Every blogging option sucks, except the one that makes sense for you.Marius Masalar; April 2021
Are you interested in starting a blog but unsure of the platform to build it on?
Or are you like me, blogging merrily away when a sudden urge comes to change your blogging theme?
I can’t explain why I keep looking for a blogging platform to call home.
One reason might be the allure of a new shiny thing or the search for an elusive feature. There are also costs to consider and whether or not I feel welcome on a platform.
I had thought it was only me who got the urge to move blogging platforms until I read Marius Masalar’s post.
Yay. I’m not the only one.
I was an infrequent blogger between 2014 and 2017 before becoming despondent. I stopped writing because I lost my original purpose and self-belief.
Was writing helping me or anyone else?
But I missed writing.
Writing is much more than putting words down on the page. Writing is the output from thinking. And thinking is the way we grow, improve our understanding of the world and one way to help others.
Publishing, therefore, is a vital piece of the process, and it isn’t easy to find the ideal solution among the various blogging platforms.
Blogging Platforms: Essential Features
I don’t intend to repeat Marius’ wish list, but I have a shortlist of essential characteristics blogging platforms need to offer.
- Evidence of longevity – Nobody wants to put effort and energy into building a presence on a platform that doesn’t have a long term plan for growth. While any platform could vanish tomorrow, those dependent on one or two individual developers are less likely to last.
- Value for money – VFM is challenging to gauge. Therefore my approach is to compare providers. What does an annual subscription of £70 provide compared to one costing £200? How many bells and whistles do I need or want, and do the costs reflect my needs?
- No coding skills required – Despite my ambition to learn web development, I still don’t want to spend hundreds of hours making minor tweaks to my blog’s theme. I can copy and paste code or make minor tweaks without the blog collapsing. Still, the availability of a user-friendly customisation tool is worth a lot of money by itself.
- Ease of hosting – I enjoy writing, the process, thinking, and publishing. I enjoy some of the technical aspects and, indeed, often treat new software like new toys. But I don’t want to spend an excessive amount of time playing with servers, transferring files over SFTP (whatever that is), and dealing with significant updates.
- Good reviews – Reviews can be fake, and marketing hype can be hard to cut through, but whatever platform your choose, it needs to have engendered a loyal and trusted user-base. My position might sound unfair, especially to newly created platforms, but if a platform proves unreliable, it could risk your entire project.
- Exportable – Leaving a platform must be as easy as it is to join. A writer should own their work and retain the right to take that work elsewhere. Of course, signing over Copywrite is the writer’s prerogative.
Blogging the first time around grew into a backend management disaster.
I hadn’t foreseen the pitfalls of working on WordPress and the minefield of the social media marketing that surrounds it.
Like Apple’s iPhone and the App Store, WordPress.org has a plugin store, with third parties selling their premium versions offsite. My mistake was to listen to the “How to make money blogging” mantra, which deflected me from my writing and publishing core values. Within months, I had seventeen plugins, a Twitter account, a FaceBook page, and an Aweber sign-up form.
I quit because the experience was awful.
When the writing urge returned, I searched for a more straightforward solution. My search through the maze of blogging platforms follows.
In 2014 when I started blogging, I looked at Ghost. Ghost once presented itself as a WordPress alternative, with the original tag line “Just a blogging platform.” However, by that time, the platform had already begun to grow into a higher-end publishing platform that would give humble writers like me an inferiority complex.
When I returned to writing in early 2020, I threw caution to the wind and signed up for Ghost Pro, the managed hosting service, costing a minimum of £260 a year. Ghost’s managed hosting service was the easier option. The more technically minded users can use Ghost’s software for free and host it themselves at modest to low cost.
Ghost ticked a few boxes:
- Longevity – Ghost is a non-profit organisation set up by its creator, John O’Nolan. Ghost can’t be sold and will continue should O’Nolan get hit by a bus.
- Ease of hosting – Simple if you use Ghost Pro or know what you’re doing elsewhere in the cloud.
- Good reviews – Ghost has a good reputation.
I enjoyed using Ghost Pro, but I had doubts about signing up for a second expensive year. However, in early 2021 a new lower pricing tier became available, but too late for me.
Aside from the cost, other downsides include limited theme options compared to WordPress, which require some coding knowledge to customise.
The platform has now made a total pivot toward membership sites. The latest release, Ghost 4.0, well and truly embeds the concept of paid memberships. If you are looking for an alternative to Substack, Ghost might be your answer. But for writers who only want a blogging platform, Ghost is no longer interested in you.
The ability to export your data is another concern.
While Ghost enables export in a “big beautiful JSON file”, what you do with that file is anyone’s guess. I searched for a solution and ended up manually copying and pasting every post into my new site.
Svbtle was launched by Dustin Curtis in 2011 and was initially an invite-only service, eventually opening to everyone. The blogging platform is much the same today as it was then, and that’s not a criticism.
Svbtle, as the name suggests, is minimalist in the extreme, clean and subtle, and I love it. The platform ticks every box on the vitals list and offers a new meaning to longevity. Svbtle’s forever promise, with a few conditions, is to keep your content on the web forever, even after you stop subscribing.
With longevity, the platform costs $75 per year and provides a clean and logical writing and publishing platform. The dashboard is very appealing, being “designed to help you curate thoughts and stories, work on them slowly, and publish when you’re ready.”
There is no nonsense with Svbtle about publishing three times a week.
Svbtle offers a few minor customisation options, colours, logo and custom domain. The result is all blogs look similar and load very fast, with the focus on your message.
There is no commenting on Svbtle. Instead, a Kudos system, a small circle when clicked, gives the writer something similar to a thumbs up 👍.
But I have a problem with Svbtle.
Svbtle appears abandoned.
The welcome site is modern, up to date, and fast, but when I requested an SSL/TLS certificate, there was no reply. Nobody wants their blog to trigger browser warnings.
After a few test posts and no timely response from the concierge (email help ticket), I left.
Ironically, after I deleted my account, Dustin responded to my SSL query. He had been busy working on Svbtle V2, but I had settled elsewhere.
Based on web-references, Svbtle looks abandoned – blogging platform reviews and other blogs on the Svbtle network all date back to 2014/15 or earlier. It’s a challenge for me to source an active Svbtle-based blog.
My view on Svbtle is simple: it is fantastic, but nobody seems to be at home.
Write.as is a blogging platform that draws on some of the strengths of both Svbtle and Ghost.
There is a distraction-free editor that auto-saves your writing, low annual costs for a Pro account and an easy method to upload and amend themes via copy and pasting of CSS.
Custom domains are also part of the Pro package.
There is a significant focus on privacy to the extent you can use the platform for free to publish anonymously, within specific guidelines.
At this point, I am finding it a challenge to think of negative points. The platform also has a built-in community of readers/bloggers via the Read.as forum but no commenting system. Your backend includes simple statistics to show how many readers your articles attracted.
When you first discover Write.as you might get confused. The platform has a range of products.
- Writefreely is the software that runs Write.as and is open source and is available to host on your servers.
- Read.write.as is the blog roll where people can read articles in one place.
- Snap.as is the image hosting service akin to SmugMug.
- Draft.as is a team/collaborative version of Write.as.
- Submit.as is for publications – I think, but already it’s confusing.
If Svbtle has focus, Write.as is a bit scatter-gun. Image handling can also be clunky, with needing Snap.as to host images. But otherwise, Write.as ticks all the vitals.
Write.as is also a supporter of the indie web movement.
I also have Write.as to thank for giving my writing a boost via its #100Daystooffload challenge. Needless to say, I didn’t reach 100 and left after a few months.
I left because I had a blog for long-form content and a microblog. Writing across three platforms isn’t recommended, and unfortunately, with its confusing array of products, Write.as lost.
Blot.im is an intriguing blogging platform. Its unique selling point is it’s a platform without an interface.
Compared to Svbtle, Ghost and others that show off their writing environments, Blot needs you to use your favourite writing tools to create your posts. Blot then turns all content from your chosen folder into your blog via Dropbox or Git.
Anything you put in your specified folder gets published automatically. The developer explains how in Blot’s video.
I have no experience using Blot, but when I discovered it, I kept revisiting the main site, and it remained high on my list of Ghost alternatives.
The developer promises longevity, and while the platform also offers excellent value, Dropbox is another expense to consider should you need more than a 2GB basic account.
Ease of hosting, loyal users, and data ownership are not issues. However, my decision not to use Blot took account of the following:
- Customisation – Blot offers a few limited templates; however, my overall impression was some coding experience would be required to get the look you want.
- Exportability – While your data is in easy reach on your folders, I was unsure how you would migrate your blog, keeping URLs intact, to another platform should you ever need to. There’s probably a way, but it wasn’t apparent to me.
Blot looks like it has a long life ahead, and the developer publishes the development pathway on the site, so you know where it’s heading.
With Posthaven, I never got past the landing pages.
Posthaven reminded me of Svbtle. The blogging platform makes a forever promise, aiming to keep your posts on the web forever, even if you stop paying after a year.
Garry Tan and Brett Gibson, two of the co-founders of an earlier blogging platform, Posterous, created Posthaven. Posterous was launched in 2008, acquired by Twitter in 2012 and shut down in 2013. Hence the developers’ commitment to a forever promise.
Unlike Svbtle, however, I couldn’t find a way to explore the writing or posting environment. The theme examples displayed on the main site are quite old.
To my surprise, if you search “Posthaven blogs”, you will find many examples and evidence of people still using the service today. I found some posts published days ago.
Like Svbtle’s Kudos system, visitors can upvote posts. I gave a random post a vote as a test.
I am surprised there are active users today because Posthaven appears abandoned.
When assessing any platform or software product, I recommend checking out their blog page, FAQs and social media accounts.
Social or blog entries from long ago are a tell-tale sign not much is happening.
And so it is with Posthaven. The occasional Tweet, an undated blog entry that hasn’t changed since I first discovered it, and online reviews that mainly originate from years ago.
Like Svbtle, I want Posthaven to live.
Where do I start with Medium?
I’ve tried the blogging platform twice, and both times I’ve left feeling despondent.
Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, created Medium and launched it in 2012 to encourage users to write. For a time, it was a pro-writer, pro-solo blogging platform. However, the platform keeps changing its focus or pivoting to give it a common term.
In 2017 Medium introduced a paywall, charging £5 per month to have unlimited access to stories and facilitating payment to writers via the Medium Partner Programme. Likes became applause, and eventually, the focus, in my opinion, shifted towards more prominent publications.
Indeed, individual writers are only best served if they write for Medium’s hosted publications.
Back in its early years, online reviewers often compared Medium to Svbtle and Posthaven, but Medium pulled out ahead.
Medium is renowned for its clean, minimalist word editor and ease of use. Writers don’t need to concern themselves with hosting or any technical issues at all.
In terms of platform vitals, longevity doesn’t appear to be an issue. The platform also offers value for money, and recent changes allow more customisation. Exporting data is also easy.
Custom domains were a feature, then removed and again recently reinstated.
But my gripes with the platform are numerous.
- The partner programme encourages writers to produce high volumes of content. I grew tired of the constant volume of banal stories fed to my stream such as Be Part of the 1%: Write a Data-Backed eBook That Becomes the Foundation to Make 6-Figures or I, For One, Am Sick of Looking At Trump’s Face, or hundreds of stories like How I Make $5,000 Online Every Month — Even Though I’m Ordinary.
- Writing on Medium is similar to writing on any social media network. The platform has the final say on your writing, i.e. you are writing on rented ground.
- Exposure of your stories is at the mercy of Medium’s algorithm and the number of followers you have. Medium has become a social network first, writing platform second.
- The platform has become dominated by a circle of volume-busting writers such as Tim Denning and Tom Kuegler; nice guys, I’ve no doubt.
While I enjoyed some viral success courtesy of Hacker Noon and made a little cash for fun, Medium made me focus on chasing views and other stats.
Medium’s problem is it doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Silvrback presents itself as a platform for simple minimalist blogging, also similar to Svbtle or Medium. But straightaway, the platform reaches out to coders and developers.
Quotes from the home page include, “One of the best blogging platforms for programmers – coders” and “Whatever the label – web developer, programmer, or coder – this will feel like home.”
I found it hard to feel part of Ghost and Medium. The last thing I wanted was to set up a blog on a platform targeted at a different user base.
Silvrback doesn’t need to do that, however. There is no reason why the platform can’t reach out to a variety of potential users.
Damien Sowers created the Silvrback blogging platform around 2013 but sold it in 2015. I find such a quick change of ownership puzzling, but the platform appears to be receiving care and attention.
In terms of value, after a fourteen-day trial, an annual subscription is only $35.
Customisation options are unknown, but themes seem deliberately limited and minimalistic with some current user sites on display.
Hosting is taken care of, but it’s unclear if custom domains are available and current reviews are hard to find.
Like some others, Silvrback is still around, but nobody is putting fire in its belly. Social media and blog posts go without updates, and one wonders just how much longer the blogging platform will be around.
Out of curiosity, I looked at Hugo. Hugo is an open-source static site generator offering fast site speed and can power clean, minimalist blogs. Hugo, and similar blogging languages, is not a hosted service and is definitely in a coder/developer’s comfort zone.
It’s unfair to add it to my list, but I looked, didn’t understand a word of the quick start guide, and moved swiftly on.
Why I Returned to WordPress
With my Ghost Pro annual subscription due for renewal, I decided on how to host this blog.
Of all the blogging platforms available, I chose WordPress.
But what about the pain and anguish of backend maintenance, plugin hell and theme clunkiness?
There’s no such thing this time around.
My experience and exploration of other blogging platforms have taught me one thing. You can have what the minimalists offer on WordPress too.
My WordPress strategy is simple.
Aim for a Svbtle-style blog and nothing more. I also approach writing in the Svbtle way – beginning with ideas, crafting the post and publishing whenever it’s ready.
GeneratePress is my newly adopted theme, and it has been faultless. Easy to customise, fast and has the potential to do more if that’s what you need.
I use four plugins and Siteground for hosting.
WordPress can be a nightmare, or it can a little place of calm. It’s up to the user to make it their own, and it ticks all the boxes.
Minimalist Blogging Platforms: Conclusion
Around ten years ago, there was a wave of new blogging platforms promising a unique style of blogging. Each promised minimalist-style editors, simple publishing and longevity.
But few of the blogging platforms have flourished, some floundered, and others hang on by their fingernails.
The developers of the quiet platforms need to make some noise about their products again.
I’m looking at you, Svbtle!
The Svbtle forever promise is tantalising and if version 2.0 made migration easy, support more responsive, and auto-enabled SSL (instead of being in beta forever), I could be tempted.
I’ll end as I began, with Marius’ quote. The best blogging platform is the one that makes sense for you.
Oh, and keep it simple.