moment, and only accessible to folks who know a little bit about how Solid works. Most importantly, we're not able to make hard guarantees about data preservation or migration. We plan on spending the next month or so getting comfortable that the data architecture we're using now will be compatible with our long term plans. Once we do, we'll announce an official "alpha" release and keep you up to date on the latest developments on our blog itme.press.