Private posts: the move of the checkins
Can I tell you a secret about writing software? We all just wing it. We all try to write the code as beautiful, readable and maintainable as we can, but in the end of the day, the business wants our projects to be done yesterday, not in three weeks. So despite best intentions, corners are cut and things that should not know about other things are calling each other. Some call this spaghetti.
I will also not lie to you: the codebase of this here weblog, at least in it’s current form, is not free of spaghetti or mess. Corners were cut in a time where I did not know there even were corners to begin with. I improved the code many times, all in different directions, because you’re always learning better ways to do it (and I still do). Some call this a legacy codebase.
Because of the shape the code is in, I did not want to add large features anymore. I wanted to rewrite it, of all of it. But as Martin Fowler said somewhere: the only thing you will get from a Big Bang Rewrite, is a big bang. It’s better to incrementally improve your application, so I tried. I tried to come up with clever strategies to do so, to keep parts of my site running on old code while the rest was fresh and new. In all those strategies, my blog entries would be last, because they are with 9000+ and need to be moved all at once.
In order to support private posts, however, it is precisely the code that serves my blog entries that needs work. This means that, while I have private posts very high on my wishlist, I postponed it to after The Rewrite. And I kept attempting to get there, but since it’s a big project for sparetime hours, private posts where impossible for a long time.
The year of the private posts?
Recently, the call for private posts became louder again. Aaron Parecki is trying to get a group of people together to exchange private posts between Readers. I would like to be one of them. In some regard I’m already ‘ahead’ of the game, because I do support private posts on my site already since 2017. The thing is: you need to know the URL of the post to actually read it.
I’ve attended both IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf and Utrecht last month. At the first one, we had a very good session about the UI side of private posts. The blogpost I wrote about it unfortunately stayed in draft. The summary: I used to denote private posts by adding the word ‘privé’ in bold below the post, next to the timestamp. Since the hackday I now show a sort-of header with a lock icon, and a text telling you that only you can see the post, or you and others, if that’s the case.
A big takeaway from Düsseldorf was that I don’t need to do it all at once. To me, the first step to private posts is letting people login to your site. This can be done with IndieAuth, or by using IndieAuth.com (which will move to IndieLogin.com at some point). The second step is to mark a post as private in your storage, and only serve it to people who are logged in. The third step is to add a list of people who can see the post, and only show it to those people. This is the place where I was at.
The fourth step should then be: show those private-for-all posts in your feed, for anyone logged in. The fifth step is to also show those private-for-you posts in their feed, which is tricker but not impossible. The sixth step would then finally be letting the user’s Reader log into your site on their behalf. I feel like I have seen that sixth step as the next step for way to long. By making it the sixth step, it is now only about authentication / authorization, not about what to show to who (because you got that already).
A bonus step could then be to add groups, so you can more easily share posts with certain groups of people. I have wrote about the queries involved before. This is a bonus step, because it’s making your life easier as maintainer of the site, but it is invisible to the outside world. (I would prefer not to share to people which groups they are in, nor the names of the groups the post was shared with. Those groups are purely for my own convenience.)
Of course, you can take different steps, in a different order. But to me, this is the path to where I want private posts to be.
Channeling my inner Business Stakeholder
After breaking it down into these nice steps, I’m still left with a legacy codebase. My biggest takeaway from Utrecht, was that I should be more pragmatic about it. The code quality of my site is only visible to me, what matters is the functionality. And I want this private post functionality.
I still did some refactoring that could be useful to future versions of this site, but I won’t bore you with that. I decided that it was not worth the wait, and that private post feeds should be part of this version of my blog.
Last Tuesday, there was yet another chat about private posts and how to do it. There was a question about the progress, whether or not something was decided at the recent EU-IWCs. But there is no decision, there is no permission, there is no plan to be carried out. There is just us, wanting to use this feature that does not exist yet. The only way to actually get there, is to build it ourselves and see what works and what doesn’t.
So I hacked it together, in my existing code. I believe I broke things, but I have fixed some. If you see more, please tell me. But I got the functionality, and that is what counts.
Marking all my checkins private
There is this app called Swarm. Some members of the IndieWeb Community use it, because it’s fun. I would call it the Guilty Pleasure of the IndieWeb, the last Silo. I use it too, especially when I’m in a city for IndieWebCamp. It’s almost impossible not to use it then: the people I’m with are checking me in anyway.
I like having a log of every bar, restaurant, shop I have been, and I see value in sharing it. But it also creeps my out to have all that information about me on a public place like this. Even on Swarm, checkins are only shared with friends (and advertisers), not the public. It seems to me that my checkins, then, are the perfect place to start with private posts.
So that is what I made: I marked all my checkins as private-for-all. This means they are still public at the moment, but you need to log in, which currently rules out bots and practically every visior. But chances are you know how to use IndieAuth, or have a Twitter account. You can then login to my site by clicking the link in the upper right corner. After you logged in, you will see all my checkins appear in the main feed, each of them with a message that it’s only visible to logged in users.
In addition, there is a new page: /private. The link will appear in the menu when you are logged in. This page shows you all the private posts that are specificly shared with you. Some of you might actually see a post there.
One part of me says “but is private-for-all private enough for my checkins?” Another part of me says “it’s nice that you support the feature, but no-one is going to log into your site.” Yet another part of me says “what is it worth, writing more code in this codebase you want to get rid of anyway?” But it’s fine. I made a step, that’s what’s important. From here, I can look into AutoAuth, and maybe, maybe, we can get some private feed fetching to work before IndieWebSummit.
But in the worst case: I own my checkins, and I control who sees them. And that’s a very nice place to be in.