I started this personal blog a bit more than a month ago. It has been a really interesting experiment. Some posts even made it to the front page of hacker news. Google analytics tells me this blog had about 46 thousand page views across all posts!

Even with way more views than I was expecting, it’s been really hard to convert these viewers into a more regular following for the blog. I believe this problem stems from a lack of a good platform to build this kind of blog upon. A good blogging platform should provide the ability to follow and discover content. Hosting a blog on Github pages like I do right now doesn’t do either of these things well.

The blogging space in 2022

If you’re starting a tech blog in 2022 these are the most relevant options:

  • Medium
  • Substack
  • GitHub pages or self-hosting (requires technical know-how)
  • Older platforms like Blogger or WordPress.

Medium is a blog aggregator. Users submit their blog posts in their pages, which are like YouTube channels. Instead of having free content with ads like YouTube, you can read a maximum of 3 free articles per month, then you hit a paywall. You don’t pay for individual writers’ content. You just subscribe to Medium and it splits the subscription money across writers according to their readership.

The Medium model is interesting and bold. But the paywall is a no go for me. I wanted my friends to be able to read my posts, almost none of them have a paid Medium subscription. In fact, I’ve only ever met one person who subscribes to Medium, so I felt it would limit my reach too much.

Substack is more centered around the newsletter format. Users can subscribe to individual blogs and get new posts in their email. Writers can charge for some or all of their posts through monthly subscriptions. The experience is all centered around email and subscriptions. You don’t go to Substack to find things to read like medium, you just get new posts in your inbox.

GitHub Pages, self hosting, Blogger and WordPress are pretty equivalent in terms of discovery and subscribing. They’re just tools to get your blog running in some domain, not platforms where people go to consume written content.

Medium and Substack are focused on people who want to make a living out of writing. It makes sense, journalism is too important to depend exclusively on ads. Real journalism should definitely have a platform to be published on and make money off it.

But there is still no blogging platform that caters to casual blogs like this one. I don’t wanna make a living out of this blog, I just want to share my thoughts online. A blog platform would be a great match for my needs, but only Medium is trying to do this and they have a paywall.

Content discovery for blogs

I have previously discussed how content discovery has evolved for other media types. If you’re consuming music or movies, Spotify and Netflix will have a personal profile of you with suggestions specifically tailored for you based on your previously consumed content.

Medium does this for blogging, but only behind a paywall. Other than that, blog content discovery is still stuck on 2000s-era Hacker News or Reddit style popularity ranking websites.

This cross-blog content recommendation experience is something that is only possible with a platform-centric approach. It is not something that can be achieved using GitHub pages or the individual writer mailing lists from Substack.

Blog subscriptions have too much friction

Let’s say you pull off a Reddit home page with long form text (good luck) and get loads of people to your blog. Give it a couple days and your traffic will be pretty much back to your baseline. Even if they like your content, people are not simply going to put a blog in their browser favorites bar and visit it daily to see of there’s something new.

A blogging platform can offer the best possible subscription experience: a subscribe button. In every single post in Medium, there’s a Follow button you can click on to subscribe to an author. Whenever you go to the home page of the platform, you see new stuff from authors you subscribed to.

Blogs have RSS, but it is still too clumsy for non-technical people. Copying some RSS URL into whatever RSS reader you use is not as user friendly as just clicking “subscribe” on YouTube. Most people don’t even know what RSS is!

I see a lot of blogs using mailing lists to notify readers about new posts as well. It kinda works, but it is still worse than a good platform; It adds too much friction. Handing out an email takes some amount of trust, because of spam and so on. People usually don’t give their email to some random tech blog they found on Reddit.

Compare that to YouTube. There’s a subscribe button right below every single video. It takes literally one click. There’s no need to worry about spam either. If the user doesn’t like the content it also takes a single click to unsubscribe; no need to worry about spam.

Is the casual blog platform space up for grabs?

Medium offers great content discovery and integrated subscriptions. But only for people who are actually willing to read long form text AND pay for it. That’s too limiting for many blogs, this one included.

Substack doesn’t want to be a central platform where people go to consume text content like YouTube is for video or Medium for text. It just wants to perform the boring technical tasks necessary to run a paid email newsletter. It is interesting for those who don’t want to depend on a platform like Medium to earn their living (you own the mailing list), but the platform tradeoffs can be well worth it for a more casual blog like this one.

GitHub pages and self-hosting can be fun for technical people, but they don’t offer none of the conveniences a blogging platform provides.

That’s it. These are all the options that you really have for starting a blog today. You’re stuck between Medium’s paywall and Substack’s lack of content discovery.

So, do blogs still matter?

Like blogs now, podcasts were in a bit of a limbo some years ago. At some point, podcasters found out that posting videos of the podcast being recorded on YouTube worked really well. YouTube’s huge user base and content discovery brought in lots of people who did not previously consume podcasts. The format has been flourishing ever since.

Maybe blogs could have a similar breakthrough? Whoever figures out a way to tap into a much bigger market for users and content discovery to draw in readers will quickly become a leader in the blogging space.

Platforms will follow the money. The blogging space today is as boring as I described because there is a lot more money being made in other spaces like video.

Maybe if blogs start to flourish like podcasts did, we’ll see new players fighting for the blog platform space. Spotify was quick to notice the change in the podcasts space and invested heavily in becoming a platform for it. It seems to be working.

If we see some VC-funded unicorn blogging platform pulling the Joe Rogan move on some major blog, we’ll know blogs matter again. Until then, I think I’ll probably stick with this Hugo blog on Github Pages.