Welcome to the newest iteration of the same ol’e blog. I change this website almost as often as I post content on it. The thing is, I get bored. I don’t often have much to say, but I’m endlessly fascinated with the various ways people can publish themselves on the web. I don’t archive much of my own blogging. Keeping back-ups of my old content seems kind of pointless, and I don’t necessarily think I’m pumping out timeless prose here.
A lot of people are interested in the internet as an archive, and that’s great. In fact, one part of my day job is helping to ensure other people’s content does stay online, gets backed up in all the possible ways, is immediately recoverable, and can more easily be repurposed as needed to circumvent censorship. It’s satisfying to assist in keeping content accessible that some regime is desperately trying to flush down the memory hole. The ethos is called “beat the bastards.” I’m developing a whole Theory of Change around it. Maybe.
But for my own endeavours, I’m more keen on the ephemeral version of the internet, and it too has some really valuable use cases. I like volatile content that has an expiration date. I don’t necessarily think everything has to stick around on a web page for the rest of history. Human beings shift and change over the course of their lives, and their digital presence should have some of that flexibility as well. We are not immutable. Websites can be like sand mandalas. So, whenever I make one for myself, I realise that the WayBackMachine may snarf a copy of whatever it looks like at any given point, but I don’t really keep many copies around. My version control process is tabula rasa.
Motivations behind this current incarnation…
I’m moving back to WordPress. For some work and non-work related reasons, I wanted to better understand how WordPress Blocks work. I’m also interested in how websites can use ActivityPub to both syndicate content and create author presences in the Fediverse, which is really the next phase of the more open web (calling it now for “I told you so” rights later). Finally, as much as I enjoy a good flat website system, after running the site using Hugo, Jekyll, Publii, and sometimes just some plain old, hand-coded html pages on Github Pages for a while, I wanted something that didn’t need the command line or so many git workflows just to post something ridiculous if not regrettable, and a publishing system that I could update with an app on my phone if I felt the inspiration, without (yet) resorting to something like a Medium blog, or Tumblr.
WordPress and Blocks:
I don’t really like Blocks, but I’m getting to know them and maybe at least appreciate the intention behind WordPress going all-in on something that’s still so very beta. From a purely visual point of view, what ultimately convinced me to give WordPress Blocks another go was the website for the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure. It’s just not pretty, but sure does the job. And that’s what I’m going for here. That, and a work project has obligated me to have some minimal understanding of them. Like Blocks, this website isn’t really done, and is kind of glitchy.
Perfect may be the enemy of the good. So is lousy, though. I still think I prefer my design being implemented through nice, hand-rolled, bespoke, GMO-free css files and templates that don’t give random authors such an easy chance to ruin your aesthetics with one, albeit well-intentioned wrong move. There is also a lot missing in this method of styling a website, and I’m not keen on how it saves design elements all over the place. For what are still very good reasons, content and design should be sequestered from one another and securely compartmentalised. WordPress once had as its mantra, “code is poetry.” Blocks seems to be saying, “most people’s poetry sucks.” There’s some truth to that.
I can bang on far more about this topic, and at some point soonish I probably will, and likely reuse the same jokes. I do really like WordPress as a writing tool, though. It has one of the nicer wysiwig interfaces going. It’s better than a lot of writing software. It’s far better than Microsoft Word, and more affordable.
ActivityPub and the Fediverse:
I wanted to make a blog that could be instantly part of the Fediverse, and ActivityPub is currently the prevailing protocol to achieve that. In a poorly shaped nutshell, The Fediverse is the truly decentralised social web, with the potential to let participants better control their identities, content, and decide what kind of walls they do or don’t want around their garden.
To me, it’s a redo of what Web3 could have been about instead of a marketing scheme for grifters trying to convince people that jpegs of cartoon apes had any intrinsic value. There is also some promising anti-censorship properties to how content can migrate through federated services. I’m also interested in how creators can claim identity in the Fediverse, bypassing gatekeepers such as the Blue Check process of legacy Twitter, while having more authenticity than, say, Elon-era Twitter’s blue check, that just goes to anyone with $8 and proves nothing.
At present there aren’t many production-ready alternatives to accomplish my goal of a federated blog, but that will be changing, and I think fairly soon. The main blogging platforms to do this are currently either WriteFreely or WordPress + a plugin. Neither is ideal. Both have trade-offs and some hidden costs. In the end, I went with what I know better.
The final hurdle I am trying to get past is being able to publish more easily, quickly and briefly. Crafting markdown pages or using flat site generators can be great, but it’s limiting, and janky, and there’s no real mobile phone publishing options. Most FOSS, self-hosted CMS don’t recognise that people primarily want to do things on the web with their smartphones. WriteFreely seems to have started down this path, but only for iOS, when much of the world is on Android. WordPress is one of the few in this area that makes it possible.
The overarching theme of our blog has not changed. Technology keeps its promises and delivers on what it’s asked to do. The problem is that people don’t often realise what they’re really asking for, what’s entailed, and what else it can do to the world. Be careful what you ask for.