Blogging is hard

Publishing on the internet has never been as easy as the technoütopians would have it. (This week, I’ve decided to maximise my use of the diaeresis: see this MemeFirst entry if you want to know why.) And after fiddling around with for a few hours yesterday, I’m more pessimistic than ever about the prospects for the web becoming the great democratic leveller which it looked set to become when I first got online.

The problem is that every time a difficulty is solved and the road onto the web becomes easier, a new development takes place somewhere else which only serves to make life more complicated than it was before. What used to be an easy publishing system with high barriers to entry is now a much more complex publishing system with lower barriers to entry. As a result, web publishing remains largely confined to the overeducated urban elite – precisely the population which had the greatest access to more old-fashioned media.

While I was tweaking this site (more on that later), Oliver Willis was at BloggerCon in Boston, and had this to say:

During one of the Saturday sessions a member of the audience referred to the assembled crowd as “utopia”. Now, yes, I loved the blog camaraderie but quite frankly I don’t want to be the only black person in utopia. I was the only black person in that room, and was one of a few minorities. I’m not whining about that, but simply stating the fact that a technology that is mostly the pursuit of upper middle class white males does diddly to change the real world.

I don’t think Oliver is right: there are many technologies which are mainly the pursuit of upper middle class white males and which have undoubtedly changed the world. Space travel is one obvious example. But he does make the excellent point that blogging is essentially giving a voice to the kind of people who were not exactly muzzled in the past.

The depressing thing is that the barriers to web publishing at this point are not cultural so much as they are technical. Most people are capable of sending an email or posting on some kind of web-based bulletin board. Most people are not capable of setting up a halfways-decent weblog. I’m hoping TypePad (which officially launched today) will help change this, but the fact remains that if you want to do any real messing about with how your website is put together, you need to essentially become a coder.

When I first started browsing the web, on a Sun workstation running Mosaic, it was really incredibly easy to understand. You would write text, basically, and then put <h> tags around headlines, <strong> or <em> tags around things you wanted to emphasise, and so on. Images were a little bit harder, but not much. You basically just marked up your text to show whch elements were which, and let the browser do the rest.

But it wasn’t long before the designers got in on the act. They didn’t care about making sure that text was correctly marked up – they cared about what it looked like when it was rendered in a browser. From demand came supply, and it wasn’t long before rogue tags like <b>, <i> and, of course, the dreaded <flash> started turning up in HTML. These things said nothing about the text itself, and attempted instead to dictate how it was seen by the reader.

Now while all these developments were OK in and of themselves, the problem was that most websites wanted to be one step ahead of everybody else. The browser makers, led by Netscape and Microsoft, rushed to support all manner of increasingly recondite code, and web pages became more and more complex, to the point where the vast majority of commercial websites are completely incomprehensible when viewed as source code. A lot of the markup was automatically generated by software like FrontPage which generally erred on the side of specificity rather than simplicity, with the inevitable bloatful consequences. And we’ve long since passed the point where the markup actually takes up more bandwidth than the content, which I’m sure was something that Tim Berners-Lee never envisaged.

By this point, your own personalised website was a pretty easy thing to get: rather than having to provide name servers yourself, you could pay a for-profit company to do all that kind of thing for you. But once people started having to pay for domain names, the internet, fueled by the dot-com bubble, became a corporate playground, further and further removed from its original inception as a democratic network. The vast majority of us were lurking viewers, and the vast majority of web traffic went to a handful of sites with enormous market capitalisations.

The advent of blogging, which coincided with the bursting of the stock-market bubble, was meant to change all that. Easy web publishing tools put everybody on an equal footing, and we could all have our own place where we could print whatever we liked.

The problem was that web publishing technology had moved on, and a plain-bones HTML site simply wouldn’t hack it any more. I can think of one reasonably-trafficked site which is bog-standard hand-codeable HTML, but if anybody less famous were to go down that route I can’t imagine that anybody beyond their friends would come back very often. Besides, the presence of things like “&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;” in the source code betrays the fact that even this ultra-basic blog was actually generated not by hand but by computer.

If you want something a bit sexier, then you start running into an alphabet soup of what are, essentially, programming languages you need to learn. XHTML, PHP, RSS, CSS – all of these things are very, very user-unfriendly. On top of that, if you use a blogging tool like MoveableType, you need to deal with all of their idiosyncratic coding as well.

What I’m talking here is infinitely more complex and counterintuitive than old-fashioned markup. It does wonderful things, of course – I can change the whole look and feel of this site without having to reënter any of the content, for instance – but it also comes at great cost. There’s been a kind of arms race when it comes to web-based tools, and anyone using only HTML is essentially using a penknife to compete with a laser-guided cruise missile.

The thing is, penknives are easy to understand and control, while cruise missiles aren’t.

Take as an example. It’s powered by Moveable Type, which had to be installed on my server. Even MT themselves admit that’s non-trivial: I got my techy friend Stefan in Sweden to do it. Then you have page templates, which the brave toss out and rebuild anew, but which I just tweak to try to get things vaguely as I’d like them. That involves looking at code like this, and working out what it does and how I might want to change it.

<div id=”banner”>

<h1><a href=”<$MTBlogURL$>” accesskey=”1″><$MTBlogName$></a></h1><p></p>

<span class=”description”><$MTBlogDescription$></span>


That’s real code from the template for this homepage, by the way. See those <div> tags? I half-understand what they do; I have no idea what the <span> tag does.

But that’s not the half of it: in order to really change the look and feel of the site, you need to mess about in something called the Stylesheet. That’s written in something called CSS, and looks a bit like this:

.blogbody a,

.blogbody a:link,

.blogbody a:visited,

.blogbody a:active,

.blogbody a:hover {

font-weight: normal;

text-decoration: underline;


Of course, all those curly brackets and full stops and spaces and colons are absolutely vital, and it takes quite a bit of chutzpah to go in and try to change stuff, especially when you don’t really have a clue what you’re doing.

Yesterday I decided that since I’d already changed my blog to php from html (don’t ask: I don’t really understand myself), I might as well make use of it and include links to recent stories I’d posted on MemeFirst. The results are up in the top left hand corner of the page. This took about three hours, altogether, first of all googling around the web trying to find the right tool to do what I wanted, then trying to install it, and then getting it to look like what I wanted it to look like. If you’re interested, I used a set of PHP functions written by Jason of the Trommeter Times, and the instructions for installation, in full, are “it’s really pretty simple and should be self-explanatory.”

Without Stefan, I could never have done it; with him, it was still very difficult. Here’s some of my PHP code, to give you an idea of what I was dealing with:

if ($tagName == “ITEM”) {

printf(“<li><a target=’_blank’ href=’%s’>%s</a><br



if (strlen ($description) > 0) {

printf(“%s<br />”,htmlspecialchars(trim($description)));


Trust me, it’s just as forbidding as it looks. And yes, the type of people who come up with this stuff really do think that it’s self-explanatory. (I might add that they’re also the type of people who think it’s really funny that PHP stands for PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor. Yes, it kind of recurses infinitely back into itself.)

We’re living in a world, as Virginia Postrel likes to point out, where cleaning ladies advertising their services compete largely on the strength of the graphic design on their flyers. Anybody with a PC can come up with something pretty beautiful pretty easily, and many do.

But when it comes to web design, there’s nothing easy about it. If you want complete control over your flyer for janitorial services, you’ve got it. If you want complete control over the look and feel of your website, you have to either jump straight into the deep end of geekdom, or get a geek to do it for you. Of course, geeks often like to throw all manner of horrible bells and whistles into websites just because they can and because it means they can charge more, so most people like to do the web-designing themselves if they possibly can.

Given all that, it’s hardly surprising that bloggers tend to be overeducated urban graduates, who are less likely to be intimidated by all those $‘s and ==‘s, and who in any case have relatively easy access to web designers and the ready cash with which to pay them. But it doesn’t bode well for the future growth of blogging.

I am convinced that just as the web-publishing revolution is supposedly going full speed ahead, it has ironically never been harder to publish your own stuff on the web. Blogging is not going to include very many genuinely marginalised voices unless and until someone writes some powerful and yet easy-to-use software which makes things like setting up templates as easy as formatting a document in Word.

To be honest, I don’t think that’s possible: there are so many variables now in the code for web pages that you really can’t just keep things simple any more.

For that reason, then, I think that bloggers are going to remain an elite subset of the already-elite group of web users for the foreseeable future. It’s just too bloody difficult to ever become really popular.

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16 Responses to Blogging is hard

  1. I wouldn’t be too pessimistic as to the state of web page publication tools. It’s now at least possible for ordinary web users to write for the web, something that wasn’t practical when everything had to be written by hand.

    There’s certainly a long way to go as far as tools are concerned, but good technology takes time even on the Internet.

  2. Felix says:

    Thanks for your comment, Colin, and I see you’ve got some very intelligent to say on the subject on your own blog today. My point was that putting together a Moveable Type weblog (say) is actually harder than writing HTML by hand. My worry is that technologies like PHP and CSS will continue to advance much more rapidly than web-publishing tools, and that the user will never catch up with the technology. The gap’s widening, not narrowing, is my point.

  3. Jame says:


    I’m a technology moron (I really find it dull) but found this essay very interesting and thought-provoking. It is a relevant anecdote that livens that cliche, the digital divide.

    If there’s a solution to this problem, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is realized in India, not just because it is a software powerhouse. I remember the last time I visted to meet with some of those famous Indian tech companies, these guys were not only business entrepreneurs. They were passionate about bringing the benefits of the internet to India, particularly the rural poor, who have traditionally been isolated.

    All it’s going to take is a few programmers who want to bring blogging to Indians, who seem to have an infinite capacity to talk about their three favorite things: politics, cricket and Bollywood. I don’t know anything about the blogging scene there but it could be an interesting tangent.

  4. sy klopps says:

    The trouble with Blogs that I see..(limited) is that most people have nothing really interesting to say. They just post inane stories that already exist in the mainstream medias.

    Or it’s just unintelligable personal blather.

  5. geoff says:

    as desktop publishing and powerpoint have shown us (with perhaps your cleaning lady aside), ease of use does not produce good graphics. there is not a talented graphic designer hidden in everyone- just waiting for the right graphic tool to come along.

    this doesn’t mean that raising the complexity level will filter out all but the most graphically talented.

    there are many blog formated websites for various web subcultures that are almost graphically illegible (i am thinking of several shell & hacker/techie sites). the are very graphically rich, but not being in the targeted subculture, it takes me a while to make sense of the content presented- is that a good blog?

    at the other end of the scale would be the websites produced by the conspiracy theorists of all ilks. these tend to be simple text in oversized varying fonts of garish colors. it all seems to be less a choice, then a lack of talent. does that make for a good blog?

    i think that the only bloggers who are going to be an “elite subset of the already-elite group” are those who realize that to reach a specific demographic, a blog should have a specific graphic format.

    for the rest of the graphically challenged world out there, the dissemination and absorbtion of content, rants, screeds, opinion, views and psychobabble of all sorts continues to be a simple yet visually garish exercise.

  6. It may be harder to put together an MT template than to code a static HTML page – but that’s only got a limited impact on the accessibility of the web as a forum for publishing.

    When users had not choice but to write static HTML pages the barrier was very high – you had to learn some HTML or you couldn’t publish. If you wanted to update your site then you had to go through every page you’ve written which acts as another barrier.

    The current generation of blogging tools help in two ways:

    1 – it’s possible to publish on the web with no HTML knowledge (I’ve got a friend on Live Journal who until recently didn’t know how to do links).

    2 – If you want to do site maintenance it’s now possible, regardless of how much content you have.

    I agree that there’s plenty of room for improvement, but I think you’ve under-estimated the barriers that raw HTML pages present to people doing self publishing on the web.

  7. Xhenxhefil says:

    Besides, the presence of things like “"&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;"” in the source code betrays the fact that even this ultra-basic blog was actually generated not by hand but by computer.

    Not true; I’ve hand-coded several websites, with no knowledge of cascading stylesheets or Flash or how to make columns or mouseover links or forms, and I’ve typed (or cutandpasted) “&nbsp;"” hundreds of times, because it’s the only way to get more than two spaces in a row in HTML.

    I maintained a website for a while ( ). Then I notice that Microsoft Word contained an HTML editing function. I thought this would be more convenient than using Notepad and having to close the file all the time to look at it, so I used Word once. I didn’t try to add any features to the site, but simply saving it in Word led to the whole thing being baroquely encoded in ways I have no idea how to reverse or edit.

    Now I can’t change it with anything other than Word, and it’s subject to horrible arbitrary limitations similar to those that pop up when Word assumes you want to make a bullet list or start every line with a number. And as you can see, it hasn’t been edited since December.

  8. Michelle says:

    Another reason not to have my own blog. I’m quite happy to make guest appearances and whore around while the techies spend hour after hour decoding this stuff. I’d rather ride my bike.

  9. Ian says:

    Felix wrote:

    “I don’t think Oliver is right: there are many technologies which are mainly the pursuit of upper middle class white males and which have undoubtedly changed the world. Space travel is one obvious example. But he does make the excellent point that blogging is essentially giving a voice to the kind of people who were not exactly muzzled in the past….”

    It’s hard to know for sure since blogging is such an anonymous means of publishing but I really get the sense that the highest profile bloggers are mostly people who are already a part of the “media elite” who blog on the side. At that point it turns out that the lack of diverse voices in the media then gets replicated in the blogging world. It’s easy to start a blog like I did a couple months ago ( but not so easy to ensure anyone reads or even hears about it if you’re not part of the network of media insiders whose blogs get the most attention.

  10. Felix says:

    Don’t be disheartened, Ian. I started this blog in 1999, and only a couple of weeks ago got my 6/10 Google PageRank ranking. Traffic naturally increases over time: just don’t expect anything to happen quickly.

  11. Ian says:

    To Felix:

    Thanks, I’ll keep grindin’ regardless. I’d write my blog whether a lot of people read it or none. It’s become a part of me in a weird way. My problem has become reading, seeing and hearing too much stuff of interest to include it all in posts without basically spending all day, every day blogging.

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