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Colin Devroe

Reverse Engineer. Blogger.

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A new interview with Manton Reece of Micro.blog for 2019

Last year, around this time, I published an interview with Manton Reece – founder of Micro.blog (M.b) – about how the platform was growing and what the goals for 2018 were. It was such a great interview and it helped me to understand the direction that M.b was going that I knew I had to interview him again to check in for 2019.

Answering these questions isn’t easy. Manton and I have been volleying back and forth for about 60 days for this interview to come to this point. So before we jump into the interview I just want to take a moment to thank Manton for taking the time to thoughtfully respond to my questions. I hope the entire M.b community enjoys this interview and it helps to give an idea of what is happening there and where the community and platform are headed.

I’ve tried to include links to most everything we mention so that you’re able to find all of the little tidbits. If I missed anything, leave a comment or reply on M.b and I’ll try to track down what you’re looking for.

Now, onto the interview:

Thank you again Manton for taking some time to answer my questions. Last year’s interview was fun so I thought it’d be a good idea to revisit a few of the topics in it and also catch up with you on how Micro.blog is doing and see where it is headed in 2019. Last year you mentioned that most of the growth on the team would come in the form of curators or support. Has the team grown? If so, what does the team look like today and what will it look like in 2019?

Manton: Great to talk to you again! The size of the team has not grown since last year, but I think we’ve done more with the people we have. Jean MacDonald has hosted over 40 episodes of our Micro Monday podcast, and Jon Hays has lead recent improvements to our iOS app and new apps Sunlit and Wavelength. I still expect the growth to be on the curation side and hope that can be a focus of 2019. Where the other big social networks try to use algorithms to solve problems, we think if you want a great community, humans need to be actively involved — featuring content, listening for problems, and thinking about the impact of new features.

Customer support and system administration are the other areas that I’m looking forward to getting help with, but as the platform evolves it’s still valuable for me to be handling most of that myself. I hear from customers every day about what they love and what features are missing. Since we last talked, I’ve also moved my primary blog with thousands of posts from WordPress to Micro.blog hosting, and that has been a great way to prioritize improvements to the hosting part of the platform. Blog hosting is the actual business of Micro.blog and enables us to do everything else we want to do for the social network and community.

From an outsider’s perspective, I don’t know how you’re able to do as much as you do! You are coding Micro.blog, keeping up with the infrastructure software/hardware, dealing with support, paying the bills… the list goes on and on. Then, on top of all that, you’re building a few iOS apps like Sunlit and Wavelength. You also have your own podcast called Timetable and a long-running podcast called Core Intuition. Not to mention your personal blog, help documents for Micro.blog, and keeping up with the community and the Slack channel.

How do you prioritize all of this? Is one project more important than another?

Manton: I think good things can come from trying to do a little too much, but it’s not usually sustainable. Eventually it catches up with you and you have to simplify and wrap up or delegate some tasks. We are in that kind of period right now with Micro.blog. We will continue to do a lot, but some parts of the platform — like the iOS apps — can reach a point of maturity where we work on stability improvements and polishing existing features rather than adding brand new features.

Android is another good example. Many people ask for an official Android app for Micro.blog. Because I don’t have much Android experience myself, I know I would be stretched too thin right now to tackle it, so we are encouraging third-party solutions instead. There’s a new version of Dialog for Android which has full support for the Micro.blog timeline, posting, replying, the Discover sections, and more. I’m really excited about it.

The most important project is the Micro.blog web platform, because without that foundation nothing else is possible. Improving the API and blog hosting will always be something we work on, alongside other priorities that come and go.

I for one am very happy that Dialog exists. I’m also happy that it is pretty good too. What other third-party projects have you come across that more people should know about? And, what haven’t you seen made on top of Micro.blog that you wish existed?

Manton: People should keep an eye on Gluon, which is in development now for iOS and Android. I’ve enjoyed reading developer Vincent Ritter’s blog post updates about working on it — the early choices he made on how to build the app and later decisions to update the UI and rewrite portions of it.

Integrating other platforms is another area that is great for third-party apps. For example, IndieWeb-compatible tools like OwnYourGram (for copying Instagram posts to your blog) or IndieBookClub (for posting about books you’re reading or want to read). Having so many third-party apps that can supplement the basic features on Micro.blog means that we can keep the primary experience as streamlined as possible, because the goal is to make blogging easier. I’d love to see more advanced tools for managing posts as well, such as batch editing posts or for import and export.

Switching gears for a moment to Micro.blog’s long term financial sustainability. I know at first there was a funding push related to the Kickstarter campaign, and of course there are those that pay a few dollars per year for the hosted service or other features like cross posting. What does long term sustainability look like for Micro.blog? Does there need to be a lot of growth in the customer base? How else can people like me, who use Micro.blog daily but are not currently paying, help keep Micro.blog funded?

Manton: Kickstarter was perfect to get us started, but paid subscriptions are better long term. I want to build features that are valuable and worth paying for. So we’ll keep making our blog hosting more compelling so that it’s good for people who are just getting started with a new blog, or people who want to migrate from other platforms. We often see people who might have a primary blog on WordPress — and a secondary microblog or photo blog on Micro.blog — decide that it’s simpler to just consolidate everything to Micro.blog, importing their WordPress posts. We don’t expect all the millions of bloggers who host on WordPress to move over to Micro.blog, but even a relatively small number moving to Micro.blog will make the platform more sustainable.

We just rolled out several major new features for blog hosting, including categories and custom themes, so you can have full control over the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript on your site. You don’t need to be a designer or developer to use Micro.blog, but it’s nice to allow some more flexibility for those people who do want to tinker with their site. And now web developers can create custom themes for Micro.blog that can be used by other members of the community.

As for supporting Micro.blog if you aren’t a paying customer, the best way is to tell people about it. All our growth right now is from word of mouth. It’s great when people invite their friends from other social networks, or when they post about why they like Micro.blog on their own blog or talk about it on their podcast. You don’t need to have a large audience to make a big difference.

I’d be remiss to not mention the apparent resurgence of blogging. If not in action then in the collective consciousness. It seems many people are talking and writing about blogging lately. With Medium changing its policies, Tumblr being owned by Oath/Verizon/Aol, Twitter being a hive of villainy, Facebook selling our fears to our captors, and Instagram growing up to be like’s its parent… it seems that blogging is poised to have a huge comeback. Are you doing anything at all to capture that momentum? Or, are you just trying to keep on your roadmap as usual?

Manton: It feels like everything we’ve been working toward for a few years is starting to come together, as more people realize the downsides of these massive, centralized platforms. Whether someone is quitting Facebook tomorrow or a year from now, I want Micro.blog to be a great default choice for reclaiming ownership of your content and getting in the habit of writing or posting photos regularly. When Basecamp recently migrated their long-running blog Signal v. Noise away from Medium, they summed up the change just like we see it: “Traditional blogs might have swung out of favor, as we all discovered the benefits of social media and aggregating platforms, but we think they’re about to swing back in style, as we all discover the real costs and problems brought by such centralization.”

The other part of this is to have a safe, welcoming community. I hate to see people get discouraged from blogging because “no one” is reading, so it helps that we have the Micro.blog timeline and replies where a blog post can start a conversation, or new posts can be featured in the Discover section. I think 2019 is going to be great for blogging. Micro.blog differentiates itself because it offers a solution for both blog hosting and a great community.

Professional blogging; whether that be funded by advertisers, subscribers, fans – is a big business. What are your thoughts on how Micro.blog helps or ignores people or businesses that may want to use the platform to share their content and earn a living from it?

Manton: Micro.blog was designed for people, not “brands”, but there’s no reason it can’t be used for businesses as well. Toward the end of last year I wrote a “12 days of microblogging” blog post series, and on one day highlighted how businesses can use Micro.blog.

Personal blogs can evolve into a revenue source as well, like offering subscriptions or sponsorships. But Micro.blog will never have ads and we aren’t likely to add features specifically for people to make money from their content in the way that Medium is trying to do. We want to focus on helping people discover blog posts, and whether someone monetizes their blog or uses it for occasional self-promotion is up to them. It’s okay if most blogs are personal and non-commercial because that lends itself to authenticity, and there’s great value in just having a space of your own to publish to.

We also think podcasting is only going to get bigger, which is why our first new paid plan was microcast hosting for short-form podcasts. We keep increasing the limits and now you can publish even hour-long episodes to Micro.blog. Like personal blogs, podcasts could be sponsored, or they could be just for fun, or they could indirectly benefit your business, such as supplementing a blog or helping promote something else you’re working on.

I believe you’ve touched on open source regarding Micro.blog in the past. Some of your own projects, like JSON Feed, are open source. Will you be open sourcing Micro.blog or any pieces of it?

Manton: I don’t plan to open source all of Micro.blog in the near future. It’s a complicated project with several components across multiple servers, so it’s not really suitable for just “running yourself” right now. However, I’d love to open source more of it, especially when there’s an immediate benefit to people. For example, for the new custom themes feature, I rewrote all of the themes to use the Hugo blogging engine, and we’ve shared all our changes on GitHub. That’s something people can use right away. Jon Hays also wrote a framework called “Snippets” for the Micro.blog API and Micropub API that we’ll be using in our iOS apps, and we’ve open sourced that as well. I think there is more in our iOS apps (including Wavelength for podcasts and Sunlit for photos) that would be great to open source.

I think I catch myself looking for a search feature on Micro.blog at least twice a week. For instance, I’m big into houseplants lately and I wanted to find some people on M.b that were as well. And I can’t figure out how to do that. Is search coming?

We now have a basic search on the web version of Micro.blog under Discover. This currently searches any post that has been included in Discover. We have plans to add search to the native apps so that it’s easier to access, and expand it so that it searches even more posts on Micro.blog. However, one of the early design goals with Micro.blog was to launch without a full search index, because I didn’t like how Twitter’s search and especially trending topics could be gamed or expose the worst conversations on the platform, even in some cases being a place for more abusive, hateful replies. So we’re going a little slowly with search to make sure that we don’t recreate any of those problems.

I know I’m only scratching the surface for the questions that the community is likely curious about. I hope I did an OK job asking the important ones. Are there any topics I left off that you wish I had asked you about? Or anything you’d like to highlight?

Your questions were great. Thank you! I’d like to mention again what Jean MacDonald has done with our podcast Micro Monday. This podcast didn’t exist when you interviewed me last year, and now we have a great archive of episodes highlighting members of the community — how they got started blogging and what they are interested in, whether that’s related to Micro.blog or something else. It helps people understand Micro.blog while at the same time featuring stories from the community. I’m always inspired hearing what people are up to, and it’s a weekly reminder to me of how important it is that people have a voice on the web with their own blog.


What a fun interview! Until next year…

Baremetrics left Medium last year

Josh Pigford, last year, on leaving Baremetrics leaving Medium:

I realized Medium is really great about surfacing content, but it removes the face of it. It neutralizes all content to basically be author-agnostic. It’s like Walmart or Amazon in that you can buy from thousands of different brands, but you rarely actually know what brand you’re buying…you just know “I got it from Amazon.”

This is an excellent analogy for Medium. Distribution at the cost of customer acquisition and brand loyalty.

Responses to RSS isn’t dead. Subscribing is alive.

There were a number of responses to RSS isn’t dead. Subscribing is alive. Partly due to being on Micro.blog Discover and perhaps also due to Brent Simmons linking to it (thanks Brent!).

Chris Aldrich:

I’ve been enamored of the way that SubToMe has abstracted things to create a one click button typically with a “Follow Me” or “Subscribe” tag on it.

SubToMe seems interesting. A single button that gives the user a ton of options to subscribe. For now, I’m sticking with my Subscribe page that gives a short description of what Subscribing is and where they can do it. Perhaps I’ll extend the list of services in the future.

Jeremy Cherfas:

As for tools creating better ways to surface stuff, Newsblur does allow you to train it, which to me seems more useful than using an algorithm to train me.

I don’t need an algorithm personally. I actually like the urgency having many subscriptions creates. It forces me to weed through my subscriptions from time-to-time and unload a few. But I’m glad to hear Newsblur has something they are working on for this.

Rian van der Merwe:

I really like how you structured your “Subscribe” page in a way that non-tech people would understand. I went with “Follow” as the title, since that’s a word that has become synonymous with getting updates. What are your thoughts on Follow vs. Subscribe?

Follow is likely the more modern and widely popular verb. I think each network has had to make this choice on its own to help users infer what type of place they signed up for. Facebook has “friend”, Twitter “follow”, LinkedIn “connect”. Each of these verbs have meaning. Follow and Subscribe are both impersonal enough to fit with blogs but each have their own feeling behind them. Subscribing, to me, feels like I’m reading a publication (whether it be by 1 person or many). Following feels more like I’m one wrung down on a ladder. I could be alone in this feeling though.

As an aside: I’m so happy that blogging is being talked and written about so much over the last few months. 2019 already feels like a boon for one of my favorite things.


RSS is not dead. Subscribing is alive.

Sinclair Target, writing for Motherboard:

Today, RSS is not dead. But neither is it anywhere near as popular as it once was.

This isn’t the first nor the last article to cover the creation of the RSS standard, its rise to relative popularity with Google Reader, and its subsequent fall from popularity.

But the big point that many of these articles dismiss lightly or directly omit is that RSS is still used as the underpinnings of so many widely popular services today. Apple News, Google News, Flipboard (each with likely tens of millions of users or more) and many others use RSS it is just that people do not know it.

We should likely stop talking about RSS. We need to simply start calling RSS “Subscribing”. “Subscribe to my blog” is the only thing we need to say.

Also, tools like Inoreader, Feedly, etc. should create far better ways to surface content for readers from their active subscriptions. When people subscribe to more than just a few sites it quickly can be overwhelming to people that don’t like to wake up to “inboxes” with 300 unread count. People just abandon those. It is why Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. all use algorithms to select which content people should see when they open the app. I’m weird. I want to see everything in reverse chronological order. But “most people” want to see something interesting for the few moments they devote to reading their subscriptions.

RSS will never be as popular as Facebook. Let’s all get over it. But please do subscribe to my site. 🙂

Signal v Noise exits Medium

DHH:

These days Medium is focused on their membership offering, though. Trying to aggregate writing from many sources and sell a broad subscription on top of that. And it’s a neat model, and it’s wonderful to see Medium try something different. But it’s not for us, and it’s not for Signal v Noise.

SvN was not long for Medium. It never felt at home there. Basecamp (the company, formerly known as 37 Signals) has too strong of a voice and brand design to ever have their blog live inside a platform with such web and brand hostility as Medium.

I think back to 2012 when SvN redesigned, I linked to that redesign then, and how they had carefully considered their typography, graphics (they had a different graphic for each category of posts), layout. Mig Reyes, at the time, wrote:

Instead of poring over other blogs, I spent a week studying books, magazines, and of course, Bringhurst. Capturing the right feel for body text was step one—it sets the tone from here on out.

If you care this much about your site/blog you cannot be holed up in some constrained content silo like Medium. Medium is an excellent (perhaps currently the best) web-based writing tool but the platform is more than just that. It promised exposure which is why many blogs like SvN gave it a try. But that was definitely the wrong reason to go there.

Nice pick up for WordPress of course but in reality SvN could have found a home on any platform they had full control over. I like the new design too.

Dialog out of beta

Mike Haynes:

We appreciate everyone’s patience as we worked through the development process and look forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback.

Mike may see the development and launch of Dialog as taking longer than he would have liked, but from where I sit the app has come a long way in a relatively short period of time.

Back in May 2018 I linked to Dialog saying that it was “very much beta”. The current version is very much complete. I’m very glad the app exists.

Repost: Anton Peck on blogging in 2019

👉 Anton Peck on Twitter:

Prediction: 2019 will be a noticable shift back to blogging. Social networks may see a slight hit. People have things to say, ideas to write about, stories to share.

Ton Zijlstra linking curiosity to his blogging

Ton Zijlstra, replying to Frank Meeuwsen’s post that was replying to my post, took a different angle:

Over the last 16 years my blog has been a good instrument to trigger, feed and explore my curiosity. Me blogging more means I’m curious to expand my horizons again.

His post reminded me of a discussion that came up in 2013 on the blogosphere… writing is how I think. And still to this day, my blog is where I form ideas and hypothesis regarding my own interests.

Don’t let people tell you blogging is dead. Seems alive and well to me.

My crypto and indie web goals for 2019

Steven Johnson, in Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble:

The true believers behind blockchain platforms like Ethereum argue that a network of distributed trust is one of those advances in software architecture that will prove, in the long run, to have historic significance.

I’m very late to the game in reading Johnson’s piece in the NYT. I’ve had it stored in Pocket for far too long. I’m glad I took the time this morning while drinking my coffee to read it. It is very good. It includes many things I think about most; the open web, how tech giants are so important in what the future will look like, and what we can do to mitigate the downsides of them owning the future.

Since 2011, I’ve been asked about Bitcoin and blockchain from time-to-time. My advice to people (including myself) is to recommend people do their own research.

I’ve been buying BTC lately. Partly because the price is rather low at the moment but also partly because I have a completely different goal in 2019. I’m not prospecting. If my wallet’s value appreciates, excellent. If it doesn’t, I don’t care. My goal in 2019 is to use crypto currency (likely Bitcoin or Ether?) to pay for some every day mundane things. My goal is to transact the equivalent of around $10,000 USD in some form of crypto during the course of the year. That could be accepting crypto or spending crypto. It is my hope that by not being a hodlr, and also not trying to get rich, that I will help the crypto financial ecosystem in some small way.

Going back to Johnson’s piece. He writes a lot about the open web and the open protocols that are in place and how on top of those certain companies own things like our identity. He doesn’t quite go so far as to mention the Building Blocks of the indie web but I wish he had. But I think we’re starting to see decentralization on many fronts happen. I think 2018 was a big year for this and I think the shift is only going go accelerate.

I’m not going to make any predictions specifically for 2019 since I believe it will take longer than that. However, with blogging being easier than ever, with Mastodon and indie web protocols, and Solid and many other projects happening – I think we’ll start to see the power of Facebook and Google splinter. Even if it only splinters a little it will be a good thing for the open web.

My indie web goal is to bring my personal site a little more inline with indie web principles. As you long time readers will know, supporting the indie web exhausted me. I gave up. It was too hard. But, the beginning of such things is hard and I should buck up and figure it out. If I do and somehow help make it easier for the next person the web will be a better place.

I recommend reading Johnson’s entire piece.