The Case for Owning Your Digital Life

I’ve spent most of my life on computers, and I would definitely consider myself a digital native (I’m typing this sentence on the iPad software keyboard, in case that helps you put me on a scale).

My history with technology

I love technology, and I first discovered its immense power for connecting people when I installed MSN Messenger on my parents’ computer back in junior high school (circa 2000, I’m going to say?). Going through puberty at the dawn of the public internet was quite an ordeal, but I think it was definitely more manageable doing so then than it is now. I really learned how to talk to people most intimately through MSN, and in that space, I formed the foundation of my experience in connecting with others.

I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s really cool that MSN would store chat logs for all your conversations in easily accessible and well-presented formats on your computer. This meant that if you wanted to go and look back on your conversations (and you inevitably did), you could easily do so.

Fast-forward to now

Things are VERY different now from what we had back then. Today, those of us who chat on Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, or Slack have little to no control over what we’ve said to one another once it’s been said. The canonical version of our ‘chat logs’ are all online, controlled by the creators of the apps we use to talk to one another. Because the services we use are mostly centered on our mobile devices (phones and, to a lesser extent, tablets), there isn’t a lot of space (or screen real-estate) to permanently store and/or display things we’ve said previously.

Because of the way the internet has evolved over the last 10-15 years, ‘the cloud’ (servers located ‘elsewhere’ and controlled by corporations), is now the absolute truth when it comes to what we say to one another. In the case of Snapchat, the messages we send are deliberately short-lived by default, and that’s part of the reason why I have stopped using Snapchat.

In today’s world, our memories are being stored outside our brains on an ever-increasing basis (rather than storing important information itself in our brains, we store the location where the important information is kept). However, when we split our communication between services like email, instant messaging apps, social media, reminder apps, to-do apps, and a whole bunch of others, it’s easy to lose track and forget where things are, even if they aren’t actually missing.

I’d wager that most people in the their late 20s and 30s wouldn’t be able to list all the apps, services, and social networks they’re members of, even given an infinite amount of time (or maybe I just subscribe to and then forget about more things than most people). The problem with putting your time and energy in to an ever-changing and ever-increasing number of these kinds of apps means our life stories are being spread out over a huge area, with patches and sections disappearing on a regular basis.

As I get older, I’m starting to see this pattern develop more and more, and it makes me worry a little bit that in 5 or 10 or 20 years, our generation will be missing most, if not all, of our written correspondence and things we’ve shared over the years. Now, one response to this is to say something like ‘we should be writing letters again’, but first of all, I don’t think those are any more likely to remain legible
on a physical medium, or stay in one’s possession for that amount of time, and I’m also not interested in putting pencil to paper.

There’s an easier way to maintain your relationships and keep track of our communications with others, and it brings up a concept most people my age have only recently become familiar with…paying for things you care about.

Paying for (and with) what matters

When you think about your preferred instant messaging/communication platform, what are the incentives of the company who created it, and how does it benefit them to have you use it? If you can’t answer that question, you may want to find out more about the company, and what their policies are. In many cases today, the incentive is that the company can make money off of information they can learn about you through your interaction with the service, whether directly or indirectly.

Especially if you’re using a service that doesn’t cost you any money, the company isn’t running servers and using immense resources in order to let you connect better with the people around you, they’re doing it because it helps their bottom line in some way.

Now, the average person doesn’t really have the ability to build an application that lets them have total control over systems they use to store information or communicate. If I had to guess what percentage of adults in North America own and operate a private server, whether locally or virtually, I would say it’s much less than 1%, and perhaps not even 0.5%. And I’m certainly not trying to say that maintaining your own server is something everybody should do, far from it. However, I do think there is value in having a place that you control on the internet where you can store digital information that is important to you or has some value.

Virtual Private Servers and Their Use

In case some of my readers don’t know what a virtual private server is, it’s really quite simple. A server, to put it as succinctly as possible, is a computer that is usually specially designed to run web services or applications efficiently and to be reliable in spite of running 24/7 basically without interruption and with little maintenance.

Such a computer can sit in your basement, run programs like email, and get you in a lot of trouble with federal intelligence agencies (if you use it for government business). With the advent of things like Google Apps GSuite and OneDrive, though, the need for, and use of personal private servers has undoubtedly dropped quite precipitously (I do not have *any* data to back this up).

Businesses like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the aforementioned GSuite and OneDrive all run on massive parallelized private server banks owned by those companies, who use them to run all their web and cloud services, because running a server these days is very cheap and distributed computing is very much in vogue right now.

However, if you’re a small-medium company, or somebody who wants the benefits of a server for their own purposes, there are big companies out there who run server farms and who rent out space on those servers for a monthly fee. The big benefit of this is that running these (virtual private servers) is that there is no physical space required on-site, and no expensive, specialized hardware to run (and power).

For a very small fee (all things considered), anybody can run any software they want on a computer they rent and access through the internet, and if you have any interest in technology, you will hopefully see what an amazing opportunity this presents in terms of being able to run things like email, websites, IM, or file sharing without relying on big companies (or at least, your reliance on ‘big’ companies lets you set up your own security).

What Does This All Mean?

If you are looking for a stable, free, easy to use system to use email, instant message, web design, or file sharing, and you’re just going to use the basics, it’s very easy to trade your privacy rather than money to use these services. But for less money than you’d think, and if you’re willing to slightly leave the mainstream, you can get a server up and running for pennies a day (quite literally), and run whatever you want on it, without buying any hardware. The possibilities are, quite literally, endless.

I would gladly delete my Facebook Messenger account (I already rid myself of Facebook) if I could get my friends and family off of it, and I do think that social media is ultimately a bubble that is bound to fall back down eventually, and personal websites will come back in to prominence as people seek to stand out and customize the way they present posts and photos/videos to the world. I think it’s only a matter of time before some *massive* privacy scandal makes most people realize they are far too trusting of Facebook with their information, and a backlash sees the service fade in to a historical footnote over time.

Rob, What Do You Do?

The service I use to host my server is called DigitalOcean, but there are many other companies who will allow you to set this up. I’m told that if this is something you’re interested in trying out, you can get up to $100 in credit over your first 60 days if you use my referral link (I don’t get anything for referring you unless you ultimately keep running a server, so don’t start anything for my benefit). I’ve been a customer for over 3 years, and the system is great with hourly billing so you can get something running to try it out, and if you don’t like it, you can just delete it and you’ll only be charged a few cents an hour while it was running.

The last few months (and the next few)

For the last several months, I have been ‘making’ a lot less than I’m used to. There are various reasons for that, as things like motivation tend to ebb and flow, and starting a new job in December of 2016 have meant I’m learning a lot more and facing new challenges at home and at work.

However, another reason that I’ve been somewhat less visible is that for the better part of the last 3 months, I’ve been dedicating a *LOT* of free time to changing the way my online life is structured.

For anybody who is not familiar, I started writing online using Blogger, a now-antiquated platform that was relatively simple, allowing me to slowly learn programming and web design, while being extensible enough to suit most of my needs, and controlled enough that I couldn’t get myself into trouble.

However, back in the beginning of 2016, I began to tire of Blogger, as it seemed like the platform was constantly holding me back, and failed me in a number of fundamental ways. At the time, I was running 4 different websites on Blogger, and hitting frustrating limitations every time I tried to do something new.

By the spring of 2016, I had started seriously looking in to WordPress to host the content I wanted to continue to produce. This was not my first foray into the world of WordPress, as I had tested out WordPress.com before finally settling on Blogger back in 2011. However, since paying for WordPress.com didn’t interest me in the least, I opted instead to try WordPress.org.

For the large majority of people, WordPress is WordPress, and there is no meaningful distinction between the two systems. And, in fact, WordPress.com has worked very hard to cater to WordPress.org users, which is a very nice added bonus. Here are the basics:

A little side-note on WordPress.com

A WordPress.com site is free to start, but is very rigidly templated, and you will have to pay a lot of money very quickly if you want to customize the site or have any control over the way it works other than the words written on the page. This is very similar to Blogger, except that with Blogger, no amount of money paid will give you any more powers to customize a website.

I would say with a good deal of certainty that over 90 percent of WordPress.com blogs are either abandoned entirely, or converted to WordPress.org or another blog platform within 3 months. This is probably fine with Automattic (the owners of WordPress.com), since they have other, better customers, mostly converted from humble WordPress.com beginnings.

And now back to WordPress.org

As an ‘amateur’ blogger and programmer who comes into blogging with a unique set of needs, it turns out that WordPress.org is actually pretty much perfect for me. With a willingness to put some effort in to learn a new platform, the open source version of WordPress that can be installed and run on any computer anywhere for free is an amazing product.

I have written for a few independent publications that use WordPress powered sites in the last 5 years, but having no experience with servers, I lacked the knowledge to start a WordPress site of my very own, unless I was willing to learn how to do that from scratch.

This brings us to the spring of 2016, and me deciding that I was going to figure out what it takes to create a WordPress blog, entirely from scratch. The first thing you need to run a modern website or application on your own is a server. After hearing for months about the Clintons’ homebrew server setup, I decided it was neither affordable, nor practical, nor good security practice, to buy, run, and host a server of my own at home.

Fortunately for me, building and running a home server is not common anymore, and the modern, distributed internet has a much better solution to web hosting than a home server. There are MANY companies out there offering virtual servers, literally computers hosted in giant data centres around the world that you can ‘rent’ on a monthly basis for pennies per hour. These banks of computers are connected to the Internet and are the backbone of the modern web.

After doing research and hearing opinions from all over the internet about ‘the best’ virtual server, I settled on one from DigitalOcean (this is an affiliate link, ask me about it). This and other hosting companies have a number of options to run basic software automatically for almost no money, and that includes setting up a complete WordPress site for as little as $3.95 a month (if you sign up for at least a year at a time).

However, after even more careful consideration, I decided that I didn’t want my hand held and to run a website I didn’t completely understand, and so I opted to pay $5 USD a month for my own little computer hooked up to the web. My virtual server is the cheapest one they offer, and comes with a fast, but not particularly powerful computer, perfect for running a website or application.

Once I committed money to this endeavor, especially since it was a recurring cost, it was much easier to focus and actually get things running quickly. My ultimate goal at the time was to learn everything I could about virtual servers, and to get a modern blog website up and running, so that I had a place to write out my thoughts that I could change and control however I wanted.

However, throughout the summer and fall, things started to shift a little bit for me in the way that I wanted to run my web presence. I have published some of my best writing on this site, but was getting increasingly frustrated with things involving my podcast network, Unwind Media, and how annoying it was to maintain and update that site back on Blogger. Since making the move to the gloriously extensible WordPress, posting to Blogger seemed like handcuffing myself to a typewriter.

By this time, I was hoping to expand the network, adding new podcasts and diversifying the voices I could promote while keeping weekly overhead for myself fairly low. All the while, changes to iTunes and the launch of Google Play podcasts meant that I fundamentally couldn’t start new podcasts while still publishing to Blogger. Something had to give, and that thing was Blogger.

Armed with my brand new WordPress knowledge, I set out to begin the slow, most likely painful, transition of Unwind Media from Blogger to WordPress. Since I had done a bunch of work with Blogger already (hosting a podcast network is certainly not something a Blogger blog was built to do), most of the work involved with moving to WordPress was taking the concepts I’d already developed, and mapping them to the ways WordPress worked.

What followed turned out to be a pretty interesting journey, and I have learned a ton in the last several months about WordPress, PHP, Linux, and blogging platforms (though I know I’m still only just scratching the surface). WordPress, as it turns out, is much better suited to the kind of thing I was trying to do than Blogger ever could be. In addition to that, about 30 minutes after confirming that the WordPress website was live and the Blogger website had been properly replaced, I was able to successfully submit new podcasts to the iTunes and Google Play directories for the first time in months.

My journey isn’t over. I’m continuing to learn more and more about programming, and about PHP and WordPress. In the days and weeks to come, I’ll be moving a third site to WordPress on the same server, ottawhatpodcast.com. I love having a virtual server of my very own, and learning how to run it has been incredibly rewarding.

I also look forward to discussing these kinds of things more, and getting back to writing, now that so much of my mental space has been freed up by getting rid of the overhead that came from having these necessary changes looming.

A couple of other things that I’m currently working on:

My New Year’s resolution is to stand up and defend the rights of the people around me, like women, minorities, people with disabilities, those who choose to exist outside the gender binary or who identify as a different gender than they were assigned at birth (just to name a few). I said when I made this resolution that it would be a multi-year process, but I vowed to make 2017 the year I started. I haven’t done much so far, but a strong, vocal opposition to oppression, racism, misogyny and bigotry or discrimination in general is a huge part of who I am.

On a similar, but distinctly different, note, I am also trying to determine the best ways to get the Canadian government to reconsider electoral reform in future elections, as a more representative government should be the goal of any self-respecting democracy, even if changes to the electoral system mean than you get less power as a result. That is my only major complaint about the Liberal party in power in Canada at the moment, and next to the dumpster fire that is American democracy these days, I’m glad this is one of the few things we can really complain about.

Dumpster Fire
Other examples of dumpster fires.

Oh yeah, and if you or somebody you know has (or is thinking of starting) a podcast (or blog), but don’t know where to start, please feel free to point them in my direction. I have found writing on the internet so rewarding for the last half-decade, I would love the opportunity to pay it forward and share what I know.