How to Internet: Publishing

As you get better at the internet, you’ll likely start to feel a desire to share something with the world. Thankfully, the internet is awash with technologies that make that easy and painless.

Outside of Facebook, the can-be-used-for publishing platform that most civilians are likely to have heard about is Twitter, which hardly qualifies as a publishing platform. If you’re ever looking for an old tweet, you’ll quickly realize that the medium is built to be short-lived. That’s not an inherently bad thing, but anyone who has the compulsion to record their thoughts in a public way probably doesn’t want to do so on such an ephemeral platform. Add to that the character limit and I would contend that anyone trying to use Twitter for much more than fooling around is acting foolishly. So, one wonders, how do I publish things in a public way so they can be found later?

My answer, at least for any word publishing (I’ve never tried to publish lots of photos, video, or audio, so I can offer no expertise) is to use either Tumblr or WordPress (either flavor).

Lloyd has a Tumblr, which I like, and it illustrates one of the central strengths of Tumblr. For pulling together disparate media types and publishing them quickly, I don’t think a better tool exists. And even though it was really built for that, there are other ways to use Tumblr. More than a few hip designer-types use it for blogs very much like this one.

But compared to WordPress, Tumblr’s features for a complete personal blog are somewhat lacking. It’s certainly not terrible, it’s just not as awesome and adaptable as a self-hosted installation of WordPress. Lone Gunman is online because of a self-hosted WordPress installation, as are my sites. Self-hosted WordPress offers a wealth of features Tumblr doesn’t have, like automatic post revisions, full category and tag support, and the ability to access your posts in thousands of different way with just a little PHP know-how.

But if you’re just getting started, self-hosted does have the serious downside of requiring you to have and maintain your own server space. That’s where WordPress.com comes in, it’s more directly comparable to Tumblr—only requiring you to create a log in for it to work—but it also offers features like post revisions, as well as a great full-screen writing view, and a bevy of things not mentioned. (If you’re interested, I recently made a longer write-up of the Tumblr vs WordPress.com question.)

Lest we forget, there are also a number of tools other than those two, both free and paid. Notable free ones include: Google’s Blogger (which, after what feels like a decade of neglect, finally has an interesting-looking future), Posterous, Joomla, LiveJournal, and Drupal. Some paid ones are Typepad and Moveable Type (technically free or paid), Squarespace, and ExpressionEngine. In both categories there are certainly even more I can’t think of. I don’t have enough experience with any of those to have much guidance about them, but if you don’t like Tumblr or WordPress, they’re all certainly viable options.

Really, though, the importance of the tool you use to publish pales in comparison to the way in which you use it. An active Tumblr may be marginally worse for long-form writing than WordPress, but it’s vastly better than a disused WordPress site. And that’s hard work that I don’t nearly have the ability to cover this week. If you’re looking to actually get some help with that, please allow me to recommend Merlin Mann’s ouvre, and particularly this little riff about making the clackity noise.

What you should write about, when, with what frequency, those are all non-trivial questions, but I’d again emphasize that they pale in comparison to the importance of doing work rather than thinking about it.

And a final point: writing, especially on the internet, is hardly the quickest path to fame and fortune. If you’re only interested in publishing stuff on the internet for that reason, get out now. The probability you’ll find more than heartbreak and frustration down that road to fame is lottery-winning small.

I don’t mean to end on a crushing note. There’s huge value in internet publishing beyond its minute potential for saving you from ever needing “a real job.” But for a while I thought it would have that potential for me and it didn’t. Instead, what I got was an unexpected community of people to learn from, and a chance to work with people like Lloyd. People interested in making good stuff on the internet, even if it never gets us anything. That’s the reason to try your hand at web-publishing: it’s a beach-head onto the wider world of substantive accomplishment and relationships in a way that no Twitter account or Facebook page is. But it hardly guarantees you of anything but a modest square of sand.