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Reader Is Dead, But What About Writers?

I don’t think I need to repeat my point of view on the Google Reader shutdown, as I already stated that I don’t think that Google shutting down that product had the domino effect a few people insist it did. I do think, though, that I should add my point of view on what I personally think caused not quite the death of blogging, but at least a significant reduction and reframing of what we unironically used to call the blogosphere.

You see, even before Reader shut down, there was a trend going on the authoring side of things, that I couldn’t put a finger on until more recently. Whereas when I started blogging there were a significant amount of alternatives, and indeed I have used a number of different blogging applications over the years, nowadays there’s only a handful, and I don’t think I know one that is still focused on blogging.

I have already ranted about Hugo (and hit the annoying orange site with it), and the way it clearly stopped to be aimed at bloggers a long time ago, adding more and more features for general sites authors, or online ebook writers. The same is true, more or less, for WordPress which I’m using now: if you look at the way WordPress is used in the wild, tons of websites use it with heavy customization and plugins for things that are absolutely not blogs!

Indeed, if you look at the plans you can notice two things: the first is that their most expensive plan is the eCommerce one, that is geared at “sell[ing] products or service”, and the other that the difference between Personal and Premium features are fairly limited, but include “Payments” and “Monetization”. So it should not be surprising that there is little care given for bugs that affect long-form writers.

And that is what brings me to think that the problem is not that Google Reader shut down, but that blogs became incredibly hard to keep running! Blog apps, such as early WordPress, Typo (later renamed Publify and probably dead by now), Serendipity, and so on so forth, had the advantage of being a specialized CMS (Content Management System) that would not require hand-tailoring to fit the needs of long-form writers. But then a number of these applications ended up being extended, and sometimes contorted, to become a generic CMS.

Note that I’m not saying that generic CMS are not useful. I started my “online” with setting up CMS for a gaming community, to set to the side of a bulletin board, and even ended up writing my own at some point. Plus the whole static site business is something that is closely related to solving the CMS problem statically. But as my problems with Hugo show, generic CMS and blog engines tend to have fairly different directions in requirements.

After abandoning Hugo, I looked at a few alternative options I could find around. Most of the blog solutions I kept finding around relied on static site generators and iframe’d comment services like Disqus (or any of the alternative, sub-par solutions). Nowadays it looks like Substack and the whole business of newsletters are capturing the vast majority of the long-form writers out there.

But the Medium/Ghost/Substack crowd is not for me, at all. Among other things, I would be missing the discussion. I’m already tired by the fact that most people stopped commenting on blog posts, and by a number of authors deciding to forego comments entirely, and letting Reddit, Hacker News, and other communities with different shade of dysfunctionality lead the conversation.

The obvious question then is, why am I not building my own tool? Well, beside a possible conflict of interest with my dayjob, which I wouldn’t want to have to explore, there’s the whole reason of why I moved away from Typo/Publify, into Hugo, and then eventually WordPress: I could be building and maintaining my own blogging solution, but then I would not be writing. And I want to be writing. Also, while I have ideas of how an architecture of a blogging engine should be, that doesn’t mean I have the skills to code it, particularly on the frontend. I’m a horrible web developer.

There are, obviously, some other working engines out there. People have built custom solutions since forever. Most of the newspapers that turned online have added a “blogs” section to their online presence where authors, friends, and guests can spout their bile, I mean share their opinion. And while there are not as many Rails developer reimplementing a blog badly, I’m sure there are enough NodeJS, or whetever the next web framework is going to be doing the same, because those things never change.

But the truth is that while some nearly-twenty years ago it seemed like blogs were a way to make money, and blogging platforms were going to be profitable, we have now accepted that most people will not be making money on their blogs (or, as most creators may have started to notice, their YouTube channel), and blogging platforms are not going to be cost effective when they have to deal with a firehose of spam comments, security issues, and scrapers.

The way I’m seeing it, what we have is an oligoculture of blogs. You have WordPress on one side, both as a platform and an engine, which is fairly well used, then you have a few platforms such as Blogger, which still have their die hard users/creators (I don’t have any insight on how Google’s handling of Blogger is going, but judging from what I hear of features flickering in and out, and the comment system being even more unusable than it was when I wrote with it, I cannot imagine it being well maintained), and then finally you have all the static content engines, which to me all fit into the same category, as they vary in implementation, but not in the idea that you “just” need a git repository (or an S3 bucket, or whatever else they use.)

To be perfectly clear, I don’t think this is the reason why everything in the world is wrong. Nor even the sole or primary reason why blogging is (considered) dead. First of all, even with this bad selection of tools, there’s a lot of blogging going on. My NewsBlur subscriptions are not quiet, even though they did reduce in updates over the years. But most importantly we have had a lot of other things going on that have “stabbed our dears to death”, for example (and it’s only one out of many) think of all the “news sites” that are basically just repeating and rephrasing someone else’s write up and call it “news”, like Hackaday did with one of my old blog posts last year.

Content creators, as well as content consumers, change their habit, and their preferences, and sometimes the former linger in the past, out of habit or out of preference. Sometimes, the future is not as permanent as people think, and sometimes, the past is something we’ll be happy to leave behind. I feel like I’m definitely part of a past I don’t want to lose, but I’m probably already forgotten.

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