Oh webmentions! In theory, they’re a great way to collect and send pings to and from your website. In practice, they can be a pain, requiring all sorts of workarounds, especially if you’re running a static site. Couple that with some (in my opinion) unclear documentation and inconsistent implementations, and you have a frustrating experience on your hands. However, I think they’re worth persisting with.
I’ve had one side of this equation – the receiving – working relatively smoothly for months now, and I quite like it. Not because I feel I now “own” conversations that take place on social media, but because they help create smaller web communities that congregate around websites. Take this post on how Arc is unclear on how it’ll make money, and you’ll see replies and responses from nine different people who originally saw the post in three different places, namely their RSS feed reader, micro.blog and Mastodon.
When I started blogging fifteen years ago, you’d only see responses when someone filled in the comment form (which you are more than welcome to use, incidentally). That was your only option if you wanted to respond to a post or someone else’s comment – the social media behemoths were yet to entice everyone away from small sites onto their platforms. But their success was almost total – not only did conversations move to Twitter, but comment forms disappeared from websites.
Fast forward to today and we see that, even as Twitter implodes and Facebook haemorrages users, most conversation still takes place on social media. The concept of a shared platform remains popular, and a comments section isn’t a given on a blog.
This is understandable. Setting up your own website and writing blog posts is more difficult – and certainly less efficient – than setting up a Mastodon account, where you can be posting and responding to dozens of people in minutes. There are downsides, though, beyond the social damage caused by the for-profit networks, and the sometimes unhealthy addictiveness of Twitter and its clones.
The main problem is that you won’t see responses to content that wasn’t originally published on the platform, if they’re made somewhere else. In theory ActivityPub allows posting and responding across platforms, but that’s not how people are using Mastodon, especially if they’ve come from Twitter – as we’ve seen, the centralised platform model is popular. In the case of my post about Arc, if you responded on Mastodon you wouldn’t be aware of comments made on micro.blog, or via the post’s comment form.
The beauty of websites that collect webmentions is they’ll show you what’s happening across networks and other websites, introducing you to new perspectives. And who knows – maybe that will encourage readers to subscribe to the RSS feed and see who’s responding to other posts. The website acts as a means to connect networks across services and platforms. In other words, it’s creating the most open network of all; the web.