The characteristics of my ideal publishing system have been rattling around in my head since I heard the news about Posterous. I haven't really done very much housekeeping on my personal sites in a while and I wanted to reevaluate my current setup. Generally I don't want to spend a ton of time on maintenance and I want the templating language to be straightforward - i don't want to spend hours sifting through a wiki trying to figure out how to output thumbnails for the latest five entries from a particular category. If I'm not familiar with the template language, a good set of examples is a prerequisite. Nice looking templates that support responsive design and slideshows out of the box is a huge plus as is deploying through git.
Not all of the sites have to be hosted on the same system but I definitely want to keep the cost low. I'd like to stick with my current host so I don't have to migrate everything and I don't want to spend hours/days backing up and archiving data, and I've never had an issue with their service.Most pressing, A Surlee Voyage and Angrywayne need new homes because Posterous is expiring. Surlee Voyage is definitely more of an archive and I don't see either of us updating content there any time soon, it just needs to live somewhere with permanent URLs. Wayne would probably write more often on Angrywayne/Emptyhighway if there was a system he enjoyed using.
I'm also looking to move Ambienttraffic (this site), Lonestar Taco and Emptyhighway (which should probably be merged with Angrywayne) off of Movable Type because, frankly, I hate the user experience of writing and maintaining content. I actively dislike the tiny editing window and uploading images one at a time to the point where I just don't want to write anything at all. Although I have a ridiculous amount of experience writing MT templates, they just get to be really tedious. On the plus side, MT generates flat pages so I don't worry too much about load.
I did like Posterous for the ability to email posts in as it was enormously convenient in China because the site was blocked and we often didn't have internet. In the same way, I find that I'm inspired to write when I'm offline and I can focus. I do a lot of writing on the train and offline on my iPhone/iPad in Markdown documents but a lot of it I've never published. If I could push those Markdown documents and photos/assets from Dropbox to some other system on the server that'd be ideal for Ambienttraffic. I'd like to migrate my content from MT into the new system but it's not a requirement. It's more important to be able to handle assets well and quickly so that I can update my portfolio more regularly.
For Lonestar Taco it's a bit different. Wayne writes for Lonestar and I anticipate once we've hired more staff they'll be using it too - and I can't estimate their level of "internet' yet, so it's got to be something that is friendly both to beginners and more advanced users. Migrating data into the system with the ability to adjust permalinks is a requirement. Sharing content automatically through Twitter and Facebook are important, but so are slideshows. Lots to think about!
Next up, a "Grand Tour" of publishing systems.
I've been galvanized to write this because of the upcoming demise of Posterous - I've got a bunch of personal sites there and I spent most of yesterday researching this stuff and I figured it might be useful to others. Plus I couldn't sleep because I kept comparing the merits and drawbacks of each system in my head (yes, this is what I lose sleep over). I also go through a version this process for some portion of my freelance projects (mostly small businesses). There is no one perfect solution and I'm a firm believer in choosing the right tool for the job; why use a cleaver when a paring knife is really what you need? Although things change so rapidly that by next year this could be completely out of date.
[Who said blogs were dead? Note that I am focused on talking about systems that are meant for blogging or maintaining a web site in the more traditional sense rather than subcompact publishing. You can talk to my friends at 29pco about that!]
I do not take choosing a publishing system lightly because once you've chosen, you tend to be stuck with it for a while. Before I even start looking, I have a loose matrix of characteristics that I evaluate. In no particular order:
- Data Control: We talk a lot about the cloud and how awesome it is, and all of these services have popped up to make it so easy. Offloading it though means that it could all be gone one day (see Posterous). For my personal blogs/projects I'm now leaning towards hosting everything myself, but there are definitely times when I'd rather pay and let a service deal with it.
- Data Durability: Is the system going to totally munge the data to the point where I can't export/import it to another system? Does it mangle my content by adding unnecessary HTML tags? How much work would it take to move it someplace else? Will I have access to my data 10 years down the road, or is it just going to turn into the minidisc of data formats? The older I get the more I want to be sure that I'm future proofing my data. On the flip side, there are times when I don't want every single thing archived and it's OK if it goes into the ether.
- Maintenance and Performance: How much time/technical knowledge does it take to maintain the system? How vulnerable is it to spamming? Are updates available on a regular basis, is it being actively developed, and is there any support? Do sites tend to load quickly, or does it go at a snail's pace? How much tweaking will it require to get the site to feel snappy?
- Templating Environment: I try to estimate the learning curve on the template language and how flexible it is. I look for sample templates or themes to see what can be built and how clean the markup is. A big plus to me is the ability to deploy via git. Is it going to require twenty plugins to get the functionality I want? Or does most of it come out of the box? And in the end, how much fun is it to build?
- User Experience: This is so, so important. It doesn't matter if your data is durable if the system is so esoteric or difficult to use that no data is created in the first place. I think about how many people are going to be making content, the level of "internet" they've achieved if they're new to any given system, is it FUN to write in the system, and the amount of effort it takes to upload and maintain assets. I also consider the current workflow and if it needs to be improved.
- Cost: How much am I (or my client) willing to pay on a monthly basis for hosting and/or services?
I've decided to switch a new publishing system for Ambienttraffic. For lots of reasons! You can still get to my old content here
, but I'm going to start building something new. Maybe I'll migrate the old stuff, maybe I won't. The goal is to create more starting now and hopefully this system will help me do it.