A rebuilt WordPress.com

I’m a big fan of self-hosted software, testament to which is a project called Self-hosted web I started a few years ago. Admittedly, I haven’t reviewed a whole lot of new software there for a while, but I still like the idea that one can host software on their own space on the web (and I encourage you to take advantage of it).

Still, there’s great hosted software out there, and then there’s software out there that just kind of bridges the gaps between hosted and self-hosted. Most prominently, that’s WordPress.com. It’s the company founded by the creator of the actual blogging software WordPress, which can still be downloaded and then installed on your own space, but instead of doing this, WordPress.com hosts your blog on their space.

In addition, they publish the Jetpack plugin, a sort of swiss-army knife of a plugin you can use with your self-hosted instance of WordPress. It connects your blog with their WordPress.com servers, thereby allowing you to do all sorts of interesting things like managing several self-hosted blogs from one central command, including updating plugins, or looking at your blogs’ rather detailed statistics.

It’s a great piece of software, but as I mentioned above, your blog is now sort of a hybrid between self-hosted and hosted. And I have to admit, I don’t mind that much. My content is still on my own server and while I can make use of the services provided by the WordPress.com servers, I still retain full ownership of whatever I create on my own space.

A few days ago, Automattic, the company that produces WordPress.com did something very interesting and probably quite groundbreaking. They published a new, totally rewritten version of WordPress.com. Traditionally written in PHP, the WordPress.com user interface is now written in Javascript, a language that actually does what it does inside your browser, as opposed to on the server it’s installed on. It’s a move that clearly takes into account the developments in that field during the last ten years. And that’s not all: they open-sourced the whole thing, too. There’s a very detailed write-up up on their developer blog.

This is quite in line with the whole spirit of WordPress, considering the self-hosted instance of WordPress (found, btw, at WordPress.org, instead of .com), has been open-source all along. Matt Mullenweg, above mentioned mastermind behind all this, posted a detailed blogpost about his intentions behind the rewrite here. To quote him:

A lot of people thought we should keep this proprietary, but throughout my life I’ve learned that the more you give away, the more you get back.

Which just goes to show how utterly cool this man is.

Anyway, I’ve used that software for the last fourteen years, roughly, and I’m happy to see they are ever evolving. I’m in fact writing this post via their WordPress.com editor, which is connected to my self-hosted instance via their Jetpack Plugin. And while it takes away some of that spirit of doing things without having to rely on a hosted version of a software, it makes my life quite a bit easier (not least because this new editor is so smooth and fast). Which has always been the trade-off, but one I’m feeling happy to make at this point.

By the way, with their rewrite of WordPress.com, they also released a desktop app to manage your blogs, currently only available for Mac. If you’re a Windows or Linux user, though, you can sign up for a notification for when they ship that piece of software for your desktop too. I’m looking forward to that, and so should you.

Some thoughts on the Internet

It’s been more than three years since I last published anything about technology (it was a post where I expressed my distaste for Instagram on Android, a notion that persists to this very day). And even before that latest post, updates were sparse. Why? Well, the reasons are manifold, but I’ll try to outline a few of them for you here.

When I started writing about the social web, some 12, 13 years ago, every day was filled with wonder. On a daily basis someone, somewhere would come up with a new service I didn’t know I needed, but which turned out to be indispensable (at least for a while). The museum of modern betas used to be a daily visit.  Things were interesting! They got kinda boring after a few years, probably once Facebook started to become the behemoth it is today. Services were bought out left and right, many died off, quite a few were acquihired and then some were sunset. What happened was a streamlining of sorts. Social networks faltered as Facebook grew bigger, and interesting companion services were gobbled up and integrated into the product (or simply ignored and hung out to dry). Yahoo! and Google did their part, trying to emulate Facebook’s success by buying into existing communities, only to let them whiter and (almost) die. Delicious, the initial social bookmarking service, was sold to Yahoo! in 2005 and has since then changed hands twice already. Yahoo! had not a single clue what to do with it and let it deteriorate until it was made obsolete by Twitter and Facebook a few years later. Looking at the website today is almost painful, considering what a thriving community it once fostered. The story isn’t an exception, but rather an example of what happened to user-driven services without a clear monetization-angle.

What also happened was mobile. Back in 2003, mobile wasn’t really a thing. The release of the iPhone in 2007 saw a rapid change in that area, with app reviews cropping up on Techcrunch, Lifehacker, Read-Write Web and all the other usual suspects. The advent of Android in Google’s hands opened up the market considerably, and after a while writing about tech meant writing less about revolutionary new web services, but about services that were confined to a small screen and therefore very specific in their application (it’s no coincidence they weren’t ever called programs).

Unforeseen, but inevitable, was the next phase of the mobile revolution: the walling off of the operating system, ultimately handing control of our devices back to the companies that produced them (or their OS). Sure, people can jailbreak their iPhones or simply install apps from third parties on their Android phones, but the move to a bottleneck that approves programs according to their own guidelines, often enough driven by financial interests, has long been made and will only ever stop once everything we do on our devices can be controlled remotely by whoever produces them.

It sounds like a conspiracy, but it’s nothing new. In the early days of computers, it was the kind of system that made huge profits for companies like IBM. You wouldn’t actually own the software on your hardware, you’d licence it. If you needed a software upgrade, you had someone from IBM come over and install it for you. The creation of the personal computer was a great step forward, and arguably helped build the groundwork for  the creation of something like the world wide web and most of the fun services we are able to use today.

App stores like Apple’s, Google’s or Microsoft are the reemergence of this idea of having total control over what their customers install on their devices. And yes, they’re convenient. No need to update your software manually, they do it for you. And hey, no need to be afraid of malicious code, they check those apps before you use them. The downside is that every developer who doesn’t adhere to the often arbitrary rules of those app stores need to find other ways of distributing their software, ultimately unable to compete with those who decide to go the way of the bottleneck. For the consumer it means that whoever created their device has not only full knowledge of, but total control over what runs on these devices.

And you know what, that’s not even it. Microsoft released Windows 10 recently. It’s definitely one of their best iterations and the best thing: it’s free for all the users of Windows 7 and 8. Of course, now online services and more or less constant connections to Microsoft’s servers are so ingrained into the operating system that it actually needs a workaround to be able to create an account on your own computer without creating an online-account with Microsoft itself. All in the name of interchangeability of devices, cloud storage and other services like Microsoft Office 360, an office suite that you can now rent instead of buy (there’s that again). Money is now made with add-on services and subscriptions, which, conveniently, are served through their own store (over which they have full control).

I read Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The End of the Internet – and how to stop it” a while ago, and what he wrote about the dangers of having the Internet locked down by corporations and governments is actually more real than ever. And apart from a few valiant organisations like the EFF, not a whole lot is being done against it:

Our technologists are complacent because the ongoing success of the generative Net has taken place without central tending—the payoffs of the procrastination principle. Rank-and-file Internet users enjoy its benefits while seeing its operation as a mystery, something they could not possibly hope to affect. They boot their PCs each day and expect them more or less to work, and they access Wikipedia and expect it more or less to be accurate.

(You can read the whole book here).

A few years ago, in order to at least partly work against that development on the web, I created a website called “The Self-hosted Web”, where I try to showcase consumer-oriented software that is self-installed and self-hosted and will allow people to share photos, write blog posts or connect with friends without having to resort to hosted services. Needless to say, it’s an uphill battle, not least because it’s cumbersome to most and security issues are real and pressing. Still, I think it’s a good way to show people that what powers all these services they use daily is actually something that’s available to all of us to build upon.

An attempt at a summary

This has become long and winding and probably disjointed, so here’s a TL;DR for your ADD riddled minds:

When I started blogging, the social web was in its infancy. Blogs were the outlets that allowed us to connect with friends and strangers, then came services and webapps that made it even easier. It was a great ride, adventurous and fun, until the success of the social web became its own deadliest foe. Services like Twitter and Facebook have long IPOed, their interests driven by stockholders. In the meantime the outlets we built ourselves have declined. Those blogs that are left, and arguably, there still are millions of them, are either marginalized or driven by a desire to be as profitable as possible. Which isn’t inherently bad. Who doesn’t like living off of what they like doing most? Still, with the constant demand to be able to monetize any- and everything, we are both eroding the fundamentals of the social-web and by letting them lock down our devices we are giving control back to corporations and ultimately governments.

What’s the solution, then? Hard to say in a general sense, but we can start by supporting organizations and companies that are interested in keeping the web an open and inclusive, instead of a closed and exclusive place. The EFF has been doing this for ages, the Freedom Box foundation is working on secure and safe communication, and despite having a commercial, hosted arm, WordPress is still the best open-source software for publishing your thoughts on the web.

On a personal level? I don’t quite know. I’m as complicit in this as the next person, with my accounts on hundreds of services, Windows 10 running on my computer, the Office 360 subscription I got for convenience and the fact that I’ll be posting a link to this rant on at least two social networks owned by large corporations. But at least I’ve written down my qualms with what’s happening and if you share my sentiments, we can connect on Diaspora and share cat pictures. Or something.



A view from above

I recently went into the Styrian alps with my family and did some actual hiking. When I was younger, my father used to go hiking with me quite a bit. Being the lazy fuck that I am, I often wished I didn’t have to. That is, until after about an hour or so we sat down in some meadow, opened up my father’s huge, old backpack, got out bread, bacon and cheese and had a fantastic little snack. There’s something about that sort of simple combination that’s just so satisfying, especially when you’re an eight year old kid who feels like he’s famished after an hour of light hiking.

A few decades later, I’m finally realizing that hiking to a mountain-top (or whatever goal you might have) has other merits too. It’s exhausting, which in turn makes your time of idleness seem even sweeter. It’s meditative too: you can just trot on, letting your mind wander. Because, you know, there’s fuck all else to do when you’re on a mountain. Also, there’s nice views from the top. Don’t shoot me for saying it, but standing up there and maybe getting a glimpse of small houses, the odd car, maybe even tiny little people – it lends you a sense of perspective and affords you the realization how significant you are in relation to what else is out there (spoiler alert: not a whole lot).

The pictures below are from my hike with my brother, be prepared for many more posts about hikes with my girlfriend. Who was actually the one to convince me that I should invest in some good shoes. Sage advice.

Reviving the network

Having decided to focus more on writing on my blogs again, I’m realising just how many I’ve created over the years (and subsequently neglected). Over the last two days, I did my inventory: updated plugins, themes, cleaned up the odd, erm, hacked installation and put them all under the roof of the rather handy wordpress.com centralized command.

All of those blogs had their very own raison d’etre, but now that some time has passed and I’ve grown somewhat tired of having to look after all these installations, I’m thinking about maybe consolidating them into one, maybe two roofs. I’m still torn about what to do with each of them, so I’d value your input.

That’s of course this blog right here. I started it, I think, sometime in 2000, then still without my own domain. Ha, I remember the invigorating feeling when actually accessing it under my own domain. What freedom! What self-expression! Its tagline “The Excitement of Boredom” was actually my own criticism of then prevalent blogging practice. I found most of them dull and thought I could be even duller. I stuck to it, for better or worse. If I’m consolidating my other blogs, this will be the hub. The stormgrass empire, if you will.

Stormgrass Tech
I used to write about technology a lot. Technology in the sense of web services and other consumer-oriented tech products. It was all done on my main blog, but I soon realized that the people who visit my blog to see updates about my personal life (mainly my mother) didn’t really care about the tech updates, and vice versa (currently most links there are broken, which I think is due to some rewrite rules I’ll have to figure out). Creating a separate blog seemed like a good solution. Today, I’m not so sure anymore. There’s a whole bunch of popular blogs out there that don’t have this strict dividing line and I find that rather charming. I’m thinking especially about Ninjas and Robots, the blog of Nathan Kontny, CEO of Highrise. The thing is, he’s got a voice, and that voice is carried through all of his posts, whether they’re technical or personal or whatever else. I do think I should strive for that.

Death by Martini
Yet another fork from my personal blog, this time one oriented towards food and eating and general gastronomical debauchery. I used to write about food a lot, used to post pictures about food a lot. Mind you, that was quite some time before the advent of apps like Instagram. When I realized that there’s actually food blogs out there, I wanted my own. And as it happened with so many of my blogs, after a while it seemed far easier to just post those pictures to Twitter or Facebook and be done with it. My qualms with this blog are similar to those I have with my tech blog. Keep it or incorporate it? I’m too much in love with the name of this blog to just let it go, but maybe it’s the right thing to do.

The self-hosted web
This is not so much a blog, but more of a project about the beauty of self-hosting consumer-oriented software. Think self-hosted Instagram, WordPress, social networks and the like. It was born out of the idea to not give all your content and especially all the discussions that happen around it to other companies. It’s alive, but I haven’t been as active there as I want. Since this really isn’t as personal as my other projects, and more geared towards becoming a community project, it’ll stay where it is. I am always looking for new software that fits this space, so if you’ve got any recommendations, do drop me a note.

Remember tumblelogs? Yes, exactly, the kind of blogs tumblr was designed after. In a time when Facebook was more of a, well, Facebook and less of a publishing tool and Twitter hadn’t yet taken off, tumblelog was the designated name for a kind of blog that could do without titles, categorization, tags and all that cruft, and let people concentrate on quickly posting stuff. Take note of this Lifehacker article from 2007 detailing the ins and outs of a tumblelog.

Intrepidly Trite was to be that kind of blog. I had it connected to Austrian soup.io for a long time, after that ran a couple of different self-hosted blog variants under the name. Today it’s a bare-bones WordPress installation I had created in order to turn it into my own photo-sharing site. Somehow it didn’t really fit, so I’m not sure yet what to do with it. There’s this beautiful open-source project called “Chyrp” out there, which is basically a tumble-log software to self-host. I might just use this for Intrepidlytrite if I feel the need to have my own tumblelog again. If I don’t, I might shutter the site altogether and just see what else I could use the domain for at some point in the future.

This domain was actually a joke. A couple of years back, companies had this tendency to create apps that were named after common words. There was “Color”, a photo app that sounded promising but didn’t take off, and there was “Disco”, a group messaging app by Google that got sunset basically right after its start. I thought it was a fun idea to get a domain name combining those two. Ironically, today both apps are gone but my domain is still here.

I finally used it to create yet another blog which I envisioned to be something more in the vein of a blog like kottke.org. An aggregator of cool stuff, mostly films, articles of note, videos. Not hugely personal, but simply based on the things I find interesting. As it turned out, I didn’t have enough time to keep it updated regularly. I’m not yet sure what to do with it. It somehow fits the “aside” category on a WordPress installation but could also work as a sideblog (similar to what Helge does here).

Speaking of Helge, his community blog called “Kobuk” is similar to what I and my friend Daniel had created quite a while ago. Medienschelte was a media-watchblog that detailed the systematic mis-information and error-riddled coverage by the two Austrian tabloids “Österreich” and “Kronenzeitung”. It hasn’t been updated in a long time and probably won’t ever be again. “Kobuk” does a good job with that and I do have to admit, reading those tabloids on a daily basis can be rather detrimental to your mental health.

Finally, this is a blog that hasn’t even started yet, but which is going to happen. I’m a trained historian and after working in social media and other rather technical jobs, I’m about to embark on a journey as a freelance historical consultant for TV, film and videogame productions. Hemmer.co will be the place where I’ll write about history, specifically history in the above mentioned products. Do keep your eyes on that (and if you need someone like me, don’t be shy to drop me a note).

So, here we go. The result of roughly 15 years of creating blogs and projects. The landscape of publishing on the web has changed drastically during that time and while blogs haven’t disappeared, they’ve either become neglected (like mine) or been turned into mainstream products that rival traditional publishing outfits on the web. Creating a blog that doesn’t strive to become a viable source of income seems somewhat outlandish today, which is one of the reasons why I think most people who just want to publish with the least amount of hassle simply do it via Facebook or Twitter. It’s due to that development that I find it rather important to revive my network of blogs and maybe, at some point, inspire others to do the same. Not for fame, money or glory, but simply because they can.