Category Archives: Weblogs

An open Twitter starts with the web

Dave Winer wants an open alternative to Twitter:

I want it to be friendly to Twitter, because as a user and a shareholder, and a developer who uses their platform, I want to see it thrive. But I also strongly believe we need the open system, the Central Park to Twitter’s condo buildings on Fifth Ave and Central Park West.

John Biesnecker, reading Dave’s post, suggested XMPP because it’s an open standard and federated. But as great as XMPP is for messaging, it seems too different from the web; it would be like starting over. The nice thing about building on independent microblogs is that we can leverage the existing open web infrastructure: all the WordPress installs, RSS feeds, and new work from the IndieWebCamp.

That’s what I’ve tried to do for Snippets.today. Learn from the UI innovations of Twitter — the fast timeline experience, the effortless posting — but without skipping the important first step of independent web publishing.

Twitter and .blog

Dave Winer has a good comment for anyone questioning the web:

So when they tell you they know for sure that the web is dead, or that everyone wants to host their blogs in locked-up silos, or that you can’t build a great open social net on RSS, you might want to lower your glasses down your nose and look out over the top and ask Reallly? Are you sure?? ;-)

Nothing is certain in business. For every success, there are many “sure thing” failures.

I posed a question on this week’s Core Intuition as we were talking about Automattic’s upcoming .blog domain name registration. The gist of it was: what is more likely to survive for the next 50 years, Twitter or .blog? Twitter is huge, dominating the news and seemingly unstoppable, but social networks don’t have a great track record. I’d put my money on a new top-level domain, both because of the vision of empowering users to control their own content and also because domains were designed to last.

Companies aren’t exactly designed to fail. But that is their default outcome.

Mullenweg on Medium and the open web

Matt Mullenweg comments on whether choosing Medium is a good long-term bet:

In making the decision to hitch their horse to Medium’s wagon while fording a river, they’re probably betting on Medium not going out of business, which I agree there’s only like a 10% chance of happening. However I think there is a 97% chance that Medium’s business model will change in the future because the path they’re on and these publishers are dependent on will not sustain their current costs or the investment they’ve raised.

10% chance of going out of business compares poorly to Matt’s Automattic itself, which as I’ve written about before is one of only a couple web publishing companies that I think could last 100 years. If your goal is to write something that many people can read for years to come, why risk it on an uncertain platform?

There’s a longer video interview with Matt from WordCamp Europe last month, where he goes into more detail on the role of Medium and WordPress. Highly recommended if you’re interested in the open web, or just curious how progress is made in the WordPress community.

Domain names can always redirect

Just noticed this blog post from Fabian Steeg on the value of personal domain names:

So the mere decision to use a custom domain for my blog many years ago made it independent of the actual hosting location (wordpress.com or self-hosted) and publishing system (wordpress or my own software). In a way I’ve been referencing a system for years that I only now created. Your own domain and URLs really give you a lot of control over your content, even if that content is actually stored elsewhere for years.

Strongly agree with this. Having your own domain will future-proof everything you publish.

Tagging WWDC microblog posts

I didn’t post as much as I hoped to during WWDC 2016 — just a couple full posts related to the conference, a half dozen microblog posts, and one photo. But nevertheless I wanted to collect them together since I didn’t have a full wrap-up post like last year.

One of the advantages to hosting my own short posts — and only cross-posting to Twitter as an afterthought, not the primary location — is that I can easily tag all the posts in a series. This worked out really well while visiting coffee shops earlier this year.

For WWDC, I’ve used the tag #wwdc2016. I probably won’t go back to tag previous conferences, but I’ll use this format going forward for attending events where I publish a series of microblog posts and photos.

Building on Jekyll

If you were to build a weblog publishing system, would you start from scratch or build on an existing tool? There’s a healthy market for WordPress-powered hosting, for example, from WordPress.com itself to WP Engine. People know and trust these tools.

I was faced with this question for my microblogging platform. My requirements were pretty simple:

  • The published site needed to be 100% static, so that I could host it anywhere.
  • The template system needed to be widely used, so that I could draw on existing themes and provide customization for users later.

Jekyll looked like a great choice. I’m so happy with how well this has worked that I mention Jekyll in the marketing and footer of published sites. It’s a brand that can help give users confidence that this is built on something solid, and that if they need to migrate to self-hosted, there’s a path.

On top of Jekyll, I built a web interface for publishing and deleting posts, changing themes, and I added XML-RPC support so that you can use external blog editors like MarsEdit. Plus there’s a native iPhone app for posting.

All of this enables another feature that I’m very excited about: full mirroring to GitHub Pages. When you publish a microblog site, you can have it upload all the Markdown and HTML to a GitHub repository. This is a great way to export or mirror your content.

I think it’s a good foundation. Publishing is actually a small part of the overall microblog platform I’ve built, but it’s an important one. I can’t wait to share more and keep building features up around Jekyll.

I’m writing a short e-book about everything I’ve learned, and I’ll have news soon about early access to the platform. You should sign up on the announce mailing list before next week.

Medium subscriptions

Glenn Fleishman writes for Six Colors about Medium’s subscription features that will let publishers charge readers:

It’s absolutely clear the revenue side is an experiment, and Medium labels it as such all over. There’s no guarantee it will work for its early partners or pan out in the long run. But it’s the only publishing option that combines so many things in one place without any over-the-top cost or commitment on the part of a periodical.

While Medium is certainly doing a lot right, and I still think it’s not a bad place to mirror content, the “long run” Glenn mentions is really what we should think about when considering Medium. I have no confidence that Medium will last 5-10 years.

If my whole business was based on blogging, why would I trust Medium to control something so crucial? With iOS development, we have no choice but to use the App Store. Writing on the web isn’t like that, and voluntarily giving up both control of the publishing platform and 20% of revenue strikes me as very short-sighted.

View source on the decentralized web

Brewster Kahle has a post at the Internet Archive about getting back to the “view source” feature that made early web development so much more accessible than it is today. He thinks it can be achieved on top of a distributed web where all the HTML and JavaScript files are delivered to the browser:

The decentralized web works by having a p2p distribution of the files that make up the website, and then the website runs in your browser. By being completely portable, the website has all the pieces it needs: text, programs, and data. It can all be versioned, archived, and examined.

He mentions IPFS in particular, which I’ve written about before. The bottom line is that static HTML sites are more portable. They more naturally evolve not just from host to host as necessary, but also to a possible distributed future web. That’s why that — even though I still use and recommend WordPress — I have a static mirror of my site too.

Coffee shops in Portland

Following a similar pattern as my 30 days of coffee shops, my friend Jon Hays has started mapping out a challenge to hit a month of coffee shops in Portland. The twist on his visits will be to focus mostly on the east side of Portland, and to only have lattes. First post: Cathedral Coffee.

Jon is documenting the coffee shop visits on his new microblog. An indie microblog is a great framework for posting this kind of thing, without the overhead and pressure that many people feel when faced with writing full-length blog posts.

See also: the 500 latte photos project by Aron Parecki, which looks like it wrapped up at a (still impressive) 312 lattes; and Tiny Challenges, a site and podcast from Daniel Steinberg and Jaimee Newberry about trying something new each day for a month.

Time to rethink blog comments

Twitter has lost some of what made it special for communities 5 years ago. I’ve noticed a few trends:

  • Twitter’s 140-character limit and easy retweeting encourage and amplify negative tweets. Sincerity is less common. Everything is an opportunity for a joke.
  • Widely followed, long-time Twitter users don’t find the joy they used to when interacting with followers. Some have retreated to private Slack channels, at the cost of public discussion and approachability.
  • Developers have never completely forgiven Twitter for crippling the API. This doesn’t directly impact most users anymore, but it’s a backdrop that gives every new Twitter feature a tone of distrust. Progress is slow.

Meanwhile, blog comments have slowly been killed off over that same period. The rise of social networks, combined with the technical problems of fighting blog comment spam, pushed most bloggers to prefer answering questions on Twitter.

Becky Hansmeyer writes about the intersection of these problems — that some Twitter users avoid public discussion, but most blogs no longer have comments to fall back on — by pointing to a post from Belle Beth Cooper:

“Belle’s post really resonated with me because it reminded me of something I think about a lot: when an ever-increasing number of blogs and media outlets are disabling comment sections, where do decent, thoughtful people bring their discussions? I only offer readers one way to contact me on this site, and it’s via Twitter. But what if, like Belle, you no longer use Twitter (or never did in the first place)?”

We didn’t realized how much we lost when we turned our backs on blog comments years ago. Just look at one of Daniel Jalkut’s blog posts from 10 years ago, which he and I discuss on an upcoming episode of Core Intuition. 53 comments! And they’re all preserved along with the original content. That’s difficult to do when comments are spread across Twitter and easily lost.

It’s time to take what we’ve since learned from social networks and apply it the openness of cross-site replies. That’s why I want to support Webmention. As Becky mentions, Civil Comments look great too. I think we can encourage both in parallel: distributed comments like Webmention for sites that can support it and better centralized comments like Civil.

Buytaert on the open web

Dries Buytaert, founder of Drupal, gave a talk at SXSW this week and wrote a blog post about saving the open web from large, centralized platforms:

“I worry that some of these platforms will make us lose the original integrity and freedom of the open web. While the closed web has succeeded in ease-of-use and reach, it raises a lot of questions about how much control individuals have over their own experiences.”

Matt Mullenweg linked to it and added: “I agree with and endorse basically everything in that post.”

Blog when you disagree

The echo chamber. We only follow people who we already agree with. We only jump on the bandwagon of snark and ridicule when it’s already the accepted narrative, and thus safe to be part of the mob.

But sometimes you’ll find an area where you aren’t completely in line with the crowd’s opinion. There’s a topic that keeps coming up for which you have something to add. The default story is missing an important angle.

When you disagree, that’s what you should write about, and you should post it to your blog. 140 characters thrown against wave after wave of mainstream opinion tweets will be drowned out. A blog post isn’t a cheap opinion; it’s a statement that what you think matters.

The evolution of linkblogging

In my posts about defining what makes a microblog post and guidelines for RSS, I talked a little about links but didn’t explore linkblogging. While many blog authors post primarily long essays, shorter link blogs are a common approach for bloggers who want to post new content several times a day.

Essentially two types of link blogs have evolved since the early days of blogging. The most traditional link blog can be seen in Dave Winer’s posts (click on the Links tab). These are links with a very short commentary. Many tweets are like this. In a way, this format is the purest form of microblogging.

The second type of link blog starts to fall outside the limits of microblogging. Instead of just including a URL, authors use a quote from the linked material as the foundation for the post. The majority of Daring Fireball posts adopt this format. While John Gruber is known for his full essays, those longer posts are infrequent today. He keeps his site active by linking to other interesting essays and tacking on his own brief opinion.

Daring Fireball has become so successful that Gruber’s approach to linkblogging has been copied by many other sites. MacStories, Six Colors, One Foot Tsunami, John Moltz’s Very Nice Web Site, and Marco Arment’s blog are just a handful that follow this pattern. All of these sites post the occasional essay, but most blog posts link away to an external site in the RSS item, not back to their own site.

At a technical level, this difference can best be seen in the RSS feed’s <link> and <guid> elements. These elements will contain URLs that either link back to the main site, or link away to an external site.

Here is where this evolving approach to link blogs starts to break down. Let’s take an example from Six Colors, one of my favorite sites. (I recommend subscribing. The members-only secret podcast with Jason and Dan Moren is really fun, and the email magazine is great too.)

In a link post about Hulu’s pricing, Jason Snell actually writes 4 paragraphs of commentary (plus a footnote). This is more like an essay than a short link post that points to the external site.

Another example is when MacStories linked to Twitter’s launch of Moments. A few paragraphs of quoted text, 5 paragraphs of MacStories commentary. The commentary is as important or even more important to read than whatever Federico is linking to.

Sometimes we read sites like MacStories, Six Colors, or Daring Fireball more for the commentary than for what is being linked to. But when using an RSS reader, there is too much confusion about where an item’s link goes when clicked if the site’s feed isn’t consistent about linking everything back to its own site.

And in fact Jason Snell acknowledges this problem by offering two separate RSS feeds: the default one, with a mix of links back to Six Colors for essays and pointed elsewhere for link posts; and another feed with everything linking back to Six Colors, where the commentary lives. He also attempts to minimize confusion on his own site by giving each type of post its own icon in the site design.

The less clear-cut the distinction between essays and link posts, the more confusion we introduce to readers. In some ways, this mixed approach really only works for Daring Fireball, because his feature essays are so long, and so obviously different in format to the rest of the link posts.

Good conventions for blogging have been at a standstill for years. While part of the appeal of indie blogging is there’s no one “right” way to do it, and authors can have a strong voice and design that isn’t controlled by a platform vendor, we must accept that Twitter has taken off because it has a great user experience compared to blogs. It’s effortless to tweet and the timeline is consistent. For blogging to improve and thrive, it should have just as straightforward a user experience as social networks wherever possible.

Luckily, RSS already has everything we need for clients to visually distinguish between link posts and regular ones. If the <link> element points to a domain other than the one for the site, it’s probably a link post. If the <link> and site domain match, it’s a full post.

I’ve adopted this in my new microblogging platform by exposing the domain in the UI itself, at the end of the title or microblog post whenever it’s a link post. If it’s a full post, the link isn’t added. And for either type of post, the timestamp links back to whatever was in the <link>.

Here’s a screenshot from one of Dave’s posts. Note that the link was not in the RSS text. It was added by my app automatically:

linkblog example

This has been a long post, but it boils down to two simple recommendations:

  • If you’re a blog author and you’re adding any significant commentary, the RSS feed should point back to your site.
  • If you’re an RSS client developer, the difference between link posts and full posts should be exposed in the UI.

I believe that adopting these will bring more consistency to blogging. Users won’t need to hover over links, or guess what will happen on a click or tap. It’s a small change that will make reading blogs a little better.

Essays vs. microblog posts (and the microcast)

Starting back in September 2014, I added microblog posts to this site. These are defined as short posts without a title. They have their own RSS feed, and they’re automatically cross-posted to Twitter and App.net.

In that time, I’ve posted about 300 microblog posts and about 230 essays, although many of my longer posts are really just a few paragraphs and a quote. I still find the microblog format very convenient for quick thoughts, or a series of related posts like all my coffee stops.

I’ve also switched from Gaug.es to WordPress.com stats. While I agree with Ben Brooks that analytics can be a distraction, I still like finding new referrers and having a sense of what posts have resonated with people. Not that it effects what I write about, though.

The key to blogging is still consistency and passion. Write about the things you care about, regularly, and the internet is a big enough place that there can be an audience for even obscure topics.

That’s the theme I’m trying to apply to my new Timetable podcast, too. I talk about microblogging, coffee shops, client work, but more important than any of that is the routine of recording it. The short nature of the podcast is itself kind of the story.

I’m at episode 15 now and have loved working on it. I now expect that all of these components of my blog — the longer posts, the microblog posts, and the companion Timetable episodes — will be something I do for years to come.

The Ringer will use Medium

Bill Simmons announced on his podcast last week that his new media site The Ringer will use Medium. He said they’ve been working with the Medium folks on it, although I don’t know if that means using existing features that are available to anyone, or if Medium has built anything custom just for The Ringer.

Digiday has a story about this, and about the larger context of how Medium is doing and evolving:

“At one point last year, a former staffer said, Medium decided to move away from funding publications directly and instead fund initiatives meant to grow audiences in specific areas such as women in tech and the election. Last year, it closed down Re:form and Archipelago, a home for personal essays. Its remaining verticals have been roped into Medium’s effort to generate more conversation with readers, with tactics like prompts at the end of articles.”

I’ve written several times about how Medium is worse than your own blog for building an audience, and worse for the open web if it continues down the Twitter-like path as a centralized social network. But encouraging larger publishers to adopt Medium is good, because custom domains will come along for the ride. Owning your domain and URLs is the first step to owning your content.

River5 and twtxt

Two new microblog-related services have launched. This week, Dave Winer announced River5:

“So I decided it was time to do a restart of my JavaScript RSS aggregator, and it’s now ready for Node users — it’s called River5. […] This is a foundation for developers to build on, but it’s also possible for an adventurous user to set up their own rivers.”

River5 is built on a few XML and JSON formats, including River.js. I’m pretty interested in River.js as a format for aggregating multiple feeds together, so I’ve supported it in my new microblog platform. As a next-generation RSS, though, I prefer the proposal I wrote about in a post called RSS for microblogs.

Next up is twtxt, which attempts to recreate Twitter as a distributed, command-line based system with self-hosted text files:

“Instead of signing up at a closed and/or regulated microblogging platform, getting your status updates out with twtxt is as easy as putting them in a publicly accessible text file. The URL pointing to this file is your identity, your account. twtxt then tracks these text files, like a feedreader, and builds your unique timeline out of them, depending on which files you track.”

I’m less sure what to think of twtxt. The simple plaintext format is nice, but we already have a good infrastructure for this with RSS. And as I’ve noted before, having HTML in RSS with inline styles and links is nice for microblogs, and it’s not clear to me whether that would fit well with twtxt.

If you want to start an indie microblog, my suggestion remains to use existing blog software that can generate simple RSS feeds. Short posts, no titles. This is a widely-deployed format that we can continue to work with for years to come.

Charles Perry’s microblog

Charles Perry has started a microblog. On the balance of what he should post to Twitter and what he should post to his own site first, he writes:

“Most of the things I write on Twitter are snippets of conversations or other thoughts that I don’t necessarily want to preserve. Those will stay on Twitter. But some microposts—is that a thing?—I think are of interest on their own. These I plan to post to the DazeEnd.org microblog and mirror to Twitter. That should allow me to preserve and archive my thoughts on my own website and use Twitter just for distribution.”

I was really happy to see these posts show up in my RSS reader. There’s some momentum around indie microblogging right now. You should start one too.

Here are some more of my posts on the topic:

Listeners of my new Timetable podcast also know that I’m writing a short book about independent microblogging. You can hear a little about this on episode 9.

Micropub and the quiet IndieWebCamp revolution

There’s new activity at the W3C around independent blogging, with new proposals recently posted as working drafts. Helped by a push from the IndieWebCamp, two of the highlights include:

  • Micropub: Simple format for adding content to your site from native apps.
  • Webmention: Modern replacement for Pingback/Trackback, for handling cross-site replies.

I want to support these in my new web app. At launch, I hope to allow Micropub POSTs alongside the classic XML-RPC Blogger API (and my own native JSON API).

And of course the IndieWebCamp is also known for POSSE: publish on your own site, syndicate elsewhere. That strategy has helped me refine my own cross-posting.

I don’t think it’s my imagination that more and more people are blogging again. Now’s the time to resume your blog, start a microblog, and take back the future of the web from silos. If we can roll some of these new standards into what we’re building and writing about, the open web will be on the right track.

Inline links in microblog posts

When I was first trying to figure out how my microblog posts should look, I was thinking more like tweets and less like HTML. Eventually I settled on HTML for publishing and display, with Markdown for writing.

Here’s what a microblog post looks like in the timeline for my new web app:

screenshot

You can compare that to how it looks when cross-posted to Twitter. It’s not exactly a fair comparison since the tweet was truncated, but it’s still incredible to me how much better these posts look if you allow inline links and some more characters.

Tim Cook, Swift, and the return of blogs

Rob Rhyne wrote an essay last week that caught my attention, on Tim Cook and the incredible pace of new major OS versions at Apple:

“Still think Apple isn’t innovating enough under Tim Cook? Don’t let an app developer hear that talk—they want a vacation, and the end of 2015 showed no signs of relief.”

But I found it significant for another reason too: Rob hadn’t blogged on that site in over 2 years. He picked it up as if no time had been lost, hitting the ground running with a great post.

He’s not the only one starting to blog more. Matt Gallagher just rebooted Cocoa with Love after 4 years since his last post. Swift was a good excuse to resume writing, but he had wanted to continue the site anyway.

Most of my favorite blogs have new posts every day, or at least once a week. New posts bring more links and traffic, giving the blog life and momentum.

There’s no single correct way to blog, though. Blogs are forgiving. If you’ve neglected your blog for a while, you don’t owe anyone an apology. Just hit command-N in your favorite text editor and start writing.