Shifts in the blogging tide
Which semi-open platform do I like better?
I’m reading “How Yahoo derailed Tumblr,” an excellent story by Seth Fiegerman over on Mashable, and it’s making me think of my own relationship — such as it is — with Tumblr.
I have more than one friend who thinks of Tumblr as the domain of endless streaming GIFs and disaffected armchair activists looking for things to be angry about. It is these things, in much the same way that LiveJournal was the domain of angsty, oft self-confessional high school students in the early 2000s. LiveJournal was also the domain of a lot of fan communities — again, not unlike Tumblr today — and even of a lot of writers. (Some names you might recognize, like George R.R. Martin, still use LiveJournal as their primary blogging platform.) But Tumblr is also the domain of a surprising number of company blogs, photographers, news organizations, and even the occasional coyote tech blogger. People are sometimes surprised that Coyote Tracks is a Tumblr, but it is.
Arguably, if it hadn’t been a Tumblr, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be reading this now. A few of my posts got significant attention after being reblogged by Tumblr users with greater audiences, most notably Marco Arment; many of my still few Twitter followers found me because of that Tumblr-based tech blog; many of my even fewer Medium followers found me via Twitter. (Or because “Mr. Money Mustache” linked back to my story about him, which still drives ~70 reads a week a year later. I should eventually return to that, if only to clarify that my skepticism wasn’t about Mr. Mustache’s advice, but only about how widespread its applicability is.)
Tumblr is now a social mess: Disqus comments embedded into themes, fan mail, likes, and reposts never solidify into a social space where reciprocity and response can be balanced. I think Medium is a better way.
As much as Tumblr’s unique reblogging ability has benefited me, he’s right. There’s no native comment system, only Disqus embedding, and that’s only available with certain themes. Reblogging is terrific for sharing; it’s not so good for conversation. This is intentional design on Tumblr’s part; its mission was always to be a place to share interesting flotsam and jetsam found in your travels around the internet. “Tumblr” comes from “tumblelog,” a blogging style described on Kottke.org in 2005:
A tumblelog is a quick and dirty stream of consciousness, a bit like a linklog but with more than just links. They remind me of an older style of blogging, back when people did sites by hand, before Movable Type made post titles all but mandatory, blog entries turned into short magazine articles, and posts belonged to a conversation distributed throughout the entire blogosphere.
In practice, Tumblr’s certainly powerful enough to be a solid blogging and journaling platform, but I’m aware that using it for long-form writing is swimming against the tide. It doesn’t help my impressions that it’s strangely overrun with spam followers; of the 140,000 followers Coyote Tracks has, I’d be surprised if even 5% are both real and still active.
I’ve been thinking about moving to Medium for a while. here’s my thought process:
- While I agree with the notion that you should own your own identity, well, I own ranea.org. If I’m sufficiently motivated, I can set up a URL redirect on my end to Medium.
- Medium has a built-in export tool; Tumblr doesn’t, its quasi-official backup tool broke years ago, and third-party tools are fiddly and fragile. If I’m more concerned about saving my writing, Medium is arguably better.
- Speaking of web presences, I’ve been trying to bring my “writing” and “tech” presences closer together. (Clearly Mac aficionados should like fantasy and science fiction stories with talking animal people, and vice-versa.) Unifying on one new platform is tempting.
- I can post directly to Medium from Ulysses if I’m inclined. Medium has a terrific web editor, though. (Although Medium’s web editor only works on the desktop, and their iOS app’s editor is…less than terrific.)
The best counter-argument: lock-in. Tumblr’s original design decision to let you bring your own domain for free is admirable, but its post permalinks contain Tumblr-specific ID values. (This is, I should note, also a problem with Medium.) Unless a new platform can set up redirects on the old URLs, I’m stuck either leaving the Tumblr in place and starting on a new site anyway, or breaking old links. But I’m not averse to the first option.
There’s always moving to self-hosted WordPress, which has a lot of advantages: complete control, unlimited customization, easy embedding everywhere, no concerns about ownership. But just like those ubiquitous podcast ads about Squarespace keep reminding us, doing all that work kind of sucks. (And, yes, I’ve looked into Squarespace in the past; it’s got a lot to recommend it as a web site builder, but not as a blogging-style publishing platform.) I may not love all of Medium’s design decisions, but they’re more in line with the kinds of decisions I’d make myself. That’s a big deal.
I haven’t made any decisions about this either way. At least I’m telling myself that; that I’m posting this on Medium might suggest which direction I’m leaning. We’ll see.