This appears to be a regular late-summer column on my blog, as two years ago I had to break my regular pattern due to a WordPress bug which even as a paying customer was not going to be fixed any time soon — leading me to switch over to Gandi’s Simple Hosting.
I have already argued that the death of blogging has less to do with Google Reader shutting down, and more the fact that all blogging platforms turn to more commercial endeavours, including the favourite of so many opinionated FLOSS community members, Hugo. I’m getting now a much stronger reminder of this as Automattic rebrands half of their features from WordPress to Jetpack, and starts nickel-and-diming them.
The spark for this particular blog/rant is related to an announcement they made in August about their Jetpack Stats product. The announcement sounds, on a first read, a fairly reasonable one: commercial usage of their new Stats feature is going to be charged to site owners. Fair, since Automattic is not a charity and running these services is expensive. But when you start digging in the details of the announcement, I find it weasely and very unfriendly to the bloggers-of-yore, to the point that, as I stated on various socials, I believe Automattic is (maybe unwittingly) killing personal blogging as a possibility.
A Bit Of History
Indeed, the first time I tried to migrate to WordPress, I failed due to IPv6 and the fact that the Jetpack mutual authentication required a phone-home that Automattic (still, I believe) doesn’t support over IPv6. And I required Jetpack to import my Markdown content, since the only “Markdown plugin” for WordPress was actually Jetpack itself.
Over the years more and more features that WordPress came with have been “enhanced” by Jetpack. I already noted the editor, but Stats is another one of those. While WordPress still comes with its own read statistics page, it’s pretty much rough and unloved. Instead, up to now, most sites would rely on the WordPress.com Stats page – which for a few months already is actually Jetpack Stats, they even renamed the Android app – which by itself has also proven not particularly reliable, in my experience.
A few months back, with Twitter starting to charge for their APIs, Jetpack Social also started providing a limit on posts’ shares on various social media, with a few dozens free every month. While this is not really a concern for me, it already raises a bit of a concern if you were to use WordPress/Jetpack the same way as I used to when I started blogging: daily or even more than daily posts with various updates on projects and things I’ve been working on — after all Twitter was at some point defined as a microblogging service!
It would have been a much bigger problem for my maintenance sweeps if I hadn’t migrated to a (partly) self-hosted system as Gandi. When I imported my Hugo content to WordPress.com, the flags that are set to avoid re-sharing a post after edit were not set on the imported content. So many multiple-years-old posts ended up reshared when I went to update a link, or fix a typo, or just leave a quick note about things changing. But thankfully once I owned my own database I was able to run a couple of commands to write the right settings for all of the posts, and so edits are no longer re-sharing ancient posts.
You could argue that a personal blogger sharing daily updates wouldn’t care about Jetpack Social anyway, but with the fact that very few of us are still using feed readers, being able to spread posts far and wide is quite important indeed. Indeed, this blog’s Facebook page is meant to be a way to easily consume the blog’s posts without having a feed reader in the first place.
So it might not be a necessity but it’s something that is quite fundamental to the idea of blogging.
Stats And Analytics
So anyway why do I care about Jetpack Stats in the first place? I’m just a blogger, I don’t sell anything (I don’t even sell my services anymore, since I’m a full-time employee), why do I care who, what, and when they read my posts?
As I said in the Google Analytics post, being able to tell who reads my posts, and where they come from, helps me know where my time is making a positive impact, and where it isn’t. It also helps deal with knowing where the requests come from, and to follow the discussions now that comments are not very often left on the original content.
Nowadays, basic analytics are also quite useless, mostly out of a continuously-changing tradeoff between knowing your sources and protecting the users’ privacy: referrer headers used to provide you too many details about where your users were coming from, and I remember seeing a number of internal project names of various companies, when they linked to one of my blog posts that explained intricacies of ELF or compilers; we moved on from such verbose referrers from many years, as Google Docs, and many other services, introduced interstitial redirectors to stop browsers from volunteering internal URLs. And right now websites can explicitly tell browsers not to provide a referrer header.
Providing source tagging in query strings (the infamous
utm_source parameter) works that around by only providing minimal details of the source – did you get the link by email? did you share it from a phone app? use a sharing dialog from the website? – which is why I find it particularly annoying when people expect that these trackers are the most pernicious of privacy invasions.
Indeed, the only half-decent way to know whether a reader is coming from the Fediverse is to use a query string tag and have some analytics solution count those, since the default for all of the software involved (not just Mastodon) disables referrers altogether (which makes sense particularly for smaller, or individual instances) making all requests pretty much invisible. Keep that in mind when content creators don’t engage with the Fediverse because of lack of returns! It might very well be they do get returns, but can’t see them.
What Is A Commercial Site?
So we go back to the announcement from Automattic, which is titled «Changes to Jetpack Stats for Commercial Sites» — and they keep using those words! «Going forward, commercial sites will pay […]. Personal sites will remain free.»
And they have a similarly-titled section «What is a commercial site?»:
In its simplest terms, a commercial site is one that you try to make money from. This most commonly includes selling a product or service or showing ads or affiliate links. For more detail, check out our support page.Rob Pugh, 2023-08-01
Okay so now we have an interesting problem: this blog includes affiliate links — not a lot, but I have used them when talking about products, services, and cashback. The sum total of gross earnings from these links over the 19 years I’ve been blogging wouldn’t cover hosting costs for a year. I used to run ads as well (which I prefer over subscriptions), and those did actually help recouping some of the hosting costs, but I haven’t actually ran them in a long time as clearing the conflict of interest for them while working at Google was not worth it.
At this point the obvious answer would be to go and strip all of the affiliate links everywhere, and call it a personal site again. Annoying, but someone will consider it a privacy win as well (Amazon affiliate links are particularly snoopy) so I could have done that. Except that I like reading the fine prints, so I went to the linked support page.
How is a commercial site defined?
We define a commercial site as one that you aim to make money from. This could be through advertising or affiliate links, selling products or services, soliciting donations or sponsorships, or any other means directly related to a for-profit business or educational organization.Jetpack Support — Should I choose a free or paid Jetpack Stats plan?
The advertising and affiliate links we already covered, and as much as it might sound silly to consider a site commercial if someone decides to share their personalized invite link to a service that will pay them back for it, I can live with that classifciation.
Selling products or services also makes sense — it’s after all, a commercial endeavour to sell something.
But then we have «soliciting donations or sponsorships» and that has me quite baffled. It means that any blog with a Patreon or Ko-Fi link (which are clearly sponsorships) becomes automatically a commercial site. Worse yet, the “donations” bit is not even specified enough, so my previous donation drives (to Cats Protection, Ukraine, and Diabetes UK) would be enough to trigger the rule.
And that also practically cuts me out from remediating enough of the blog to turn into a personal site again. There are dozens of blog posts spread over the 19 years I blogged, in which I solicited – nay, begged – for donations. I’m not going to go about and remove them, or edit them away.
Finally we have the «any other means» clause and I’m not even sure how to read this — basically it seems like it’s extremely open ended. If you happen to have a WordPress blog for a company that doesn’t in itself sell anything, but is used as a showcase of your team’s ability, you are definitely using “other means directly related to a for-profit business” — does that make it a commercial site despite not ticking any of the previous boxes?
It doesn’t make it better that Jetpack is expecting you to figure out whether you are a commercial site or not:
Please note that non-compliance with these terms can result in immediate suspension of services without notice. It is essential for you to correctly identify if your site is personal or commercial, and select the appropriate plan.Jetpack Support — Should I choose a free or paid Jetpack Stats plan?
I personally could likely afford to pay for Jetpack Stats, but even their lowest tier is $10/month, which is nearly double how much I pay Gandi for the hosting of the blog itself! And if you want to have more than just Stats, you have to get their “complete” bundle that goes for £19.95/month the first year, then £39.95! That’s nearly £500 a year without counting hosting and domain! And for what? The most expensive component of the bundle, at $17/month (why is this one priced in dollars when the page renders in Sterling otherwise, I don’t know) is the “CRM Entrepreneur” which is totally useless to a personal blogger!
(Arguably, their SEO service Boost is even more expensive, with a full price of £16.95/month.)
If they wanted to start charging personal blogger sites without making it sound like they want to kill personal blogging altogether, maybe they should consider giving a “Personal Bundle”, or some way to customize your bundle content — right now just the Social features are going to be £12.95 for unlimited sharing (together with a ton of other features that I would definitely not care for — “Recycle content”, really?) and the Complete Bundle includes an “AI” feature that is described as «Experience the ease of crafting content with intuitive and powerful AI.» — that is, poison the Internet with more computer-generated cruft that nobody really wants to read, but search engines will pop to the top of a query.
Personal, Semi-Pro, and Professional Blogging
The way I see it, Jetpack’s paid model is grappling for straws, which – much as it dismays me – I can’t be surprised by. I have reflected multiple times in the past how you can only make software completely Free when nobody cares about it, and how hard it is to make money with Free Software development. Which is why my first option to run this blog was to just pay Automattic to host it for me! I’m glad they keep releasing it, but I’m happy to pay for a good service!
Unfortunately, a good service is not what WordPress.com had, at least for me. Personal blogs are not what the paid offerings of WordPress.com target, with their support channels not having any clue or rail to deal with reasonable requests from their customers. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have bothered migrating away if they had the option to downgrade the faulty plugin, which they don’t allow unless you pay for the much-higher-cost eCommerce offer, or if they offered to comp me the subscription (or even half-price it!) for as long as they wouldn’t fix the bug.
And that brings me memory of a very old strip from User Friendly – which unfortunately shut down and I won’t be able to find easily, but if someone happen to have an archive OCR’d I can look up! – of a D-list blogger complaining to an B-list blogger about how unfair it is that they are so entrenched in their position — which the B-list blogger takes as inspiration for a post that will make them A-list bloggers.
I’m a C-list blogger at best, which happens to be how I describe myself on social profiles. I’m definitely still blogging more regularly than the majority of people who still “have” a blog somewhere, though nowhere near as regularly (daily) as John Scalzi or as successfully as David and Amy. What the four of us have in common, besides using WordPress, is that we don’t have a “staff” behind our blogs — you could call them Semi-Pro blogs, in the sense that to different degrees we use them to conduct our profession, but are not fully “professionalized.”
On the other hand, I see people still considering BoingBoing as Cory Doctorow’s blog — despite the fact that the site has had staffers for many, many years, and Doctorow disclaiming responsibility for exaggerated or fake news posts with a “a staffer did it.”
If you actually attempt to make a Professional Blog, whether it is about news, affiliate marketing, hardware reviews, or whatever else, the monthly costs of Jetpack are ridiculously tiny, as they compare with wages. You may be able to call up a graphic designer once, and you may have a sysadmin that looks after your hosting at a fixed monthly fee, but you will need an editor — heck, I considered hiring one myself when I reflected on what I’m blogging for! I did pay an artist for some fantastic illustrations though!
Back when EURid drove me out of my domain, I have briefly considered turning the blog into a limited liability company, if nothing else to give it an entity in the EU to maintain control of the domain. But even on the back of an envelope there would have been no way for my C-list writing to support the overheads of considering it a separate company. And that’s before the data regulation requirements would even start.
What I’m trying to say here is reiterating that Automattic has effectively stopped looking at bloggers, particularly semi-pro bloggers (who can pay, but can’t reconcile the cost of their full offerings) as their target and customers.
Indeed, the vast majority of those Semi-Pro bloggers appear to have migrated, over the past fifteen years, to Medium at first, and to Substack more recently. And while the latter still allows you to read the content over RSS feeds (unless paywalled), it also shows what other of these semi-pros blogger have started doing: owning the relationship with the readers, in form of newsletters that you need to explicitly subscribe to. Even Jetpack tries to upsell you on paid newsletters as you post your blog!
So why am I sticking to WordPress? Well, for now I can live with all of the paid features disabled. If they were to start charging for features that are actually necessary for the blog, then I’ll reconsider what to do. The one that scares me is scheduled posts, because I rely heavily on this to keep a backlog of posts to go out rather than post all of them at once, and that is listed as one of the features of Jetpack Social now.
The fact that we lost the software biodiversity in blogging platforms is not a good situation. Most of the alternatives people talk about to WordPress end up being static site generators — which is a concept I love and pioneered a long time before they became mainstream, but does not work for me for the blog. I used to write a lot of these posts from unusual places, from coffee shops to airplanes, from conferences to the hospital bed. Most of the static site generators end up requiring you to commit content to a repository and script a push or pull system to trigger a build. Not something I can easily do in those situations.
Alas, I’m not the kind of person who is going to be writing their own blog engine, and I’m not likely to get the kind of silly money to be able to fund a development team by myself.