Let’s Save Blogging

The independent blog has been in decline for years. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s why you should start a blog in 2019—and host it yourself.

Today in Tedium: I started my 2018 in Tedium with a simple question. “Is blogging dead?” It seemed like a good question to ask, as people seemed to be moving away from the concept left and right. But after a year full of platforms showing sheer disrespect to the people and things that make them valuable, I’ve decided that I have an answer to that question: Let’s freaking save blogging—specifically, let’s save it from the platform that’s trying to grow massive off your words and thoughts. It deserves to live, and it does not deserve to be controlled by a company that doesn’t understand that there’s value to your words. As Tedium celebrates its fourth anniversary (and I celebrate my tenth), I’m going to make it my mission on this platform to highlight the intersection of creativity and independence throughout 2019. And that starts with this newsletter issue. Today’s Tedium makes the case why you should start a blog. — Ernie @ Tedium

Tedium redesign

Before I get going, some crazy news!!!! Tedium’s website has redesigned and has a completely fresh coat of paint, along with a new content management platform. It looks pretty snazzy, and makes my life a whole lot easier, too. (It also, because I know folks have been asking, has a search engine that actually works!) Thanks to everyone who has supported the site on Patreon, which helped make this months-long effort possible.

0102 Shortformblog

My old site, ShortFormBlog, as it looked in early 2009.

How I got into blogging: The short version

Before I jump into why you should blog, I figure I should start by explaining why I blog. After all, it’s why you’re reading this.

A decade ago today, in a bagel shop in Norfolk, Virginia, I hit the switch on a website that felt like the most important thing I’d ever done in my life up to that point.

Not that I saw myself doing just that three months earlier.

It was born of a combination of two things that happened in the months prior: First, the demise of a newspaper that I had given a lot of my energy and passion to—to the point where I would go into work hours early to work on ideas I had just because I found the work that exciting. And second, I received a request from an editor there to turn a design I had produced on the job into a T-shirt. The request wasn’t the problem, honestly, and it didn’t upset me. Rather, it was the realization, made clear by the ask, that I was giving ownership of my ideas to another company that, even though it was a good company, would have a logical limit to how far they’d go to respect my value as a creator.

That point was proven by the fact that, literally days after that conversation, we found out that the paper was shutting down. I wanted to keep the paper’s ideas alive—and starting a blog was the easiest way to do it.

My bagel site, called ShortFormBlog, was a long-term commitment to a style of writing that I had long had an interest in but wasn’t necessarily hip by the time I had gotten to it. I had hit on the tail end of the original blogging rush. Most of the major blogosphere figures were still writing—I remembered being wowed on the day that Andrew Sullivan linked my site when he was still perhaps the most famous blogger in the world—but other social networks, including Twitter and Facebook, were starting to suck some of the air away. It makes sense. They had made things more efficient and successfully made the case that cutting away the friction around expression was the most important thing, rather than ownership.

Running a blog in 2009 was an experience—there was so much maintenance involved, even on a platform like WordPress, if you wanted to draw outside the lines.

And I definitely was doing that. I started as a designer, and all of my major work in blogging has integrated design in some form. It was my way of sticking a line in the sand for a kind of writing that I had grown quite fondly of at the time I had started—not blogging, necessarily, but the fact boxes, the quips, the numbers, the blurbs, and the cutline snark that I had fallen in love with at my prior newspaper. It was news without all the extra stuff, that made the buried details the story, rather than the headline, the important part.

I most assuredly didn’t know what I was doing, and the site would frequently crash. But it was different, and different was enough to get people interested in what I was writing about—I remember when Alan Mutter, a former newspaper columnist and startup CEO, name-dropped my site on his blog. My site had drawn controversy from some news-industry old timers because it leaned heavy on style (I redesigned the thing seemingly once every eight months), though it also had some major fans. I’d argue that it had plenty of substance—and it aimed to raise the substance to something approachable for someone who only had a little time each day to hit the front page.

0102 Sfbtruman

ShortFormBlog had a mascot; his name was Julius. Here he is in 1948. (Ben Claassen)

About a year and a half in, worried about growth, I was taken in by the promise of moving to a platform that would help ease the path for things like growth. And while that platform initially treated ShortFormBlog well, I eventually figured out that I had given away many of the things that mattered. Tumblr had shown little interest in helping turn its creators into people who could make careers out of their work—only highlighting that, hey, some folks had gotten book deals out of their sites.

In retrospect, I think the problem is pretty clear: Tumblr, like most social networks, values creators as a means to an end—the people writing and posting make the platform more valuable and more worthy of the average person’s time, but the rewards for that value quite often go to the people who operate the platform, not the people who make it relevant.

I don’t think that’s how Tumblr intended things, especially when it was still owned by David Karp, but that’s how it ended up.

0102 Sfb

ShortFormBlog, as it appeared during its most successful period, around late 2011.

Tumblr made my site successful, but not sustainable. The added attention shifted the mission of the site to some degree, for good and bad. Additionally, there weren’t paths for independent creators like there are today. But it earned me some important friends and taught me a lot about internet culture.

I haven’t given up on this independent blogging thing yet—I’ve been at this Tedium thing for four years now!—but as 2019 starts, I hope I can convince a few more people to follow my lead. That’s what this issue is all about, really. So I’d like to spend the rest of the issue talking about tools, strategy, and what comes next.

“A novelist can spend months or years before committing words to the world. For bloggers, the deadline is always now. Blogging is therefore to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. It is, in many ways, writing out loud.”

— Andrew Sullivan, who for many years was perhaps one of the most influential (and yes, controversial) bloggers out there, discussing his reasons for blogging in a 2008 essay for The Atlantic, his employer at the time. One of the folks that became known for blogging early on, Sullivan, a former New Republic editor and current New York Magazine writer-at-large, was an active blogger for 15 years, an impressive amount of time to do this. His site is still online, if you want to see what 15 years of writing out loud looks like.

0102 Blog

What a stock photo artist thinks of when you say the word ”blogging.” Not shown: a computing device of some kind.

Five things you should know about starting a new blog in 2019

  1. The rhythm is everything. One of the reasons ShortFormBlog finally lost its momentum was that I found myself unable to keep up with the rhythm I’d created for myself, and I needed to come up with a new direction that had a little more balance. Publishing twice a week, with room for extra things when I have the time, is a great balance for me, as this is not (nor has ever been) my full-time job. The secret to good blogging is simple: Find a pacing you can be comfortable with, and stick to it. (And I know something that might help with this! My pal Owen Williams recently launched a new tool called Write Together that aims to get people to get in the habit of writing 300 words per day, every day, for a year. It’s paid, but it’s pretty cool.)
  2. The subject matter has to be informative—and totally you. When I had Zap Actionsdower write a Tedium issue about a month ago, part of the reason why I had him write it was because he had hit on what seemed like a unique niche—a personal blog about barely-surviving fast food restaurants. And when it comes to blogging, this is an important goal, something I consider a big part of what keeps independent bloggers interesting. Don’t just write to write. Write because you have something to say, and it only works because you know how to say it.
  3. Hosting your own site has gotten easier. Content management software is much more mature than it was a decade ago—or even five years ago. I remember a period where I moved ShortFormBlog to a platform called RackSpace because WordPress was hacking a lung on a smaller platform and it forced me to learn to love the command line, quickly. However, reliability has improved over the years, and there are now lots of options that have made the process painless. I recently moved Tedium to Fortrabbit, a good platform for hosting PHP-based websites based on tools like WordPress and Craft CMS, and cloud-based platforms like DigitalOcean allow you to launch cheap cloud servers to host your sites inexpensively and with only a little bit of command-line work (including on Ghost, a tool I used for many years and still recommend), without a ton of fuss. If you want and have an inkling of technical knowledge, you can even host your site on a repository like Github or GitLab for free.
  4. Consider design—even if it seems like it’s a lot of work. If you know your way around HTML and CSS, one of the best things you can do is build a unique theme for your site, to give it your imprint. This doesn’t have to be scary, however—if you build your site based on a framework such as Bulma or Bootstrap, you can have much of the scaffolding made available to you. And you can always go with a slightly customized theme if you want a shortcut.
  5. There are lots of ways to cover your costs. You may or may not feel the need to monetize your work running a blog in 2019, but there are lots of strategies to use. You can go simple, relying on things like Google AdSense to monetize page views; you can become an influencer, using a tool like BlogLovin’s Activate platform; or you can try tactics like Patreon, which allows your readers to invest in your creativity. Don’t feel like you have to do any of these things—blogging can often feel more freeing when there isn’t a financial incentive. But don’t feel like it’s selling out. We’re way past that point, culturally.
0102 Blogosphere

Remember when we used to call this thing the Blogosphere? (Staycurly/Flickr)

How federation could help move blogging back towards independence

Recently, I spent some time doing research into content management systems—no small task, but one that taught me a heckuva lot about the differing needs of writers.

It’s really hard to think about from the perspective of an individual, but content management is often a complex endeavor, and sites like Tedium have different needs than both large companies and small-scale writers. You can go minimalist or maximalist or anything in between. (In case you’re curious, some excellent CMS platforms that I enjoyed using but didn’t end up going with on my recent redesign for one reason or another include Grav, OctoberCMS, Hugo, and Statamic. They didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work for you.)

And the problem for independent bloggers is that, if your goal is getting thoughts down on the page, there’s simply too much choice, when the goal should be simplicity. Part of the reason sites like Tumblr and Medium have seen success in prior years is that they’ve successfully made the case that using their platforms could be easier than building your own. And that case took in a lot of people—some of whom felt burned when business decisions meant changes to a platform they dedicated a lot of energy towards.

Mastodon

The social network Mastodon, a great example of a federated platform in action.

But a funny thing happened as these platforms started showing weaknesses: New ideas have emerged from the open-source space that built upon these social ideas without the weight of the massive platform. Tools such as Mastodon, Diaspora, PeerTube, and PixelFed have come along to offer genuine alternatives to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, respectively, each with the goal of separating the networking from a centralized platform. Each of these tools offer some degree of “federation,” in that you can host your own versions of software, and you can speak to other nodes on the network—essentially taking the distributed email approach of yore to social media.

With the uptake of the ActivityPub distribution protocol introduced last year and the hard-to-watch decay of RSS, blogging platforms could leverage some of this momentum in the years to come as well. If our blogging platforms become federated, we could promote messages at wider scales—or keep them private for small groups. We could allow people to write anonymously, or we could let them build their own version of the tool for their own needs.

And yeah, there might be some centralization—the biggest providers could theoretically offer their own takes on the basic platform—we could one day see sites that function like Tumblr or Medium without the centralized points of weakness that can limit choice and lead to unwanted platform buy-in.

Write.as

No, I didn’t forget the product shot for Write.as. This is literally what it looks like.

Blogging, of course is a weird case in that the largest player, WordPress, technically allows for most of this due to being open source, but Tumblr and Medium came to prominence because they were built with social conversation in mind, rather than as something tacked on after the fact. So where’s the open-source recreation of Tumblr? Color scheme and text-based approach aside, the minimalist writing tool Write.as checks many of these boxes—taking the social parts of blogging and disconnecting them from the platforms themselves.

“I was inspired in part by platforms like Tumblr and Medium, which make blogging a more social experience,” founder Matt Baer explained in an interview. “I wanted to include those same social aspects that made those platforms successful, but without creating a walled garden.”

At first, this meant making it so that a post made on Write.as can go to Tumblr or Medium or even Twitter, but in recent months, the mission has started to shift in favor of the same ethos that made Mastodon a bit of a breakout story in 2018. The underlying software behind Write.as has surfaced in the form of Write Freely, and users are encouraged to launch their own instances of the software as self-hosted blogging platforms that can talk to one another to some extent.

“The fediverse is built in such a way that anyone can create a new tool for it, and each one makes the network more useful to everyone in it,” Baer added. “So cooperation is usually more important than competition—if you want people to use your software, you want it to work well with others.”

There’s a certain joy in peering over people’s shoulders and seeing what other people are writing on small social networks, and it’s something Write.as’ reader interface is designed for. It’s like watching Tumblr in miniature—and as the platform grows, it will be interesting to see how a little more community helps further that feeling.

As I’ve pointed out over the years, minimalist writing has become a useful trend and has informed other blogging platforms such as Medium. But Write.as is minimalist in terms of what it asks of the user—Baer emphasizes that he doesn’t want your data, and that his business model is intended to allow for the kind of privacy one might get from a pseudonymous platform, without the added distraction of advertising.

“On other platforms, if you know that someone like your parents or boss might read your writing, you might not express exactly what you really want to,” he adds, noting that the business model, which scales up based on need, explicitly avoids advertising. “So we just don’t collect personal data about you.”

There’s been chatter about other platforms moving in the direction of federation, such as Ghost and even WordPress, but one has to wonder if what we really need is a new LiveJournal—a fully independent one that could survive a nuclear attack (I see you Dreamwidth) but is also mindful of more recent trends in technology and social media.

Perhaps Write.as isn’t exactly that, but considering how fully it’s allowed the potential of federation to become a part of its platform, one has to wonder if it might get there someday. If nothing else, it’s a great example of how independent and hosted can happily coexist.

Ideas like Write.as or federation won’t work for everyone. I mean, in my case, I just spent nights and weekends over the span of a two-month period moving my site to the solid Craft CMS because I wanted more control.

Even if we don’t get more weed-like social media, it’s an important consideration to have as it offers up a path forward beyond the lucrative dead end that is modern social networking.

The start of a new year is often a time when resolutions kick in and you pledge to do overly ambitious things such as lose weight or, more relevant to my interests here, start a blog. But don’t give in to the path of least resistance with your blog—a light amount of commitment up front means a light amount of commitment going forward.

We could use a little momentum. A decade ago, as I was getting started with this, platforms like Facebook took advantage of our desire for a simpler option and used it to silo up our data, lock and key. We lost an exciting blogosphere in the midst of all of this—and the first step towards getting it back is by realizing that ownership should be a first class citizen, whether or not we eventually give away those words, sell them, or keep them close to our chest. A blog that you own, that you pay the hosting bill for? That’s the first step—a form of expression that should be the future (because after all, how awesome is it that anyone can own a printing press?!?) but somehow became the past.

When I started blogging a decade ago, I was excited about the culture that had built up around it. As I look back, I worry a lot of that culture is gone.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

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Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! Also, I’m keeping a running tally of new blogs that I know are starting this year. If you have one, bug me and I’ll add you to the list!

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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