20 Years of WordPress
26 May 2023 | 7:58 pm

In the early days, the web had many beautiful, romantic phases, in which things were simpler and people online, less prone to aggression, more innocent and/or prone to the good things in life.

In the early 2000s, the technical side of the web was also going through an interesting moment. Suddenly, sites went from being static to becoming dynamic.

Among the many systems of that period, on May 27th 2003, a small CMS for blogs called WordPress appeared. It was the beginning of — I think it’s safe to say — a revolution.

Few software has had such a profound impact on my life — that of millions of people — as WordPress.

WordPress was easy to install, easy to use, and easy to modify. Created as an open source project, it quickly attracted a dedicated community, which developed plugins, themes, wrote tons of documentation, and was always helpful to strangers trying to customize and solve problems on their own sites running WordPress.

It is estimated that b2/cafelog, the spiritual predecessor of WordPress, was used by about 2,000 sites in May 2003. Today, at 20 on an exponentially larger web, WordPress accounts for about 43% of all active sites in the world.

WordPress is also an inspiration as a business. Parallel to the open source project, co-founder Matt Mullenweg started a for-profit company, Automattic, and created a system in which the two parties feed each other, one strengthening the other, in a sustainable way.

Even today, anyone who wants to use WordPress can download the source code and install it on any server. Those who do not want to deal with servers and code, from weekend writers to small businesses, to large companies, have in the services of Automattic (and countless other partners) the relatively cheap managed option to enjoy the two decades of WordPress development.

There’s a lot to like about WordPress. Not everything was a breeze on this journey, however. In 2018, WordPress 5.0 ignited a new era in the project, that of the Gutenberg block editor. In place of the good and old text area for writing posts, we got a very visual system, with blocks of various content that can be embedded and remixed to create posts and pages — and, later on, entire sites.

I feel that people like me, who still use WordPress as a CMS, an editor for blogs, ended up being a little cornered. My Portuguese-written blog, which was born on and continues to use WordPress, has no plans to move to the blocks world. WordPress’ flexibility allows me to reverse some “progress” made, such as the block editor, and keep (some) things as they were until 2018.

More than that, WordPress, with its intuitive yet simple layout structure and powerful plugins, allows me to create a site that I never imagined I could build back there, when I uploaded my first blog with it; a site exactly as I wish.

Thanks to Matt, Mike Little (another co-founder), to all the volunteers who helped and help make WordPress and, directly or indirectly, help me make my little, charming site on the web.

Code is poetry.

May another 20 years come!

Discuss @ Hacker News.

Mastodon Isn't Web3 And Has Nothing To Do With Cryptocurrencies
22 May 2023 | 8:44 pm

“The Hidden Dangers of the Decentralized Web,” says the title of an opinion piece on Wired.

The author, Jessica Maddox, assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama, puts networks based on the ActivityPub protocol, such as Mastodon, in the same basket of scams such as cryptocurrencies and web3.

It’s a mistake. And, if we stick to the specifics, even “decentralized web” is somewhat imprecise, since the web (a network) is, by definition, decentralized.

The movements that raise the flag of decentralization do so as a reaction to market forces that have subverted this characteristic. (And, although they refer to the “web,” in some cases they don’t even run on the web.)

We can, and should, always strive to build better, more accessible, and more inclusive technology. But decentralizing the web into walled-off silos seems unlikely to accomplish this goal.

Incredibly, the excerpt above does not refer to the Meta and Google platforms, but to those of web3 and Mastodon.

I don’t think Jessica is stupid, which leaves me puzzled by the reasons that would lead someone who supposedly gets it to publish such a misinformation.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

Substack is the Biggest Threat to Newsletters Ever
19 April 2023 | 8:05 pm

Substack is to newsletters what Spotify is to podcasts, Medium was to blogs, and what Google Reader was to RSS: an aggressive player that dominates an entire segment with artificial and unsustainable advantages in a risky bet. It’s a kind of corporate time bomb that, when it explodes, will destroy countless small businesses based on newsletters.

Notes, the Twitter clone that got a huge advertising campaign from Elon Musk for free, is already a symptom of the threat Substack represents.

Newsletters alone are not a business capable of the growing levels that could satisfy Silicon Valley investors’ appetite for stratospheric profit. It takes much more than a healthy business — which Substack isn’t yet — to achieve that.

Between 2018 and 2021, Substack raised USD 82.4 million from VCs such as Andresseen Horowitz (a16z) to grow and deploy its business model, which consists of charging 10% of paid subscriptions that writers collect from their readers. (If a writer doesn’t charge for their newsletter, Substack earns nothing.)

In 2022, the company tried to raise more money, without success. Faced with failure, it went to retail and raised another USD 8.5 million from ordinary people.

In deciding to go this way, Substack had to open up some numbers to convince people to invest. In 2021, the company made $12 million and had a loss of $22 million. The 2022 figures were not disclosed only because the founders didn’t want to, a move that doesn’t inspire confidence.

The launch of Notes, its chat feature, and the release of an app are building blocks to create value for users, yes, but also to wall off the platform leveraging its newsletter thing.

In several interviews, Substack founders make the point that people who have newsletters on the service can leave whenever they want. And it’s true. The point of Substack, however, is to become synonymous for newsletter, to become a first irresistible, then inevitable destination for anyone who wants to have one.

Only this path is not a smooth one. As it gains prominence in the relationship between writers and readers, Substack will have to deal with new challenges. For example, with Notes, which has an algorithmic timeline, it will need to moderate content.

In an interview with Nilay Patel on Decoder podcast, Chris Best, co-founder and CEO of Substack, refused to answer whether his company would remove explicitly racist content from Notes. (This excerpt is embarrassing.)

The founders’ thesis, of Substack being a “economic engine of culture,” is pretty weird: Substack would function as a kind of ideal destination for those who want to own, promote, and make a living from newsletter, i.e., a platform, but without the headaches that running a platform usually brings, and somehow, even though it’s a closed and private platform, people can trust that the management will always do what’s best for writers and will never go full Elon Musk-ish in the future, even though that’s always a possibility.

I listened to the entire Decoder interview, the CEO’s explanations and promises and, like Nilay, I was not convinced what the big deal is about Substack except for it being a free newsletter service funded by venture capital and run by tech bros.

Nevertheless, the clash with Twitter and the Notes launch has resonated well. Ernie Smith of Tedium is also skeptical about the future of Substack, but has been moved to the point of launching a “lite” version of his newsletter there, in what he calls a “defensive measure.” If Substack really does become synonymous for newsletters, not using it could be the end for small businesses like his.

Ernie advises others to follow his example. I advise against it, for the sake of newsletters.

I understand the appeal of Substack. Sending emails isn’t expensive, but it’s not free, and a completely free service like Substack is tempting. I would even say it’s the single reason so many newsletters have sprung up in recent years. On other newsletter platforms there is a big gap between a limited free tier and the first paid ones, which can be expensive for amateurs writers.

The fact that Substack is the only one that is totally free is no accident. Someone is footing that bill; they are not philanthropists and these people are going to demand to get paid pretty soon.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

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