Four years ago, I submitted a session proposal to a local THATCamp held at Lehigh University. I had grown pretty enamored in 2012-2013 of Linode’s StackScripts and I was eager to talk with others about automated installation scripts for server ‘stacks’. I knew they could be adapted and shared with other education technologists and librarians. I’d seen it happening with hobbyists wanting to run their own Minecraft servers, for instance. Experiencing that, I really felt that these scripts could support broader use of open source platforms suitable for digital learning, librarianship, and digital humanities. I also thought that the relatively recent emergence of cloud-hosted virtual servers with low costs and metered billing would permit exciting new uses for folks typically locked out by institutional risk aversion, limited staffing, general mistrust, or just plain disinterest of those holding the keys to the server kingdom.
My proposal is still available to read and it’s central aim holds up fairly well. It aligns closely with work I do now around Muhlenberg’s Domain of One’s Own. In 2013, I was unaware of what was coming together at University of Mary Washington through the work of Martha Burtis, Jim Groom, Tim Owens, and others as they originated Domain of One’s Own and found a solid solution to the same essential problem. It anticipates by a month or so the official release of Docker and the explosion of containerized applications on sites like Digital Ocean that make having your own server(s) easier and cheaper than ever.
Something else happened that day in 2013, too, and it’s really what I want to write about. Looking back I blame the cheeky tone I take in my proposal announcement regarding campus IT security. But I’ll never know why my post brought unsought attention. Just as THATCamp Lehigh Valley was gearing up, THATCamp’s severs were grinding to a halt. When they came back online an hour later, a hacking collective’s animated splash page pulsed and spun and taunted. The whole conference website was brought down, and THATCamp (due to its unconference-like design) is particularly reliant upon its website to make the day work.
I felt really embarrassed and responsible. I had suspicions it was my fault, but I couldn’t prove them. I still can’t be entirely sure, but a comment posted to my proposal (since removed), erased most of my doubts. And here is the worst part – because I felt responsible and began the day on my back feet, I was a terrible version of myself all day. I did all the things I do when I feel insecure. I spoke too loudly and beyond my knowledge. I didn’t listen to what was being shared by others. I stretched, I generalized, I assumed, and I tried too hard in all my interactions. Because I felt responsible for the day’s poor start, for the embarrassment (real or perceived) of the event organizers, and all kinds of other stuff brought on by the hack, I acted like a jerk.
Over the following weeks, I pretty much decided to take my professional life off the web. I had maintained my own website for almost a decade (not a blog, but it functioned much like one), and I shut it down. I also stopped maintaining my feed reader, and I flipped my public bookmarks on pinboard to entirely private. My personal online life shifted fairly quickly and exclusively to social media platforms like Facebook, and I locked down nearly everything I did online. I was kinda done with blogs, with maintaining my own web presence, and with engaging strangers online.
Over the next few weeks, I will make my case for why I am reversing those choices. I have reconsidered ‘where’ and how I wish to be online, and I see new reasons to move away from large social media platforms and toward my own, self-managed and personally maintained corner of the web. More importantly, I feel a need to take accountability for myself online. In future posts, I’ll walk through my sense of ‘right action’ as it pertains to working and being on the web, and why I feel it too important to sit it out as I have been.