Om Malik: showing us how it’s done

Dave Winer paid tribute to Om Malik on Twitter. I shared my perspective in reply and it seemed wrong to leave my response just as a tweet so I thought I’d re-post my response here too:

@Om is an inspirational blogger/writer. One of a very small group of people who represent what makes a blog such a wonderful medium (you too, sir). When I think about how to be a better blogger and writer, Om is usually the first person I look to for inspiration.

Here is the Twitter thread:

Photo credit: Om Malik by Christopher Michel, licensed CC BY 2.0

How to Indiewebify your site

The IndieWeb movement has seemed pretty geeky to me since I first heard about it (probably from Kevin Marks). I haven’t been sure what to make of it but the more I learn about it the more it interests me.

I’ve already installed a couple IndieWeb plugins in this blog and I like the benefits I’ve seen.

Richard MacManus (I mentioned him and his AltPlatform.org blog a couple days ago) published the first part of his guide to IndieWebifying his blog and I just started reading it.

I’ve decided to re-design my personal website, richardmacmanus.com. My primary reason is to become a full-fledged member of the IndieWeb community. If I’m writing about Open Web technologies here on AltPlatform, then I ought to be eating my own dog food. Another reason is to discover – likely by trial and error – how to route around Walled Gardens like Facebook and Twitter, which host so much of our content these days. In other words, my goal is to make my personal website the hub for my Web presence. Finally, I want to re-discover blogging in 2017 – what it can do in this era, who’s doing interesting things and how, and what opportunities there might be for the Open Web to cross into the mainstream.

I clicked across to the IndiWebify.me site he linked to and I think I have a new personal project to complete this site’s IndieWebification. Exciting!

Online publishing will not die if Medium fails

Dave Winer recently said, “If Medium were to fail a lot of history will go with it”. Kevin O’Keefe picked up on this and commented on Twitter that this would affect content published by the White House too.

I read both Winer’s and O’Keefe’s comments as suggestions that Medium is Too Big To Fail and that its hypothetical failure would be disastrous. If that were to be the case, it would say far more about the folly of investing so much of their work into a platform that its users had no meaningful control over.

Update (2017-01-10): O’Keefe made a similar point in his blog post titled “Medium lays off one-third of its employees“.

Taking a step back

Before I go on, here is a little context if you missed it. Last week, Ev Williams published a post titled “Renewing Medium’s focus” in which he explained Medium’s pivot away from various forms of advertising it had been experimenting with.

I agree with Medium’s assessment of the publishing landscape and that there is a definite need to find more sustainable and productive ways to earn revenue through online publishing:

Our vision, when we started in 2012, was ambitious: To build a platform that defined a new model for media on the internet. The problem, as we saw it, was that the incentives driving the creation and spread of content were not serving the people consuming it or creating it — or society as a whole. As I wrote at the time, “The current system causes increasing amounts of misinformation…and pressure to put out more content more cheaply — depth, originality, or quality be damned. It’s unsustainable and unsatisfying for producers and consumers alike….We need a new model.”

I also agree with Medium’s conclusions about the current state of online advertising as a dominant way for publishers to make money. It doesn’t leave the Web or their readers in a better place at all (even though it supports the basic model):

Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people. In fact, it’s not designed to. The vast majority of articles, videos, and other “content” we all consume on a daily basis is paid for — directly or indirectly — by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get…well, what we get. And it’s getting worse.

So what Medium decided to do is pivot away from advertising models to something else:

So, we are shifting our resources and attention to defining a new model for writers and creators to be rewarded, based on the value they’re creating for people. And toward building a transformational product for curious humans who want to get smarter about the world every day.

What that “new model” isn’t clear and I doubt Williams and his team have a clear idea of what that will be. Whatever they come up with is going to have a big impact on online publishing because there are a number of other major publishers asking similar questions. Online advertising as a primary means of earning money online is a downward spiral to fake news and clickbait because it is all about attention.

What if Medium fails?

Medium is the lovechild of a self-contained social platform and blogging. It has beautiful writing tools and is designed to be a wonderful reading and engagement platform.

It has grown remarkably and it’s no surprise that so many people have invested so much of their creativity and thoughtfulness in their articles published to their personal profiles (the Medium version of a blog). A number of publishers have also shifted their publications to Medium’s platform based, partly, on the promise of revenue shares from Medium. It seems these publishers were also caught by surprise by Medium’s pivot.

There is a huge challenge in investing so much in a single platform that you have no real control over. As Winer pointed out:

Through all the zigging, the thing that has remained constant at Medium is the high quality and usability of the software. But it’s possible for others to do what they do, to be as easy to use, without the uncertainty about its future as an archiving system.

It is still very early days (literally) and I think it is premature to worry much about the prospect of Medium failing to find a sustainable revenue model for itself and its writers and publishers. Still, it is something to think about because what happens to Medium could well mirror the broader online publishing industry in the sense that if Medium succeeds, it could revolutionise that industry.

Before Medium

What struck me this morning when I read O’Keefe’s tweet is that Medium didn’t create something new. Instead, it built on a distributed network of independent publications that sprung up 10 to 15 years ago. Back then, we called it the blogosphere and comprised a growing number of independent blogs that referenced each other using annotations called trackbacks. Back then, people followed each other using RSS readers (Dave Winer is one of the creators of the technologies that made that possible) and commented on each other’s blogs.

The blogosphere wasn’t as coherent as Medium. It wasn’t as well defined or connected and not everyone used the same software for their blogs. That meant interoperability challenges. It was very much a version 1.0 of independent publishing but it was wonderfully empowering because it gave people like me the ability to create a space to write and share.

The blogosphere was the first real version of the social Web that has since diversified and coalesced in terms of formats, platforms and media. More significantly, much of what Medium’s functionality existed long before Medium existed and exists alongside it today.

Over time, WordPress surpassed Blogger (another of Williams’ and his colleagues’ creations) as the dominant publishing platform and it remains the leader of the pack with 27% of the Web using WordPress.

Closer to what we really need

As popular as WordPress is, it isn’t always as easy to use as Medium. It has evolved over time and it has its share of dials and buttons to tweak if you want to take advantage of more complex features. I don’t agree with Frederic Filloux who painted a troubling picture of WordPress in his post “A New Model for Medium” where he said:

First, for elegant text-based publishing, there is a need for a simple, easy-to-use, well-designed platform such as Medium. WordPress was supposed to deliver just that, but it took a geeky turn, saturating its ecosystem with scores of third-party plugins — more than 48,000 at last count — whose quality can charitably be called uneven. Most WordPress sites end up using dozens of plug-ins, each one bound to create its own set of problems: slow page-loads, crashes, random behaviors or update cycles that don’t match WP’s platform agenda. Unless you have sizable tech resources at your disposal, WordPress is a nightmare.

For starters, if all you want is to create a space and start writing, WordPress.com is a great place to start. Setting up is probably a little more involved than Medium because you have more choices when it comes to theming and other customisations. Medium is simpler, sure, and a compelling option for many. Still, discounting WordPress so handily is misguided.

Something I have noticed about open-source software is that it can be messy when compared to closed-source products. One of the reasons for this, I think, is that open-source software aims to be more inclusive and permissive. WordPress is a little messy by comparison with Medium, although the design isn’t terrible (at least, not from my layperson’s perspective).

The reason why it is important not to lose sight of this is precisely the concern that Medium’s shift has aroused and its challenges beg the recurring question: where should you publish your work?

As much as I like Medium, I am still a big advocate for publishing to your own space on the Web, even if you then syndicate elsewhere (including to Medium). You may not even control your site’s fate completely but you usually have more say over its future than a wholly hosted space. As Winer put it:

In the meantime, all the content that continues to pour into Medium is at risk due to the missing business model. And this is where I part with Filloux. I wonder why he only discusses Medium’s interest and the interest of its shareholders. What about his interest and that of other people who use Medium as their publishing platform? Is this the best way?

I argue that it’s not. That what we need is a better designed WordPress, or an open source Medium. Or something new that is inspired by Medium’s smooth UI, and WordPress’s open source heritage.

Where to now?

For now, Medium users can keep using Medium to publish their work. I still find great, thought-provoking articles there. If you are concerned about Medium’s future and the risk of losing your content, you can always export it and keep backups.

I prefer to write my articles locally first before I publish to my blogs. Once I’ve published to my blogs, I’ll syndicate to my social media profiles and, now and then, to Medium too. Medium is actually pretty good for this because it incorporates rel=canonical links that point back to your original blog post if you import your articles into your Medium profile. At least, this way, you preserve your work in your primary publication and if Medium goes away, you still have it all.

And if it all comes to naught and Medium shuts down one day, WordPress and others like them will continue to thrive. The IndieWeb movement is doing some great work to build on the early blogosphere technologies and link all of our blogs with our social profiles and to each other. Yes, it is geeky but I think it represents another bright future for publishing.

Back to Kevin O’Keefe

I started this post with the intention of responding more meaningfully to O’Keefe’s reply to me and, as you can see, it grew a little.

His last point here about people not returning to archives is a fair point although it isn’t the real issue here. The important thing is that there should be archives for people to return to if they decide to.

If, say, the White House exports its articles and archives them on a self-hosted site (which is very possible given how the White House will approach Presidential transitions), that content will be accessible through search and by browsing the site directly.

On the other hand, if Medium/Twitter/Facebook/Other fails and takes all the hosted content down into digital oblivion with it, you will have to rely on initiatives such as the Internet Archive to capture your material and store it for posterity.

I’m holding thumbs for Medium more because I want to see if they can come up with a new revenue model for online publications. The ad supported model works fine for now but it’s taking us down a path I don’t like all that much. As M. G. Siegler put it in his post titled “Long Medium“:

At some point, there will be a fundamental recalibration of the publishing model. Medium can be the catalyst for this, especially now with such a strong base in place.

Image credit: Marco Djallo

6 December is my Social Anniversaries Day

6 December has become my Social Anniversaries Day! This morning I saw a personalized video celebrating my 10th “Faceversary” (the anniversary of me joining Facebook).

In even bigger news, today is also the 12th anniversary of this blog. I published my first post titled “In the beginning …” on 6 December 2004. At the time this blog was called “Wired Gecko” and it has been through several iterations and used various domain names since then.

In the beginning …

Excluding this post, I have published 3 910 blog posts and have 8 567 comments so far.

Blog status as of 2016-12-06
Milestones

The next major release of WordPress, version 4.7, is also due to launched today too. I’m sure Automattic wasn’t thinking about me when the release date was planned but it’s a nice synchronicity nevertheless.

I’ve been thinking about my blogging again lately. I haven’t always been particularly consistent with how much and when I write but I have been expressing myself through my writing in one medium or another for almost 25 years.

You’re miserable because you’re not writing

I write for many reasons. Sometimes, as I explained in my post titled “You’re miserable because you’re not writing”, I write “because it unblocks the dam of emotion that has built up”. Mostly, I write because I have a strong compulsion to share ideas and interesting things.

"Writing, to me, is the meaning of life"

The more I write, the more I learn and, soon enough, “that all gives way to a wonderful flow that you don’t want to stop so you keep writing to keep the pipes clear and fresh water flowing”.

I write a lot about writing because it is so much a part of how I express myself. My other big outlet is my photography and I tend to swing between writing-intensive and photography-intensive phases. Occasionally, like the last week or so, I am somewhat balanced between the two.

It’s a flow. It comes and goes. That is the nature of my writing and photography. Hopefully I will discover how to bring the two together in the year ahead. I have a feeling that achieving that will uplift both passions and create new opportunities for me.

Here are some of my thoughts on this blog’s 10th anniversary. I think they remain as relevant today as they did two years ago:

This blog began its life under a different domain on 6 December 2004. It has survived in one form or another until now, thanks and no thanks to me. I started my blog after tinkering with blogging back in the primordial days of the social Web when blogging was the New Thing, after interactive fora. Keeping a blog alive for 10 years feels like an achievement. Having 3 527 blog posts under my metaphorical belt (not counting this one) feels like I have made a meaningful contribution towards documenting my life and the things that interest me. It is something worth commemorating.

Image credit: Pixabay

School fees for writers

When I changed careers I knew I would have school fees to pay even though I have been writing (and doing a share of content writing) for a long time. The difference was that I was shifting from writing articles about themes that mostly just interested me professionally to a focused content marketing career. It has proven to be a challenging transition.

Writing for myself vs professional writing

When I write for myself, I write to share an idea, an argument or something I find interesting. The result I have in mind is to share something interesting with you and hope you find it interesting too.

Content writing is a little different. On the one hand, I believe strongly in writing as a blogger. What do I mean by that? To me, writing as a blogger means sharing something with your audience in your voice. It is not, as Nathan pointed out recently, “flogging”, it is something real.

When I think about great marketing writing, I think about articles that share something useful in a personal voice, not jargon filled PR language (I am being introduced to PR as a recent addition to my projects and it feels very different).

At the same time, marketing writing has a tangible objective: add to the business’ bottom line. Marketing writing that doesn’t help the business make money in a meaningful and measurable way isn’t particularly effective. With that in mind, my goal has been to learn to write material that converts more effectively and intentionally.

Although my previous body of professional writing continues to draw traffic, I wrote those articles to inform, educate and satisfy my curiosity about the stuff I wrote about. I wasn’t always writing specifically to convert readers into customers. That happened mostly organically because customers were often drawn to my content and reached out to me because they felt I would be able to help them.

Making those school fees count

In my current position, our emphasis is on measurable performance. We focus on producing content that generates leads that our sales team can convert. Writing that sort of content isn’t as easy as it may have seemed to me when I began. I like to think I write fairly well but writing well isn’t enough. The writing has to achieve a tangible result. That is the purpose of my professional role, ultimately.

This is where those school fees come in. “School fees” are those experiences you go through when you learn to write more effectively. Just being a good writer isn’t enough.

You have to learn to adapt your writing for your objectives and that can feel like starting from the beginning. It can feel a lot like those early, bewildering years in first grade, although with stubble and a family depending on you being a quick study.

Making the transition to this approach can be challenging. It isn’t uncommon to write something I feel is particularly insightful and informative only to receive feedback from my boss that it falls short because it doesn’t adequately address a particular set of needs. Sometimes the feedback can be tough because, after all, I write “fairly well”, right?

I think a big source of frustration is that I have an attachment to my writing. How can you not have an attachment to your work when it is an expression of your personality shaped for a specific purpose? That personal investment in your work is what differentiates it from a stereotypical PR publicity piece and gives it meaning in some way.

Writing something that people really resonate with is a great feeling, probably second only to writing something that feels meaningful in the first place. Sometimes those hits are surprises, too. I’ve written a number of articles that I wouldn’t have thought would have been particularly interesting and turned out to be pretty popular.

As with photography, you don’t usually see all the misses in between because they don’t make it to publication. In between all of those is a series of creative crises, intermingled with short growth spurts.

These school fees can really bite at times although they tend to be worth it in the medium term even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.

Image credit: Pixabay

Embrace your work in progress

I’ve been pretty busy lately and haven’t been writing as much as I’d like. I have about 30 seconds before moving to the next task on my long list of things to do and thought I’d share this quote by Seth Godin (my go-to person for little bits of inspiration and passion re-ignition) about your evolving work in progress:

What works is evolving in public, with the team. Showing your work. Thinking out loud. Failing on the way to succeeding, imperfecting on your way to better than good enough.

I think Godin is talking more about the old production model Facebook popularised (“Move fast and break things”) but it is a great way to describe blogging, I think.

On the one hand I’d like to use the term “writing” instead of “blogging” because the difference between a blog and some other format is really the software you are using.

On the other hand, blogging is a distinct writing approach too. It is about removing the friction of a more formal publishing environment and writing more freely. It is very much about seeing your writing as a work in progress. That said, there are many writers who blog and their writing is about as professional as it gets.

Still, blogging has that indie feel and that is one of the reasons I really like doing it.

Read Seth Godin’s post titled “Show your work” for the full story.

Image credit: Pixabay

Do fewer people trust bloggers?

Om Malik asked why fewer people trust bloggers that has been bugging me lately:

That question made me wonder: how much of our social media has become marketing that people actually question something for which you profess your love. I admit, sometimes I have asked myself — so what is that guy selling? I read Medium posts, and one in three are selling something. They are a variation of – my startup flamed, I am amazing, hire me as a consultant. Or look at how amazing my growth hacking idea was for me, so hire me. The “Medium post as a resume replacement” is part of the larger trend – social media as a marketing platform. It isn’t social when you have to question the motives behind “social objects” be shares.

I write for myself and I am employed as a marketing writer so I spend my day moving from one side to the other; between focusing on writing that feels right to me and then writing stuff that promotes my employer and its products.

There are days when the stuff I write as part of my day job is not the sort of thing I’d publish here and that is where the difference between being a blogger/writer and a professional marketing writer. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I write marketing text, my goal is to speak in my employer’s voice. When I write for myself, I use my voice. They don’t have to be the same and they usually aren’t.

At the same time, it should be clear from the context when I am writing with which voice but with so much emphasis on writing to increase exposure and attract more attention; writing just for the sake of expressing yourself often takes a back seat.

This blog is my space and I write about the things I am interested in. I don’t write for some form of remuneration, for the most part. When I am compensated for something I write here (and I haven’t been for several years) I am careful to disclose that so you can decide for yourself how much credence to give what I write.

As Malik pointed out, not everyone makes those disclosures so it becomes difficult to draw a distinction between self-expression and self-promotion. This just leads to more cynicism. I wonder, is this growing cynicism diminishing how much people trust bloggers, generally speaking? Is it something most people wonder about or is it generally accepted that most bloggers are pitching for someone or something?

Read Om Malik’s post titled “Social media is making us all skeptics & that’s not good”.

Social media is making us all skeptics & that’s not good 

Image credit: Pixabay