Proprietary Perils

Unless you happen to have a website that you last updated back when GeoCities was still around, chances are that over the years and months it will have evolved in one way or another. Content changes, platform changes, design changes--all of these are choices that you inevitably come across when running any kind of site.

Apart from improving some of the early terrible design choices--like a cursive font for the main content, which no doubt led to much cursing for anyone trying to read any of it--one of the big changes that I made to this website, roughly two years ago now, was to change the front page to a Rebelmouse generated one. "What on earth is Rebelmouse?" you might ask. It was described at the time as a hybrid blog and content aggregating platform for the "social" age. It would grab all of your content from every social network -- twitter, facebook, linked, pinterest, instagram etc.-- or even web feeds and place it all in one convenient place.

Appealing to the vastly diminished attention spans of modern Web users, it also promised to add visual razzmatazz to your content. It would grab the main image or video in any linked content and put this on display. There were also analytics (though I made little use of this), and the basic offering was free.

It was, at the time, a seductive proposition. It was easy to set up, put all of your content in one place, looked nice, and there were no (monetary) fees to be paid. With a bit of CSS-Fu you could also remove all trace of their ugly advertising (how unethical!).

I knew it was a proprietary platform, so I made sure not to add any original content to the service. It would simply re-post my existing content from free and open source platforms. Of course, there were many other users who were more trusting of the service.

Along the way, there were minor annoyances, like numerous posts being missed from my feeds. Sometimes, it would grab a video from a page and link to the video instead of the page. This had to be manually undone. On top of these issues, the RSS feed was abysmal. Content that appeared on the Rebelmouse page would be missing from the feed. All of these bugs remained unaddressed over the last two years. I was also unhappy with the fact that it was running remote scripts on my site, especially google analytics (all of which Privacy Badger, in her infinite wisdom, always complained about). I started to think about alternatives, but it was never high on my priority list.

About a month ago, an email landed in the inbox of every free Rebelmouse user: the service would be shutting down by the end of August. I finally found my motivation to ditch the service.

Beneath the veneer of corporate-speak, what the email was essentially implying was that the free users had served as disposable guinea pigs. The company had learned enough by now to do away with the "free" individual users, focusing instead on corporate customers desperate for a slice of the social pie.

Not long after this news, I discovered the jQuery Socialmix plugin on Code Canyon, which claimed to do much of what Rebelmouse offered, except I would have full access to the code.*

The main difference is that the code only displays images if these are actually embedded in the feed. This leaves my front page looking a lot less "visual", though I find this to be in keeping with the overall minimalist aesthetic. There are ways of using existing free and and open source tools to add images to a feed, but this would greatly increase the complexity of the code and the possible points of failure. In any case I often find myself suffering from acute sensory overload when visiting the average highly "visual" and "social" website nowadays. I would prefer to save others from having to go through the same barrage of distractions.

From the very beginning, all I wanted for the front page was simply a place to share all of my recent activity. Thankfully Socialmix does that, without dropping any content. It would be essentially handy for anyone looking to aggregate a multitude of social feeds. For the time being it displays the latest items from my feeds -- as is -- meaning the entirety of the content is shown. I still always recommend that people use a feed reader, but for those who prefer a quick occasional visit, it comes in handy to get a quick look at the new content.

More importantly, there is no master to pull out the rug once you have served your purpose. The code runs on my server and I can modify it to my heart's content. The abrupt way in which Rebelmouse was shut down serves as yet another cautionary reminder to never trust proprietary software and proprietary services, no matter how enticing they might first appear.

* For anyone looking for a similar self-hosted functionality for their personal or organisational website, Flow-flow is also a good alternative, and has a WordPress plugin. The jQuery Social-feed plugin is also worth a look.

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