WordPress – the publishing software used as the backend for this very website – is undergoing a few growing pains at the moment. Either that, or – depending on who you believe – it’s blowing itself apart, much as Movable Type managed to do back in 2004.
Not that the outcry about WordPress is to do with pricing – it remains free. No, the outcry about the upcoming release of WordPress 5.0 is to do with Gutenberg – a brand new Editor, which entirely changes the way you write your posts. To say it has been controversial is putting it mildly. Just check the ratings on the current plugin version.
I’m not making any judgement on Gutenberg – at least, not yet. I’ll have a play with it when WordPress 5.0 is released, and see if I like it or not. If I do, great. If I don’t, I’ll go back to the classic Editor (available as a plugin), and think about my options. No, my issue is with how it’s being sold to us.
Take a look at this testimonial, on the official page on Gutenberg:
The editor is just the beginning
“This will make running your own blog a viable alternative again.”
— Adrian Zumbrunnen
Question: what do they think people have been doing with WordPress for years? Feeding the cat with it?
Gutenberg is a serious change to the very heart of the WordPress experience. This is a tricky proposition at the best of times: and it needs selling to people who already love using WordPress. WordPress’s answer to that? By quoting someone who says that using WordPress isn’t currently viable.
It’s literally one of the most tone-deaf pieces of advertising I have ever seen. People use WordPress because they love using WordPress. It’s one thing to tell someone what what they’re currently using is going to be improved. It’s quite another to tell your own users that what they’re currently using is shit, and not a viable choice.
Or, as one reply has it:
I try not to patronise you too much on here.1 I write the literal opposite of clickbait. While it’s lovely when something I write gets a few clicks, chasing that leads to utter madness. Writing Dirty Feed is supposed to be fun.2 However, I have to confess that sometimes an element of… calculation comes into the timing of what I publish. So it was with my collection of April Fools jokes played out in the pages of old BBC Micro magazines, published on the 1st April, because… of course that’s when you publish it. And I thought it was something that might gain some traction and find a little bit of an audience.
So I sent it out there, back in 2015. And it did… fine. Not spectacular numbers, even for this site – I thought it’d do more – but fine. I linked to it a few times on Twitter in subsequent years, updated it a little in 2017, and job done.
Until something interesting happened over this last weekend, that is. The piece got linked to in the latest b3ta newsletter. And just take a quick look at my stats for the April Fools article, especially the number for this month:
More people have just read (or at least clicked on) the piece than at any time previously. In fact, over twice as many people have read it this month than back in April 2015, when it was originally published. This was a piece designed to be linked to on April Fools Day to get a bit of interest. b3ta get hold of it just now, nowhere near April Fools and… bang.
You can never tell how stuff will end up being read. All my careful planning meant nothing.
And all this is exactly why I keep bleating on about keeping the archives of what you make online. If I’d yanked that piece offline after a year, for whatever reason, it would have lost the majority of people who ended up reading it. As it was, it was just sitting there… waiting to be discovered, and to have a little moment in the spotlight. Just a little moment – it’s not like it racked up thousands of hits. But that’s fine. I don’t need a piece to get thousands of hits.
Because I love people reading my old articles full stop. I think of Dirty Feed as an archive. What’s on the front page isn’t the most important thing about the site. It’s what’s buried in the archives which makes me happy.3 And my favourite thing is when someone tells me they’ve just spent ages in the archives, clicking around on things which looked interesting to them. I think of the site as a complete entity: the last ten posts are a tiny part of the whole.
There’s far too many things competing for people’s attention these days. Even if it’s a piece I’m really proud of, there’s no guarantee people will react to it straight away. But that doesn’t matter. It can just sit there… waiting. Some of them will be found eventually. And that’s enough.
If you found this piece and enjoyed it in 2028: hey there. I love you.
When Season 1 of Serial started near the end of 20141, it inspired many serious pieces of analysis. Whether it was taking on the subject matter itself and probing further, or discussions about whether the podcast was even a moral thing to produce in the first place, the world was not exactly short of Serial thinkpieces.
I’m not here to talk about any of that. What I want to talk to is altogether sillier, so by all means click away if you’re expecting anything about the main topic of the podcast itself, about which I can offer no insight. We’re nowhere near any of that territory.
What I want to talk about is: Mail…kimp?
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Andy Baio, “Middling”, 16th October 2014:
“Twitter’s for 140-character short-form writing1 and Medium’s for long-form. Weirdly, there really isn’t a great platform for everything in the middle — what previously would’ve just been called “blogging.” Mid-length blogging. Middling.
I think that’s partly why seeing Matt Haughey, Paul Ford, and Michael Sippey restart regular blogging on Paul’s delightfully retro tilde.club is so refreshing to me. I miss seeing people I admire post stuff longer than a tweet.
So I think I’ll try doing the same thing here. In the early days of Waxy.org, before I launched the linkblog, I used to blog short posts constantly. Multiple times a day. Twitter and Waxy Links cannibalized all the smaller posts, and as my reach grew, I started reserving blogging for more “serious” stuff — mostly longer-form research and investigative writing.
Well, fuck that. I miss the casual spontaneity of it all, and since I’m pretty sure hardly anybody’s reading my site again after the death of Google Reader, the pressure’s off.
What do I have to lose?
Update: Nice, Gina Trapani’s in too.”
Four years on, how did all this work for Andy? Since he posted the above – and forgetting about his linkblog – he’s done 38 posts on waxy.org. An average of nearly 10 a year, although in fact the rate has really slowed – he’s only posted two so far in 2018.
Sadly, all three tilde.club sites he mentioned stopped updating by the end of 2015. As for Gina Trapani, whose post also contained lots of great ideas? She also stopped updating at the tail end of 2015, and her blog isn’t even online any more: it redirects to her professional site instead.
In contrast, since 16th October 2014, Dirty Feed has done 137 posts, including this one, with 23 posted this year. And I don’t even update this site nearly as much as I would like. Moreover, although the posts range from deep investigations to “hey, look at this”, there isn’t a single one which doesn’t have at least some kind of analysis of sorts.
* * *
OK, OK, I know. This looks like some kind of pathetic macho pissing contest. So yes, I fully admit: “how often you update your website” isn’t exactly the most useful metric when it comes to judging how your life is going.
I bring up the above just to point out: when it comes to keeping a blog updated, I have at least proved I know how to do it. And it’s very easy to blame social media when it comes to people finding this difficult. Hell, Andy Baio does it in the post above: he says Twitter “cannibalized all the smaller posts”. This seems to be a common thread: I’ve heard endless people talk about how the more they used Twitter, the less they blogged.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think this should be an either/or situation. Twitter is extremely good for coming up with ideas, thinking things though, and getting feedback… and then you can use all of that to write something a little more permanent on your own site. (And perhaps most importantly: under your control.)
A good example is my short post yesterday on why all television deserves a little theatrical sparkle; it all comes from this Twitter thread I posted a few days ago. I didn’t mean to come up with an outline for an article – I was just thinking aloud – but huge chunks of the language in those tweets actually ended up verbatim in the resulting post. Moreover, the post didn’t even take very long to write, because I’d already done a lot of the thinking behind it when writing that set of tweets.
And to me, the above seems obvious: obvious to the point that it seems weird even writing and publishing this post. But it always seems that Twitter and blogs are put into opposition: that Twitter is taking up all the time people used to spend writing on their own site. That might be true: but it doesn’t have to be the case.
You can have the best of both worlds: the ease and immediacy of Twitter, and the more thoughtful and permanent record of your own blog. It just involves you getting round to actually writing up that post, once you’ve done your thinking on Twitter. If you don’t want to do that, then fine – nobody is obligated. But blaming Twitter for it probably isn’t the best idea.
Personal sites will only die if we let them. Of all the many, many things we can currently blame Jack Dorsey for, this isn’t one of them.
Recently, I’ve been making my way through the excellent Adam Buxton podcast. And out of all the great jingles, funny stories, and debates about whether you should nick stuff from a hotel’s breakfast buffet, I want to talk about Twitter, like a boring twat.
Let’s focus then, on Episode 20 with Iain Lee from 20161, 26:36 in:
IAIN LEE: If I wasn’t doing this career, I would get rid of Twitter, but Twitter’s a really good tool for selling stuff, for selling, you know…
ADAM BUXTON: Yeah, is it? I don’t know.
IAIN LEE: Well it is… I think here, because this is a brand new radio station, you’re building an audience from nothing, so for me to say to 47,000 people: “I’m on tonight at 10 o’clock and I’ve got Adam Buxton on”, some of those people will listen.
ADAM BUXTON: But if you weren’t on Twitter, I just don’t believe it would really materially affect the way that your show went.
IAIN LEE: I’m going to bear that in mind, thank you for that.
ADAM BUXTON: I just don’t believe it. I really don’t. I mean, I’m sure it’s different if you’re sort of a pop star, or maybe if you’re younger, I don’t know.
IAIN LEE: That’s rude.2
ADAM BUXTON: But I often say at gigs: “Raise your hand if you’re here because I tweeted about this” – two, three hands go up.
IAIN LEE: But those three people, though… loud laughers.
ADAM BUXTON: I mean, they are amazing. They’re the best chaps in the audience.
Of course, Adam Buxton can only talk about his personal experiences, so that’s fine. I’m certainly not saying that he shouldn’t do that.
But here’s my experience. Right down here, when you’re not even remotely famous, I can say that the only way anybody knows about the stuff I write about on here is through Twitter. Looking through my stats, Twitter accounts for the vast majority of clicks I receive.
Take, for instance, my short piece about how I love the churn of television. It hasn’t spread in any particularly meaningful way. But a fair few people saw the link on twitter, liked it, retweeted it, and talked to me about it. My stats hardly went through the roof. But through Twitter, a fair few people read it and enjoyed it. That’s all I really expected from it.
Without Twitter, how would people know about it? I’m not on Facebook.3 Sure, there are potential replacements for Twitter, and stuff like forums, RSS, etc has never entirely gone away. But nothing has the reach and ease Twitter has. If I left Twitter, I’m fairly certain my stuff wouldn’t be read nearly as much.
I’m not obsessed with stats. I don’t care about scraping every single reader my way. Some articles I actually write almost entirely for myself. But for some pieces, “people read and enjoy my stuff” is nice to have.
Just because you have a certain profile, never forget how useful things like Twitter can be for others.
* * *
All the controversy last month to do with Jack Dorsey and Alex Jones – leading to Jones’ eventual banning – has weighed heavily on my mind. I’m not about to recount it all here; you probably know it all anyway. Click the links and read if you don’t, I’m not your mum.
Out of all of that nonsense, for me it was Dorsey going on The Sean Hannity Show to defend himself which seemed to me to indicate… shall we say, a lack of good faith. That would not have been my choice of outlet.
And I’ll admit it: through it all, I seriously thought about leaving Twitter. In the end I decided I couldn’t, for various reasons, but chief among them is what I talk about in the first part of this post. We can wax lyrical about RSS all we like – indeed, I’ve put some new, more obvious links to Dirty Feed’s RSS feed in the navbar – but it’s just not where my audience is, at least right now.
Still, it was fun watching people get outraged, say they were leaving Twitter, delete all their tweets… and then slowly crawl back. To take just one very prominent example: Matt Haughey made a big deal of leaving Twitter, and yet is still bloody tweeting.
I have a great deal of respect for anyone with the moral scruples to leave Twitter. But if you’ve announced that you’re going, then Just. Go. You don’t get to performatively leave the service and have people cheering you along… and then still get all the benefits of sticking around as well.
Just make a decision.
Late last year, I took a month off Twitter.1 No fuss, no drama, no attention-seeking. Just a short tweet saying I’d be back soon, which I was. Among other things, sometimes the news agenda simply becomes a little too much in my feed; considering my job involves watching the news endlessly for a living, I consider the move practical, not ostrich-like. I get more than enough of that stuff elsewhere.
I did, however, use the time away to perform a little experiment, based on something I noticed the previous time I took a little break. When I disappeared, my tweet count was bang on 70,000 tweets. (A move that tells you an embarrassing amount about how my brain works.) But what was my tweet count when I returned?
26th October 2017
21st November 2017
69,964. A difference of 36 tweets. But why? I hadn’t deleted any myself. Surely I should have exactly the same number of tweets when I returned? Is Twitter just really bad at maths?
In order to find out, I downloaded an archive of my tweets just before I took my month’s break, and downloaded another archive when I returned, so I could compare the two and find out what was missing. You may think this was a ridiculous thing to do. I would say it is entirely consistent with the kind of person who decides to get to exactly 70,000 tweets before they take their planned break from Twitter.
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Earlier this year, a well-known web rascal died.1 I didn’t know him. I didn’t even really like his writing, despite it being much lauded; I found it a little pretentious, and prone to sweeping judgements. I have no reason to write about him. His death is none of my business.
Except: I can’t stop thinking about it.
It’s gone, you see. All his writing: he deleted it from the web years ago. So when his death was announced, and people across the world went to look for their favourite posts to remember him by… they weren’t there. None of his sites were still online. Sure, people went scrabbling around on the Wayback Machine to find his stuff again, but however amazing the Wayback Machine is, it isn’t perfect at preserving sites. For a guy who cared so much about how the web looked and felt, and gave attention to every detail, to see people being forced to link to the equivalent of a dodgy photocopy was… well, a shame.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not criticising him, and his specific situation. (There are particular reasons for this which are not necessary to go into here.) This isn’t really about him, in fact.
It just made me think. When you die, unless you were a right nasty piece of work, people will want to remember you. In years past, aside from the famous, that might only have been family and friends, gathering together and flicking through a book of photos. These days, if you live your life online, you might have people who read your nonsense who live halfway across the world. For that nonsense to just disappear into the ether means that when it comes for people to mourn… they can’t remember you in the way they would have liked. It’s the equivalent of chucking that book of photos onto a big bonfire.
When I die, I want to leave as much of myself behind as possible. Eventually, I’ll fade, as everything does. But I don’t want that to happen before it has to.
Back in April, Twitter started grouping responses to news stories together in your timeline, in a determined attempt to annoy you as much as possible. Now, they seem to have gone one step further. Take a look at what appeared in my timeline today:
Responses to actual tweets, all grouped together. Annoying enough, you might think, seeing as it’s one of the most lame-ass tweets anybody has ever posted in the entire history of Twitter. (Luckily, all the replies were pointing this out.) But that’s not what I’m complaining about.
What I’m complaining about is that it happened despite this:
Yes, @IL0VEthe80s blocked me two years ago, because I was mildly sarcastic to them. In which case: why the hell did their ludicrous tweet suddenly show up in my timeline? It surely doesn’t matter whether it’s a normal retweet, or Twitter’s weirdo “Tweeted about this” nonsense – if an account has blocked me, I should not be able to read their tweets.
And sure, it doesn’t matter in this instance. I was a little rude because their account is shit, they blocked me, we all move on. But if you’ve blocked someone for rather more serious reasons, then it really could matter. Once you block someone, you really need to be confident that person will see none of your tweets. You don’t need me to list all the circumstances where someone you’ve blocked seeing your tweets would be a terrible thing to happen.
Twitter protests that they’re really trying when it comes to dealing with abuse on their platform. But – alongside a million and one other indicators – things like this prove that they aren’t thinking about it nearly enough. They’ve rolled out a brand new feature, without taking into consideration the very fundamentals of account blocking – a hugely important safety feature of the platform. It should have been one of the first things that was thought of. Seemingly, it’s slipped through the net.
It really doesn’t feel like Twitter gives a damn about this stuff, does it?
Recently I read an interesting piece by design advocate Chappell Ellison: How to Take Criticism.1 I found it a slightly bizarre experience, in that while I kept wanting to agree with it – I’m not a fan of merely “insults as review” approach either – I ended up disagreeing at nearly every turn instead. Any piece which reduces Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s contribution to film criticism to merely their thumbs up or thumbs down is simplifying their work a little too much for me.2 That’s my problem with the piece as a whole: I think it’s coming from a good place, but lacks nuance.
But of all the parts of the article I’m not sure about, it’s Chappell’s approach to comedy in criticism which I found hardest to swallow. And there’s one particular example given as a bad example of criticism which I want to dissect a little. Let’s take a look at the logo for the University of California, and then a criticism of it posted by some random person to social media:
“I didn’t know the University of California was a Children’s network.”
Chappell Ellison thinks this review is worthless:
“These opinions aren’t wrong or bad. They simply aren’t meaningful.
They are jokes.
They only benefit the joker.”
And I just don’t think that is true in the slightest. Surely that’s only true if you think that jokes can’t be meaningful – and if you think that, I’ve got a shelf of comedy DVDs which prove otherwise.
Moreover, the actual point which the above joke makes is fairly obvious. Let’s rewrite it with the joke removed:
“The new logo for the University of California looks too much like one for a Children’s network.”
Now, you may agree with that criticism, or you may not. (I can see both sides.) But either way, the criticism of the logo is certainly not meaningless; the idea that a logo might take some incorrect visual cues and not properly reflect the organisation it was designed for is a good, solid piece of crit. Sure, it’s not the most in-depth piece of criticism ever written. But as Chappell herself says in the article: “To be a good critic, you don’t have to start a blog or write essays.”
The only reason a person might think the above doesn’t work as criticism is if you think framing the point in terms of a joke renders it meaningless. And this endlessly seems to be a problem with comedy. Over here is someone who thinks criticism expressed comedically doesn’t work. And over there is someone else, who dismisses sitcoms in favour of “serious, meaningful” drama. It’s all part of the same thing.
Criticism framed comedically is meaningless? That’s some of the worst criticism I’ve ever read.
Kate Lee, “Introducing The Message”, 22nd April 2014:
“One of the tenets underpinning Medium is that people write better together – or, as Ev has written, “Don’t write alone.”
In that spirit, The Message is a new collection for collaborative writing. We’ve gathered twelve writers and thinkers across technology, media, culture, and academia to publish together in one place—and demonstrate that the sum is greater than its parts. Think of it as a modern version of Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table, whose members, in the course of conversing on a constant basis, collaborated on creative projects. We hope that, like the Round Table, The Message will allow for a flowering of ideas, robust debate, and thoughtful discourse.”
And so it did. Over the next year and a half, The Message published such things as the story of Tilde.Club, forcing your child to play old videogames, or how to scale Kim Kardashian’s backend. And while it never became a must-visit publication for me, I often found myself on there without even realising it.
And then, in 2016, it spluttered to a halt. Three articles about the Berenstain Bears in January, a piece about Zuckerberg and India in February, and then finally a piece about some fellow called Alexander Heffner on May 22nd. That was two years ago to the very day.
Since then: nothing. Not a single article published. Crucially: not a “we’re closing, goodbye, but there’s loads of other cool stuff on Medium”. Absolutely sod all. The Twitter feed is silent too. The project just… stopped.
OK, so it’s not exactly hard to find out exactly what happened, at least in vague terms. See this article on Business Insider, from June 2015:
“Two weeks ago, publishing platform Medium — which has become known for tech and culture blogs like Matter, Backchannel, The Nib, and The Message — announced a change in its direction.
Medium now wants to become more of a social network rather than a publishing platform. But this comes at a great cost to its full-time and freelance staff, people familiar with the matter told Business Insider.”
And although the article goes on to state that The Message was undergoing some “reshuffling”, rather than shutting down entirely… clearly plans changed. And the mention of budget cuts probably tell you all you need to know.
* * *
Medium itself is still going strong, of course. Here’s a blog about their latest developments. Which – and let me be absolutely clear about this – I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about.
Because I can’t forget how they dealt with the death of The Message. How they didn’t have respect for the publication’s readers, how they didn’t bother to do an official goodbye post. How they just abandoned it, and moved on to whatever the company set its eyes upon next.
How frankly, they couldn’t be bothered to do something like this. Wind up the project respectfully, and move on.
And why do I care so much? Because communication with your readers is everything when it comes to ending projects like this. I can deal with it on a personal blog, which is often just one person with far too much going on in their life. It’s not ideal, but it’s at least understandable. But Medium is a commercial company, and there are simply higher expectations. If you have an audience who is bothering to read what you’re putting out there, you owe it to them to actually tell them your publication is closing. As far as I can tell, Medium has made absolutely no official statement about The Message whatsoever. As much as anything else: it’s just rude.
There’s also some rather unpleasant implications which come from not shutting down The Message correctly: it gives the distinct impression that the company never cared about this set of writing in the first place, despite the words quoted at the top of this article. Because if they cared, they’d want to give it a dignified end. So if they didn’t care about this, how do I know they actually give a stuff about what they say they care about now?
Finally, and perhaps worst of all: it gives me absolutely no confidence that Medium will treat its current readers and writers with any respect whatsoever. If the company wants to change tack, they’ll change tack, perhaps silently, and damn everything else.
That’s their right, of course, and good luck to them. But I don’t trust a company like that with my words.