now you’re just a platform that i used to know…
As Heraclitus of Ephesus is often quoted without due attribution, the only constant in life is change. And so, two years after moving to Medium and experimenting with trying to turn Weird Things into Rantt’s Politech, I’m going back to WordPress on a self-hosted site and spinning Weird Things back into its own, separate entity. Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that if you were following my work for Politech, you’ll have to change your bookmarks. That work still continue, just as a parallel venture more focused on where science and tech meet politics while Weird Things will return to its science and skepticism based roots.
Exactly how the Politiech experiment has panned out deserves its own thorough writeup, one that will come sooner rather than later, and probably won’t be for the faint of heart. But in the meantime, a few other things happened to shape my decision, things I wasn’t expecting would happen two years ago. Some of them were technical, some business-driven, and some were just a product of trying new things and learning from both failures and successes. In the interest of transparency, let’s talk about them.
1) Medium and other aggregators can’t create a viable business model
For a short while, it seemed like aggregators were going to take over the media landscape and be the number one destination for readers, especially Medium with its clinically clean UX. Unfortunately for them, they encountered the same problem as every media outlet with which they tried to partner: how to make money and keep the servers running. In Medium’s case, they’re selling access to paywalled content and encouraging writers to put some of their work behind said paywalls for a share of the revenue.
Problem is that unless you’re already a household name with millions of fans and followers, you get second billing to paywalled star content and end up hiding your work among a glut of other pieces that may easily overwhelm yours. In short, Medium isn’t helping you with branding, it’s just giving you tools to monetize an existing brand while making it more and more difficult to differentiate yourself with anything but a subdued logo and accent colors. Its focus on individual writers means followers become loyal to the author, not the brand, diluting the ability of blogs to truly take off even further on Medium.
2) Users and creators seem to be more or less over Medium
One of the arguments for moving Weird Things to Medium in the first place was the swarm of activity around the aggregator and how many people were reading and sharing Medium pieces. Today it seems like the novelty has worn off and as more and more sites are adopting a clean UI, longform templates and styles, and getting better at mobile content, writers are choosing other venues or making their own spaces cleaner and nicer to use again. Medium is returning to its roots of being the best place for a one-off political rant or think piece, with a heavy dollop of shared paywalled content from major newspapers, while its own magazine was quietly shuttered and the company shrank.
I don’t want to minimize what Medium did. In a busy landscape of disruptive ads, text that was getting too small to read in one of three fonts — Arial, Helvetica, or Times New Roman — and set against a background of ads, ads, ads, and more ads you had to fight with ad blockers until it looked like you only loaded half a page, it brought content front and center and made it far more readable. Medium was the equivalent of grabbing media designers’ heads, asking why they forgot the main reason their site exists, and showing them a better way forward.
In other words, Medium was a moment that inspired writers and designers to imagine a UX that prioritizes content with bold, crisp images and fonts, and fading the clutter of messy ads into the background. But once we understood how to draw from this inspiration and apply it to our own brands and sites, we’re pulling away again and defining our own spaces for work. Competing in a very crowded space and putting up with limitations on self-expression for an extra thousand views at best if we get “featured” based on opaque criteria, seems no longer worth it.
3) WordPress improved and I’ve become better at it
Years of critiques seem to have gotten through to Automattic as they made significant changes to their popular platform and its security. And while I’d need to think about it given the choice of whether to have mild food poisoning or code in PHP, I have dusted off and updated my PHP skills, and started building custom templates with an assist from a slim version of jQuery and Bootstrap for resizing on mobile.
As an added bonus, when creating a template for the next iteration of Weird Things, I had to remaster well over a thousand images, i.e. find much larger versions of them so they don’t just drown out in the new design, or find another suitable image if that wasn’t possible. I also had to create countless subtitles and feature images, even/especially for articles with videos. This event around the Fish household is known as The Lost Month, but hopefully, it will future-proof the content for another ten years as we we’ve basically reached the limits of resolutions screens can display and our eyes can actually perceive.
This doesn’t mean that Weird Things will stay on WordPress forever or that I still won’t build something custom in the future, but one of the things I learned at Rantt was that in the media world, the content comes first and technology second. Readers only care that you deliver the content they want in an attractive shell quickly. How you do it is immaterial, and if you’re going to change it, you need to put the content, not the technology, first. Since WordPress is still the best way to deliver this experience, it made sense to take a step back to it before moving forward with a custom theme and updated graphics.
4) Diving deeper into politics both taught me and changed me
To borrow from Futurama’s Nixon, I’ve become more bitter, and let’s face it, even more jaded over the last two years. Being on Medium rewarded political content by more traffic because it’s one of the easiest ways to generate engagement, and being immersed in a platform strongly hinting that politics was its bread and butter, as well as just seeing the unfolding current events, pushed me in a new direction. But it isn’t necessarily a direction that I liked, and what I saw deserves a much deeper dive, especially for those of us coming from the world of STEM into what seems like an asylum that’s being simultaneously flooded and engulfed in fire.
As Weird Things gets back to business and I figure out next steps and work out the whatever bugs and technical issues will certainly come up as per Murphy’s Law, I will absolutely make that dive. But for now, if you missed weird science, tech, and skeptical takedowns of wild and crazy conspiracy theories, enjoy their slow and steady return in your subliminal brain upload, or however the cool kids these days get their favorite posts and articles…