Haven: “Self-Host a Private Blog Instead of Using Facebook”

A couple weeks ago, one of my blog posts went slightly viral and even ended up on Hacker News (for those who don’t know, Hacker News is an aggregate site where users submit links and comments, kind of like Reddit). Because of this, a developer saw my post, learned about The New Oil, felt that we had a similar target audience and mission, and reached out to me to ask if I’d check out his project called Haven.

Now, before everyone and their mother rushes to ask me to do a review of their project, first ask yourself if it’s even qualified. Quite frankly I’m already sick of getting emails asking me to check out your useless blockchain “military-grade encrypted” proprietary messenger or to sponsor a post for your enterprise suite that doesn’t apply to my target audience. Please do thirty seconds of research. That’s all I ask. That’s not a guarantee – if your project doesn’t interest me, I’m just not gonna talk about it.

With that out of the way, Haven interested me. To be honest, it’s not for me. I don’t have a use for it in my own life. But I liked the intention so I thought it might be fun to look into. With that, let’s dive in.

What is Haven?

Haven is – put simply – a private blog. Haven is aimed at solving the problem of “I hate Facebook but I need it to keep updated with my friends and family.” This is actually a pretty common thing I hear a lot: “Yeah, I know Facebook is evil, but it’s the best way I can keep my long-distance family in the know about what’s going on with my kids.”

You can self host a Haven instance or have the developer host it for you for only $5 USD/month. Payments are handled through Stripe, so card only (no cryptocurrency) but in my experience Stripe is pretty generous with things like Privacy.com or prepaid cards. It’s also been designed specifically for AWS or Raspberry Pi, giving options for both power users and novices (Note: the developer is working on a Docker deployment and has provided a few unsupported resources for hosting on other Linux distributions).

Here’s how it works: you sign up for an account (self-hosted or otherwise). On the dashboard, you can write a blog post. Posts are formatted in Markdown. On another page, you can subscribe to other blogs you wish to follow – or really any RSS feed you want (more on that in a moment). On yet another page, you can add “users.” Users can be administrators (who can add new users), publishers, or subscribers (who can only like and comment).

When you add another user, you are given the blog’s main address, the user’s email address, their password, and a “magic link” they can use for one-click login. You are then responsible for passing these on to the user.

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The Good

Haven is – like my own site – targeted towards the non-tech-savvy and the “average person.” It is with this in mind that I went straight to my favorite test group: my family. While my family has very few “techy” members, we definitely don't have any flat-out tech morons – various family members have been able to sign up to Matrix with zero difficulty or help from me, and one successfully followed my instructions to install Linux Mint on an old device in only two tries (they missed a step the first time). With that context, here’s the good stuff.

The developer offers a paid hosting option rather than making it strictly self-hosted. This is great as it allows both experienced users who want total data sovereignty, but also caters to those who don’t feel comfortable self-hosting. I also appreciate the use of Markdown, which in my opinion is less complicated than HTML or CSS (which is already pretty simple). I also like the fact that it offers every account a “magic link.” This saves my friends and family from having to know their username and password, and it makes very easy for them to log in and get started (at least on my blog).

The thing that really impressed me was the RSS reader. I tested it by adding a subreddit, and to me this is a real game changer. This allows you to not just follow other blogs, but news outlets, subreddits, and even audio podcasts (tested with Surveillance Report). To me that’s huge. Imagine all your favorite news, YouTube channels, podcasts, family and friends’ blogs, all in one place. And all in chronological order. I have despised the algorithmic timeline since the day it got introduced, and so have many of my friends and family. I bet they'd really appreciate being able to get all their preferred information in the correct order.

The Bad

As I mentioned earlier, I asked my “normie” friends and family for feedback. Most of it was negative. Constructive, but negative. Few sent met any “I like this” parts, but rather “this needs work” notes.

The number one piece of feedback was that the website immediately put them off by being a wall of text with too much “technical jargon.” Truthfully I have no idea what part of the front page was “too technical,” but maybe that’s cause I’m so used to things like “self-hosting” and “RSS.” I think the real issue – as one person noted – is that the front page offers little in the way of explaining what Haven actually is. That part I definitely felt when I first got approached. You have to navigate to the Screenshots page before you get eyes on the software, which I think helps really drive the point home. As they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Perhaps I overcomplicated it. I'm so used to people trying to change the universe with their “all-in-one” blockchain-based apps that I remember thinking “there's no way it's just a private blog. What else does it do?” One older family member said that they found the whole thing confusing and would rather stay where they are, but also admitted it could just be their generation. Perhaps a video demonstration or tutorial would be in order. I can’t imagine a comprehensive “how-to-use” video demo would be more than five minutes tops. Funny enough, one non-privacy friend noted the irony that it’s optimized for AWS while being a privacy-focused project, but did also say that they understood that you sometimes have to make tradeoffs to appeal to the widest audience.

I personally have questions about the idea of creating accounts for people. On the one hand, I think for people like me – who are more comfortable with tech – this would actually be a positive move. I’ve mentioned in a previous blog that I got my mom to use ProtonMail by creating the account for her, then sending over the credentials and letting her take it from there. I think you’d be much more likely to get friends and family to use Haven – at least as readers – by saying “here’s the magic link, just click it and you can view/comment/etc.” Having said that, I could see my mom very quickly and easily getting lost by this when it comes to her own blog and adding subscribers. After all, she’s never before had to make my Facebook profile on my behalf before, or subscribe to something for me. Usually that's my job to join, make an account, and go find and follow her.

The final big hurdle I could see (though it is no fault of the developer at all) is the use of RSS. RSS fell out of mainstream consciousness, and while it’s actually incredibly easy to use some people may be intimidated approaching it for the first time like this. This could make adding the feeds you wish to subscribe to very scary for non-techy folks. Perhaps the developer should include a page (their own or external) about what RSS is and how to use it to make it a bit more approachable to the non-techy folks. (Something like this already exists on the FAQ, perhaps they could just link that on the RSS page.)

Conclusion

I think Haven’s a really cool project. I don’t think it’s for everyone, but I think it could have uses, especially for those who want to share with a specific group privately. The website mentions how the developer wanted to share photos of his kids with family (that could be good marketing: keep your kid’s photos safe) or gives the example of a group newsletter of sorts, like for school or work. If you’re reasonably tech savvy, this could be a great solution for you to privately share information with a group of people. If the people around you know how to click a link, they’re in. Is it right for everyone? No. As I said at the top, I have absolutely no use for something like this. One of my friends noted that he just uses an iCloud folder and email to share photos of his kid with his family. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that some people out there do want something like Haven. It's an elegant solution – more polished than “iCloud an email” for sure – and I think the developer has made a very clean, useful project that functions very well. The marketing on the home page might need some work, but the product itself is pretty snappy. It only takes about five minutes of hands-on playing around with it to get the hang of it. If you’re in a position where you want a private blog, then I recommend you look into this. If I needed something like this, I’d say without reservation that it’s easily worth the $5/month for a hosted plan. I encourage you to check it out if you think you might need something like this.

You can check out Haven here.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work in a variety of ways here.