The case for self-publishing content

March 01, 2018

websites rule!!!

I’ll be honest, it’s a frustrating time to be a citizen of the internet. You’ll probably notice from some of my recent posts that I’ve become a pretty big advocate for moving away from the giant tech companies that have been slowly but steadily killing the open and decentralized web that brought us to where we are today.

I believe our best shot at combatting tech companies’ power grab on the internet is to stop giving our content to Facebook, Twitter, Medium, etc. for free. Instead, let’s take our content into our own hands by self-publishing on our own personal websites, a medium of communication which is free of censorship, algorithmic ranking, and increasingly intrusive advertising. Plus, building your own website and filling it with your weird, fun, and interesting content can be much more rewarding for yourself, your audience, and the internet as a whole.

Before diving in, I want to emphasize that I recognize building a nice looking website and publishing your content is something that can require a fair bit of technical know-how in order to accomplish. For those of you in the tech world who are reading this, I’m particularly writing this article for you – as you likely have the ability to do this and tend to be the leading edge of tech. It’s important for us, of all people, to lead the way in resisting the reach of tech companies and help maintain an open and decentralized web. To any others, I’d highly encourage you to check out a free website builder like Weebly (disclaimer: I was previously employed at Weebly but have no financial incentive to link to them).

Media platforms aren’t as valuable as you may think

I’d like to start out by picking on Medium. I’ve noticed many members of the tech community publishing long-form articles on their platform so they’re a ripe target, although these arguments apply to just about any social media outlet as well. The first question to ask is “why do people choose to publish on Medium?” From asking around friends who use the platform, I’ve found a few reasons. The first that came up was Medium providing a cleanly designed page with which to present their writing. This is a fair argument, as we’re not all designers (and design is hard!), but let’s take a look at an average Medium article’s design:

Medium screenshot

Aside from the sticky title bar at the top and bottom of the page (which I’d argue is doing nothing but distracting readers from your content), there’s really not a ton going on here. It turns out designing a reasonable template for your content doesn’t have to be that hard. For a blog, a white background and a dark, serif font works great. Note that Medium is a giant venture-capital backed startup with many designers and they’re doing it too! If you’re publishing photos, just make them giant and fill up the page. It really doesn’t have to be anything fancy, as your content should be what keeps the user engaged, not the frame around it. If designing a blog theme isn’t your thing there are also plenty of free themes that you can either use out-of-the-box or as a starting point for your own design. There are plenty of free templates available for Jekyll, Wordpress, or whatever other platform you end up with for hosting your content.

Another argument for using a platform like Medium are the various features it provides for your content, things like embedded comments, clapping (equivilent to liking a post on Facebook), and following. While useful to have, I’d argue that none of these are unique to Medium itself and each can be replicated on your own site quite easily. Comments, for example, can be delegated out to external platforms like Twitter, Reddit or Hacker News. For many bloggers these platforms are the source of most of their traffic anyways. Users from these sites are generally much more familiar with discussing content there rather than on a site’s dedicated comments section. If you still find embedded comments on your posts valuable, you can always drop an embed code for something like Disqus to handle it for you or use a self-hosted blogging platform like Wordpress which has built-in support.

Clapping and following can be tied into the next, and by far the most important, reason I’ve found for people publishing to social media platforms: their network. If you’re publishing content you’re likely looking to get as many eyes on it as possible. While social media does an excellent job of helping you maximize viewership, publishing to your own website doesn’t mean you miss out on the visibility that platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Medium, etc. can provide for you. It’s easy: instead of posting directly to these platforms and allowing them to bring your content to users, use them as a means of syndication to bring users to your content. That is, after publishing something to your blog, simply post a link to your post on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, etc. to bring users to your site, rather than having them view your content from the confines of the platform. In fact, it’s likely that you’re already doing this anyways by re-posting a link to a Medium article or Instagram photo on Twitter, so this concept shouldn’t be too strange!

This might sound like a pain, but setting up a simple RSS feed (something that a static site generator like Jekyll can do very easily) and using a service like IFTTT can entirely automate this process, allowing you to focus on creating content rather than manually promoting it.

The benefits of self-publishing

Now that we’ve covered some of the ways to replicate the benefits of content platforms on your own site, I’d like to discuss some of the benefits you’ll find from publishing content on your own. Most of these arguments revolve around control. More specifically, taking control away from third-party platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Medium (who have enough power/control as it is) and instead putting them into the hands of yourself and your audience.

The first of these benefits is the complete control over the presentation of your content. While we’ve already touched on how media platforms provide a nice design for your content, one aspect we didn’t touch on was the drawback of monotony. I’ll again pick on Medium here: you can pick out any sample of articles featured its homepage, each of which having an entirely unique topic and author, yet all lack any form of differentiation or individuality in their presentation.

While this uniformity in presentation is great for building a brand, the issue is who you’re building a brand for. By posting an article to the uniform template of Medium or posting an image to the uniform template of Instagram, you’re not helping build a brand for yourself, rather you’re helping building the brand of the platform (and you’re doing so without them paying you for it!). By self-publishing you’re able to completely control the frame within which your content is presented. Again, this doesn’t have to be complicated in order to be effective in building a unique brand for yourself and your content. Check out an average post from a favorite of mine – Marco Arment. His design is unintrusive, simple, and most importantly is unique and representative of himself. By delegating design out to media platforms you miss out on a major avenue of expression/differentiation for your content.

In addition to controling presentation, self-publishing also gives you the ability to bring all of your content into one place rather than having it spread off into separate walled-gardens around the internet. Take my website for example, here you can find pretty much everything I post publically (with the exception of my open-source code, which I’m working on self-hosting). By going to stevegattuso.me you can find articles I’ve published, details about my software consulting company, galleries of my garbage attempts at photography, a variety of travelougues, and contact information all in one place (and with the same design!). If I were to do this the social media way I’d be sending users from my site to Medium, Flickr, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. rather than having a centralized and uniform repository for my public-facing digital presence.

The final case I have for self-publishing your content is a bit more from the heart than any sort of utilitarian argument. The web was originally designed to be a decentralized network of documents, linked amongst one other without any form of centralized power to control its fate. Facebook, Twitter, Medium, Google, Instagram, and whatever other tech company you can name are all attempting to undermine this decentralized web in order to keep users in their walled-gardens and better serve their real customers: advertisers. This is not the web that we should be encouraging if we want a world controlled by people rather than corporations. By publishing content on your own website you’re helping reject a future where content is controlled by companies. Instead, you’ll be moving us back towards an open and decentralized web whose purpose is to be fun, interesting, and weird rather than corporate, monotonous, and profit-seeking.

Long live the open web!

Some fun sites I recommend

Before I go, here are some great examples of personal websites that I’ve enjoyed paroozing through:

Also: this isn’t a personal site but basically anything off of Neocities is awesome – it’s a weird and amazing creative corner of the web that I love surfing through.