I blew it at THATCamp & it knocked me off my own web

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.  I’d used StackScripts for prototyping library web applications, and sharing what I know about web development with students and staff. 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 its 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 awesome stuff was happening 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.  My proposal anticipated 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. I see now, in hindsight, how I was really asking for trouble.  But I’ll never know why my post brought mean spirited, unsought attention.  Just as THATCamp Lehigh Valley was gearing up, THATCamp’s severs were grinding to a halt.  When they came back online 30 minutes 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 back on my heels, 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 think I acted like a big 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 which I locked down to a circle of well-known friends and family.  I was kinda done maintaining my own web presence, and with engaging strangers online.

Looking back, this was a significant turn. Since my high school days, I thought of the Internet primarily as a way to engage widely and deeply with folks I met there. From Citadel BBS and dial up, through undergrad usenet through IRC and the early web – online meant mixing it up, exploring, and making new acquaintances. It was in the same moment that I joined hosted, proprietary platforms like Facebook that I also began to limit my interactions online. My bad experience during THATCamp Lehigh Valley occurred right when I pivoted onto extractive platforms and toward a kind of insular online experience.

I am reversing those choices.  I’m 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 strand of the web.  More importantly, I feel a need to take accountability for myself online. There are things I believe it is very important to share, precisely because my de-platforming means others may access my shared content without fear of my exploiting or monetizing them as they do so. I see this renewed interest in working and sharing publicly as a way to counter robotized disinformation. Part of the new web I wish to engage is a web of trust, credibility, and accountability.

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. I’ll share what I discover, particularly when I can accomplish something useful upon the Domain of One’s Own platform. I am prioritizing those things I’ve done online that pertain to scholarly work and digital learning, but there may be other stuff, too.

I sincerely appreciate your taking interest in this. Comments are enabled, but I will review before publishing them. Feel free to reach out with questions or suggestions. Thank you!

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