Stay with me. This isn't my typical link-post. It's also long so if you don't care about the web or independent writing, here's a nice article about genealogy and statistics.
Two recent articles by Jason Kottke mesh nicely with something that has been weighing on me for the past couple of years. Let's set the context though. I think kottke.org is a wonderful site and I read every article he publishes on his RSS feed. Jason is an originator in the type of Internet content I love. But kottke.org is struggling along with every other site that respects people as more than a monetization model.
From a business perspective, it’s an understatement to say that it’s been a bit unnerving seeing 10 years of steadily growing revenue being replaced by something else entirely. I’ve been trying (and failing) to come up with a metaphor to explain it...the site is exactly the same, the revenue is in the same ballpark as before, but the financing is completely different.
I've considered the membership model for Macdrifter but I'm not sure I'd like the obligations that come with most memberships. Bonuses like special newsletters and access restrictions always seem like the opposite of web-publishing. It's nice to see that Jason is making a simple membership sustainable.
Even with new business models, I think that the idea of people regularly reading the same websites as part of their daily routine is a hobby left to old people like me. To be relevant we all need to accept that the open web is not going to exist much longer and certainly isn't important in a way that the average person understands. Adapt or languish.1
But I’ve also been thinking a lot about how the information published here is delivered. I love the web and websites and believe the blog format is the best for the type of thing I want to communicate. But fewer and fewer people actually go to websites. I largely don’t. You can follow kottke.org on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and via RSS, but fewer people are using newsreaders and Facebook et al are trying their best to decrease visibility of sites like mine unless I pay up or constantly publish.
It's right to complain and lament. Those were rich and vibrant times on the web. But no one wants to be arranging blog posts on the Titanic. Everything changes.
I loved when blogs were conversations between different people. Person "A" writes something. Person "B" writes a reply on their own site and links to person "A." The web was made of threads and it was rich and varied and wonderful. But it wasn't profitable and it was hard work to create and follow. It took guts and time. It was before Facebook made the internet a comment thread.
I think Kamer (and to a lesser degree Kottke) are wrong on this point:
We blame Walmart for decimating small businesses, but ultimately, small town shoppers chose convenience and lower prices over the more local and diverse offerings from their neighbors. And for the past several years, readers have been doing the same thing in favoring Facebook. What Kamer is arguing is that readers who value good journalism, good writing, and diverse viewpoints need to push back against the likes of the increasingly powerful and monolithic Facebook...and visiting individual websites is one way to do that.
It's arguing against capitalism, tribalism, and all other types of human nature. We can complain about Facebook and Twitter (as I regularly do) but we can't negotiate a treaty with their users. There will be consequences of Facebook and Twitter but if humans are experts at anything, it's misidentifying consequences. We still don't even understand what killed newspapers.
Advertising on Macdrifter stopped being fun for me several years ago. I never did anything popular enough to be on The Deck so I did most of my ads by hand. At one time I produced lengthy product walk-throughs as an alternative to just running an ad.2 It paid me a bit of money but it also helped out products that I like. There's no future in ads if you care about the people at the other end of them. Chronic internet users are calloused and immune to most ads. Everything seems like a scam so it's hard to trust anyone. Ads have become malware that publishers foist on readers for a few pennies. The arms-race of ads and ad blockers is just starting and it will be expensive to keep up.
Back to our main character, Jason Kottke. The plot thickens as we see our hero take a foreshadowed turn:
The newsletter is very much a work in progress and a departure from the way I usually do things around here. For one thing, it’s a collaboration…almost everything else I’ve done on the site was just me. We’ve previewed it over the last two weeks just for members, but it’s still more “unfinished” than I’m comfortable with. The design hasn’t been nailed down, the logo will likely change, and Tim & I are still trying to figure out the voice and length. But launching it unfinished feels right…we aren’t wasting time on optimization and there’s more opportunity to experiment and move toward what works as time goes on. We hope you’ll join us by subscribing and letting us know your thoughts and feedback as we get this thing moving.
As much as I am a fan of email as a self-documenting form of asynchronous communication, I'll be honest: I don't understand the popularity of newsletters. I do not enjoy reading in email. I do not like leisure mixed into work. I do not like the options I have for mobile access. I do not like more things coming into my inbox that need to be managed. It's just not for me.
It's interesting to see how the final few fish struggle for their existence in the pond. Some are choosing to evolve and branch out. To do more work, not less. Others, like me, are just biding time until death takes us off of the DNS for good.
So much of what I enjoy reading is gone. Most of the friends I made over the years have given up the ghost on their blogs. Those that continue to scratch out the rare post here and there do so with less humor and less excitement. The generally benign group of sites left to write about the random weirdness of the world makes me feel less curious. When I search for answers on the internet most of the truly interesting stuff are hits from blogs that stopped publishing in 2014.
So there you go. I write less on Macdrifter because it's depressing. To all of those people that take the time to write in and ask questions or suggest topics, I really like you. You are all oddballs. You're all my people and you're why I keep going with this dumb project.
I automatically collect server stats but in the most rudimentary way possible.3 I've been collecting them since 2011 and the historic perspective is heartening. The numbers haven't declined even though my posting has. I don't put much weight on these stats. I haven't looked at them in over a year.
I read these as a trend not a precise number. I've basically found my niche. I've posted over 3000 articles since 2006. That breadcrumb trail has lured a consistent number of readers that seem to like what I make.
Now let's have a series of self-serving questions to answer. Readers love that.
Why do it then?
That's a great question. Thanks for asking it. I asked myself this question a long time ago. I also asked a bunch of other bloggers this question too. Some answered and some didn't. But it colors how I see everything on the internet now. Why is this person writing this article? Why are they making a podcast? What do they get out of it?
I post to Macdrifter because it makes people notice me and that attention has provided both casual and real friendships. It gives me a ticket to some awkward party that everyone pretends they don't care about but still loves.
I also write because it gives me an outlet for thinking more deeply. In contrast to podcasting, writing is deliberate and methodical and gives me time to consider ideas more completely. Podcasting is fun but because it's fleeting and not yet searchable there's very little long-term consequences for lazy thinking. I love podcasts, A LOT, but it makes most smart people dumber whereas blogging seems to hone them.
The last reason for blogging is also self serving. It's one of the best ways I can think of to help developers that make things I like. The AppStore is terrible. Reviews are broken. Editor picks seem to be thoughtless. I buy apps used by people I respect. I usually don't care what "coolkid369" thinks about something on the AppStore. But if Merlin Mann uses an app, you can be damn well be sure I'll buy it. I'll tell everyone I know, then that app has a better chance of making it long term. The developer wins and I win. Hakuna Matata.
So what now?
Another great question. You're on a roll. Macdrifter loses money. I pay for the domain, hosting, and every app I review.4 That kind of stinks. The consequence is that I don't review as many apps or products because it's a waste of my money. But, I also don't want to run ads. The only real option is reader support. Without direct reader support I just don't have the motivation to do much here. That's the truth. Now you know.
What's going to happen?
Have you not learned anything? I'm very unmotivated but I'm also meticulous in my research. Nothing is going to change immediately. I will continue to post to Macdrifter and Hobo Signs while I figure out the sponsorship model and the technical implementation. If membership works and you don't subscribe then you'll just notice an increase in publishing at Macdrifter and maybe a small pain of guilt in your darkest of hearts.
Here's what I'm thinking:
I'll probably use Patreon for membership processing and member communication.
I like the format Dave Winer is using at Scripting.com. It's informal and stream-like. I don't like the actual news-stream format he has but I like his chatty posting style.
I also like to solve problems and share solutions so I'll need some method of communicating that's better than email. I also don't want to moderate a community.
I like RSS so I need a membership feed.
I don't like DRM but, like door locks, a minimum amount of effort helps keep honest people honest. This means that a feed will need to be member-only but still work with all RSS readers.
The membership should be monthly and relatively inexpensive because I know I have subscription exhaustion myself.
You Get What You Get and Don't Get Upset
The web has changed. It's not what I had hoped for, but here it is. It's the web we have.
Yes, I'm very cynical about the future of the internet. I was cynical when Facebook wanted to get into publishing. I was cynical when Twitter said it would block hate groups. I was cynical when republicans took over the FCC. I've seen very few positive changes on the internet in the past five years that would make me optimistic. ↩
These were actually fun to make but they were a huge amount of work. I'd wager that my hourly rate for these ads was about $10 which is not a good business to be in if you like money and things. ↩
I got rid of Google stats long ago because it was slowing down the page loading and I also try to avoid Google whenever it's within my control. ↩
This is still my biggest pet peeve of sites that review apps. Not paying for app out of your own bank account means value is never really a part of the assessment. We can pretend it is for the sake of a good narrative but if you didn't pay the $50 that app costs then you really can't feel the sacrifice a reader feels when they choose between a bunch of similarly priced apps. Say that up front. Say that the app didn't cost you anything and that your review doesn't take the cost into consideration. ↩