We’ve become obsessed with fancy designs, responsive layouts, and scripts that do magical things.
But the most powerful tool on the web is still words.
I wrote these words, and you’re reading them: that’s magical. I’m in a little city in British Columbia; you’re probably somewhere else. I wrote this early in the morning, June 20th, 2013; you’re probably reading it at a different time. I wrote this on my laptop; you could be reading this on your phone, a tablet or a desktop.
You and I have been able to connect because I wrote this and you’re reading it. That’s the web. Despite our different locations, devices, and time-zones we can connect here, on a simple HTML page.
I wrote this in a text editor. It’s 6KB. I didn’t need a Content Management System, a graphic designer, or a software developer. There’s not much code on this page at all, just simple markup for paragraphs, hierarchy, and emphasis.
In my never-ending quest for a new blog theme, I’m constantly on the lookout for something that looks similar to the ideal theme I have in my mind, which is as whimsical as a light summer’s breeze. I’ve used the current theme for around two years, and as much as I like it, it might be time for find something new.
Choosing a new theme is harder than it might sound: you can’t just pick any theme that you think looks good. Most of the time, the live demos of potential themes don’t really give you a feel of how your content will look in different skin. When looking for a new theme, you have to consider things like typography and layout, and even then, you still have to worry about the WordPress-specific stuff; post formats, video embeds, images with captions, and so on. You have to be super picky about the theme that you do eventually choose, because it’ll likely represent the whole look and feel of your blog/website for years to come. It’s no small undertaking, if you take it seriously (which you should).
And honestly, one of the hardest things about making choosing a new WordPress theme is that it’s kind of hard to find something even vaguely suitable, never mind one that has the layout and features you might be looking for. There’s an absolute tonne of themes out there — which you might think is good, until you actually start looking for something that suits your particular site. Check out any theme catalog and you’ll see a million and one themes which are totally unsuitable for a blog. I know that WordPress is now a fully fledged CMS and whatnot, but remember when it was about writing content that you could publish online? What’s with the portfolio/magazine/everything-but-a-focus-on-actual-words themes all over the place? Look at the first nine or so themes on WooThemes — apparently one of the better WordPress theme shops out there — and tell me how many would be suited to, you know, publishing actual words.
Even those statically-built websites (Jekyll, Octopress, and the like) have great default themes. As much as I like WordPress, I’ve been tempted to switch to blogging with Octopress in the past, but haven’t really looked into it seriously. There’s a lot of WordPress advantages that mean I haven’t left just yet. It has an insane community, for starters, and it’s extremely extensible and customisable. Plus, I’m kind-of, sort-of, familiar with PHP, making WordPress a pretty good fit so far. Unfortunately, it’s also a victim of its own popularity: it’s gotten to the point where trying to find the right thing for what you want to do might be more trouble than it’s worth. Maybe I should have backed the Ghost Kickstarter after all.
Either I’m not looking in the right places, or what I’m looking for — a minimalist theme with great typography that’s responsive and optimised for the kind of writing you see right here — just doesn’t exist. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever find the perfect WordPress theme. The current theme — Minblr, from Themify — is pretty good, but it’s not perfect. There’s honestly not a lot I could do to improve it without making some major changes, and if I’m going that far, it might just be easier to find another theme altogether, you know?
Of course, I could just go ahead and make my own from scratch, but WordPress themes are a lot of work. Besides, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel — if I can get by with customising something someone else has already made, I’ve saved a tonne of hassle, and probably extended my lifetime by a few years to boot. You don’t know pain until you’ve experienced web development pain.
As important as all this “choosing a new theme for my blog” business is, the idea behind all this is that it’s just a nicer way to get at what really matters: the content. So many multimedia, whizz-bang WordPress themes look great when you’re viewing them on their store page because they’re designed that way. Plug in your own content and you might be able to make it look similar, but it probably won’t ever look as great as it did when you were contemplating buying it.
You know what isn’t affected by fancy layouts, differently-sized images layered on top of each other, or the overused cliche of text overlaid on top of an image?
At the end of the day, all that really matters on the web is words.
I can’t help but agree with Marco Arment when he says things like1 “you can host your own blog on your own domain with lots of other tools and hosts.” I’ve been doing that for a few years now, and it’s worked out pretty well so far, hassles of choosing a new theme aside.
An earlier revision of this post had a bit of a spiel on blogging platforms, specifically why Medium, or Svbtle, or just about any other blogging network you care to name, isn’t the answer for any writer who wants to publish their stuff online. I’d like to expand on those thoughts2 a bit, and introduce the idea that owning your platform — your own soapbox, if you want — is perhaps one of the most important things you can do as a writer, especially one that publishes content online.
Don’t get me wrong, I totally get that writers need to write (haters gonna hate, writers gonna write), and that you need somewhere on the web to publish that stuff. It’s just that if you’re writing on any kind of regular basis and you don’t already have your own website or a place where you can put down a few thoughts, I have to ask: what the hell are you doing, man? Set yourself up with a Tumblr, Squarespace, or WordPress.com account, and go nuts. Grab your own domain name, bring that along, and get cracking. The best thing is, everything you publish on the web, you own. It’s yours, and yours alone. You’re not borrowing someone else’s name, which is kind of what happens if you write on Medium or Svbtle.
What kind of self-respecting writer thinks to themselves: “hmm, I want to put down a few thoughts on this burning topic I have running around in my head. I’m not going to get paid for it, so why not put it up on this website?” No. Nonono. Why would you do that? If you’re not getting paid for your writing, there better be a damn good reason you’re helping build someone else’s brand — because that’s really all you’re doing when you write on an unpaid basis on a domain name that you don’t own.
I get that everyone has to start somewhere. I did, and still kind of am — which is why I choose to write on this very website on a semi-regular basis on a range of topics (four long-ish posts in four days? Piece of cake). Some day, I hope I’ll be able to look back fondly on this website, blog, whatever, and see how far I’ve come.
So write. Be — and own — your own platform.
- Quote taken slightly out of the original context. ↩
- For some further reading, there’s a few good posts on Medium that go to some length to explain why Medium isn’t the be-all and end-all of publishing that people think it is (ironic, I know). The latter posts begin to explore the idea of a decentralised web, but the core concept is there: Medium, or any other publishing platform that you don’t own, is fundamentally flawed. Also check out the piece on being your own platform by Marco Arment and Glenn Fleishmann. ↩