Tag Archives: linkblogging

Decline and return of indie blogs

In announcing plans to move A List Apart away from advertising, Jeffrey Zeldman writes about the decline of independent web sites:

In recent years, we’ve seen our rich universe of diverse, creative blogs and sites implode—leaving fewer and fewer channels available to new voices. As more content centralizes into a handful of all-powerful networks, there’s a dreary sameness in perspective and presentation.

I don’t know what the new A List Apart will look like, but if they can encourage designers and developers to embrace independent blogs again, I’m all for it. I like the way Zeldman has framed the change for A List Apart.

It used to be that A List Apart’s most popular authors were all frequent bloggers. I think the attention on Twitter instead of personal sites has effectively created a gap of lost years for many blogs: long stretches of time with very few if any posts. Perhaps Zeldman’s post is an indication that this trend has already reversed.

Gabe Weatherhead recently made some points on Macdrifter about the decline of indie blogs — that podcasting is a cheap substitute for written posts, and that tweets and link-blogging have killed thoughtful commentary:

I want to hear opinions and ideas from good writers, not pull quotes with a trailing off-the-cuff remark.

It’s a good post, but I see his conclusion differently. The solution isn’t fewer link blogs, but more of them. By taking microblogging back from Twitter, we create a natural place for traditional blogs to grow. Indie microblogging is the gateway drug for long-form content.

To everyone reading Zeldman’s post about A List Apart and nodding your head, retweeting the link, clicking the like button… Dust off your blog and actually post about it. A better web is built one page at a time.

Reposts and quoting

I recently added “repost-of” support to Micro.blog’s Micropub API implementation. This lets you pass an extra URL — the post you’re writing about — in clients like Micropublish. There’s deliberately still no concept of a retweet or repost, though.

When I wrote last year about Instagram and reposts, I was concerned with introducing features that could be abused or lead us back to reinventing Twitter’s problems. There’s even more evidence now that quick reposting shouldn’t be implemented blindly. Look what happened on Soundcloud:

Similar to Tumblr’s reblog or Twitter’s retweet, reposts were designed as a way to help new music spread virally. But from the start, artists abused the feature by constantly reposting their own tracks, pushing them back to the top of their followers’ feeds every few days.

For Micro.blog, I believe the right approach is to first introduce a simple “quote” feature. This UI would be streamlined to support quoting a sentence out of a blog post, with your own thoughts tacked on. It would fit with the spirit of easy posting in Micro.blog, but it would encourage more thoughtful posts and naturally scale up from traditional linkblogging.

What to post to a microblog

On the surface, an independent microblog might seem a lot like a Twitter account. There are some important differences: you own your own content, you can use Markdown or HTML for styled text, and you aren’t limited to 140 characters. An indie microblog can be just as easy to use as Twitter, but more flexible since it lives at your own web site, even with your own domain name.

So you’ve created a Micro.blog account or chosen to set up your own blog. How should you use your own microblog compared to Twitter or Instagram? Here are some ideas:

  • Use it the same as Twitter. Write short posts on your own microblog and cross-post them to Twitter. This is essentially what I do. If what I want to say fits naturally in 140 characters, it goes to Twitter as-is and followers can reply or like it there. If it’s a little longer, Micro.blog automatically truncates the tweet and links back to my blog.
  • Use it instead of tweetstorms. If you find yourself trying to express a thought and it’s going to take 2-3 tweets, consider posting it to your own microblog instead. Micro.blog suggests a limit of 280 characters. It’s still short enough that it encourages quick, easy posting, but it’s long enough that you can use it for much more well-formed posts.
  • Use it for a photoblog. I’ve noticed some pushback against Instagram as they add more ads, clutter the UI with Snapchat features, and move away from a simple reverse-chronological timeline. I want to make Micro.blog a great alternative for photo-blogging, which is why you can discover users from photos and there’s a UI for filters and cropping. You can see all my photos here.
  • Use it for a linkblog. Link-style blogging is for short commentary about another article, usually with a link at the end pointing to the other web site. Since microblogs are based on Markdown or HTML, you can also include inline links, which makes the blog posts look clean and readable on your own site. Micro.blog’s cross-posting will automatically parse out the link and append it to the tweet version of the post.
  • Use it for company news. Because it can be integrated into an existing full blog or web site, a microblog is a convenient format for posting updates about your business or industry topics you care about. This is why Micro.blog allows custom domain names and also offers the Sidebar.js include.

Of course there’s no single correct way to blog. I’ve enjoyed watching Micro.blog users try different approaches to microblogging to figure out what works best for them.

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.

Linkblogging and the open web

Dave Winer writes about Circa and their fundamental mistake of not embracing the open web with easy linking:

“Linkblogging is a real thing, and there are people who are good at it. But if there’s no URL for each story, you can’t linkblog it. So they didn’t grow fast enough. I think this is almost mathematical. No one, going forward, should try this. Each story must have a way to get to it through a Web address.”

We can be cynical about what the “open web” means, thinking it’s just marketing or spin. But it’s real and Dave shows how obvious it is to understand. It doesn’t matter if a web site or iPhone app is based around web technologies like HTTP and HTML. If it can’t be linked to or there’s no web API, it isn’t part of the open web.

Linkblogging is a special form of microblogging, and a significant part of Twitter is actually linkblogging. Tools that understand linkblogging will typically reduce the friction of writing by prompting for a quick note to go with a URL that’s already on the clipboard, for example. I don’t usually blog in this style, but I made sure these linkblog posts look great in the platform I’m working on.