Mic Wright detects a sea change occurring in web publishing but wonders whether that will be a clean slate or just a nice new earner for the few.
It has remarkably refined taste for a 10-year-old but that’s what comes from having an aesthete for a father – a man who memorably spoke about the auteur theory of design. The child in question is a blog, a blog called Daring Fireball, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this month. Its father is John Gruber, one of the web’s most distinctive voices on Apple, design and general excellence.
Gruber is very influential among technology writers and the wider industry. And that influence appears to be spreading. Daring Fireball has maintained a dramatically minimal look, shunning pictures and the awkward trappings of community that squat at the bottom of most websites.
The debate around comments and their worth has been growing steadily noisier in recent years as writers and a significant proportion of readers become tired of comment threads where abuse and bile drown out anything of worth. As a writer, it’s infuriating. Every week I have to bite my tongue at comments on my articles from (often anonymous) individuals with grudges, together with those who have simply not properly read what I’ve written.
With Daring Fireball, Gruber took a bold decision long before the rest of the web establishment started to truly question the orthodoxy that comments are a must. Daring Fireball has never had comments and Gruber has strongly defended that stance. Does that mean he avoids debate and discussion? No. His explanation in a 2010 piece, “I’ll Tell You What’s Fair”, only becomes more pertinent with time:
“What makes DF an efficient and effective soapbox is exactly that it is not noisy. My goal is not for a single wasted word to appear anywhere on any page of the site…now that DF has achieved a modicum of popularity… [I get] demands that I add [comments] – demands from entitled people who see that I’ve built something very nice that draws much attention, and who believe they have the right to share in it. They don’t…
“Comments, at least on popular websites, aren’t conversations. They’re cacophonous shouting matches. DF is a curated conversation, to be sure, but that’s the whole premise.”
That philosophy of curation, of the website owner as auteur, is gaining more credence and new sites following in Gruber’s footsteps have begun to emerge in recent months.
Is the web turning away from the idea of the untrammelled “conversation”? We can only hope so: not every voice is equal. Some people are ignorant and unpleasant and do not deserve the same level of amplification as professional writers. No journalist deserves the level of invective regularly levelled at all of us for the crime of expressing an opinion or revealing an uncomfortable truth.
To build a site without comments is not to say that you are rejecting commentary on your work but rather that you are not willing to allow your arguments to be drowned out by the baying, belching and belly-aching of other agendas. It might be argued that if a commenter has a cogent and persuasive response, they should pen it on their own blog. Those tools are available to all.
There is an ongoing debate here at The Kernel about whether comments should be a feature. Certainly with Facebook, Twitter and many other platforms including personal blogs open for responses, traditional comment sections can often end up as flypaper for freaks and an area for score-settling and mickey-taking. Even though we use Facebook comments to minimise trolling, and even though the quality of commenters at The Kernel is unusually high, like any site with a lot of visitors there can be problems from time to time.
While Gruber does not allow comments on Daring Fireball, he is active on Twitter, engaging with critical voices when he chooses to. The idea that writers are required to dive into the mud to battle it out with everyone who chooses to criticise them is tiresome (though sometimes tempting). Visit the comment sections at the Guardian’s Comment Is Free and you’ll find very little beyond baiting and partisan point-scoring.
The supposed egalitarianism of the free-for-all Guardian model is beginning to look dated, as the Gruberisation of the web becomes more prevalent. Look at SVTBLE, the locked down, stark blogging platform from designer Dustin Curtis. Curtis explains:
“When you see the Svbtle design, you should know that the content is guaranteed to be great. Network bloggers are encouraged to keep quality high at the expense of everything else.”
It’s same kind of thinking that Gruber himself articulated in a 2008 interview with Shawn Blanc: “I’ve always enjoyed the way that with good columnists, it’s not just that their individual articles stand on their own, but that there’s something greater than the sum of the parts when you follow them…”
That sense of focusing on the quality of the arguments and developing a mature relationship with a columnist or blogger is put to work in Branch, which suggests itself as a place to host debate, extending conversation beyond the 140-character combat of Twitter. As well as asserting control over the rules of engagement, Branch users will also experience the same kind of stripped-back design favoured by Gruber.
Similarly, Medium, a new platform from Obvious Corporation, the ideas factory founded by Twitter’s Ev Williams and Biz Stone, is a new stab at publishing on the web with a big emphasis of typography, design and curated conversation.
While Medium is being promoted as a place where groups can come together to tell stories, it looks like comments will be far less prominent in the design. Williams and Stone are also investors in Branch.
In a post on Medium, Williams, who was one of the creators of Blogger, explains why Obvious Corporation is expanding into longer-form publishing: “1999 was the year we launched Blogger. Ideas that seemed radical at the time – that anyone, anywhere could and should publish their thoughts to the global internet audience (for free) – are now taken for granted.
“Still, some things haven’t evolved as much as we would have expected… there’s been less progress toward raising the quality of what’s produced… and in many ways, the web is still mimicking print concepts, while not even catching up to it in terms of layout, design and clarity of experience.”
Of course, not everyone is entirely pleased with this new trend for cleanliness and curation. In a punchy post entitled “The Linkblog Cancer”, Marcelo Somers questioned the manner in which many now popular blogs have picked up Gruber’s approach to curating and commenting on articles: “There’s a cancer spreading through the indie tech blogger community: the blockquote + link post… the problem is, we can’t all be Daring Fireball – we can’t get away with posting a witty headline and a blockquote 5-10 times a day. We’ve adopted John’s concept of linking, but not the idea that we need to tell a bigger story on our sites.”
What such criticisms overlook is that there is more going on in the pages of Daring Fireball than meets the eye: “There’s a certain pace and rhythm to what I’m going for,” explains Gruber, “a mix of the technical, the artful, the thoughtful, and the absurd.
“In the same way that I strive to achieve a certain voice in my prose, as a writer, I strive for a certain voice with regard to what I link to… it’s the mix, the gestalt of an entire day’s worth taken together, that matters to me.”
That’s what sets Gruber’s blog apart – and it’s what enables him to make money from it. Daring Fireball is John Gruber’s livelihood. The question with new platforms like Medium and SVBTLE is whether, when they open themselves to the world, they will be able to make money at all and how much, if any, of that that money will be shared with the users who choose to create there.
The auteur theory of web platform development seems to be taking root, but in a world where we’re all trying to be micro-Grubers, and, as readers, craving beautiful reading experiences, who’s going put their hand in their back pocket to pay for it? We have to hope that the future is not in “gated communities” like App.net. Because this is either a brave new dawn or the rise of the 1 per cent web.