Medium cover photo with wave

Self-expression on the internet: a hybrid approach?

The internet should help you express yourself easily and ensure you have control over the content and quality of your writings. But is that possible?

The internet has always been called the great platform for self-expression. The claim goes that you no longer need to be talented and lucky enough to get your work into a book or newspaper or magazine; anyone can publish anything to the internet, and if it’s good enough, it can get found.

It’s definitely true that the cost of self-expression has gone down with the internet, so people are much more likely and able to use it to publish their ideas. (The idea of economic cost, or amount of effort it takes to do something, is a very powerful one, by the way. When it gets easier to do something, that thing explodes in popularity. It’s pretty self-evident, but it’s a powerful way of looking at things like the rise of self-expression with the internet.)

There are two main ways of publishing content online:

  • Publishing independently (making your own platform)
  • Using someone else’s platform (hosted publishing)

Both of these fall short of the goal of allowing for easy self-publishing. I think, though, that there’s room for a hybrid that would bring the best of both.

Independent publishing isn’t that easy

There’s a problem there, though; it’s not really that easy to publish your own content. It’s true that anyone can make a website, but (and I’ll tell you from experience) you have to know a lot to get started (I’m italicizing technical terms for effect):

  • Getting a website: after finding a domain and webhost, you’ll need to set up your DNS servers and maybe modify your .htaccess and php.ini files.
  • Creating content: you’ll want to know HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, and MySQL if you want to write the website yourself. Or if you want to automate it, you’ll want to learn Markdown and, perhaps, Jekyll.
  • Publishing content: you’ll have to learn FTP and get a good client to push your content to your servers.
Graphic of MySQL, PHP, HTML5, CSS3, jQuery
Just a few technologies needed to host a website yourself — you have full control of the content, but it’s not easy setting up such a website.

Long story short, you need a lot of technical knowledge to make a website yourself — it’s certainly possible to learn it, but if you decide “I’m gonna start a blog,” you might well be scared away by all these prerequisites. It’s even harder, in some sense, than publishing a book yourself due to the sheer amount of technical knowledge.

The rise of publishing platforms

Obviously publishing independently isn’t very easy, and the internet always seeks to find easier ways to do things, so it’s no surprise that a number of platforms that claim to make it easier to express yourself have arisen:

  • Social media like Facebook and Twitter are the most obvious ones: just make an account and start talking. But these don’t support long posts, unless you’re a fan of the famed Facebook wall of text.
  • Aggregated publishing platforms like the up-and-coming or Tumblr. Just sign up and start writing content on one centralized platform, and readers will see your and others’ work all in one place.

Dramatically easier, isn’t it? You’re probably not going to write blog posts or stuff of much importance on Facebook or Twitter, so let’s focus on these aggregated publishing platforms, specifically Medium, which many bloggers are turning to as easy ways to publish.

Medium cover photo with wave
Medium is an easy way to publish online. But, like many hosted publishing platforms, it doesn’t allow for control over content or quality.

Medium et al. are great ways to get content out there, but I see a few major problems for independent publishers: there’s no control over your content and no guarantee of quality.

No control over content

As long as you keep paying your dues for your server, your website content will forever be yours and available online. But tech platforms are remarkably short-lived, and these ones that promise easy publishing might not be any exception.

A big example of ephemeral publishing platforms is Posterous, home to 15 million independent bloggers’ writings, which shut down within 5 years. It’s particularly ironic because it aimed to help bloggers move their information from other “dying platforms” like Blogger — and this presumed safe haven for content turned out to, well, be anything but.

We’ve seen this before with things like Geocities. Basically, if you entrust your content to another service, there’s no guarantee that they won’t disappear and take your content with you.

I’m not saying that Facebook, Twitter, and Medium will all crumble, but they haven’t had much of a track record: Medium’s been around since 2012, Twitter since 2006, the “venerable” Facebook only since 2004. If you think all these websites will be around in 20 years, your glasses might be a little too rose-tinted.

Besides, when you publish content to places like Medium, it’s theirs — just ask their Terms of Service. They can do whatever they want with it. Even if you’re not in blogging for the money, there’s something to be said for the sense of ownership.

No guarantee of quality

If you run a website, you have total control over what goes on it. You can add annoying ads, links to other bloggers, or low-quality content if you want — chances are you wouldn’t, besides perhaps ads. You guarantee the quality of the content since, well, you wrote it. Whether it’s good or bad, you know what your readers will be getting.

Meanwhile, on other platforms like Medium, you can’t control, obviously, what else shows up around your posts. There’s tons of good content on Medium, but you have no guarantee that your content won’t be surrounded by spam or different writing styles.

What now? A hybrid?

So self-hosted publishing is too much work, but hosted publishing platforms like Medium or social media remove control of content or quality. I think the holy grail is to find something that combines the ease of use of Medium with the control of owning your own website. A hybrid, so to speak.

Gray and blue WordPress logo in PNG
WordPress is a hybrid publishing platform: it makes hosting your own blog easier, and it also provides you control over your content.

There are a couple of exciting platforms that come close to this, though they aren’t quite silver bullets:

  • One of my favorite ones is, which makes it ridiculously easy to publish your content. Just drop your Evernote diary entires, notes, thoughts, whatever into a specific Evernote notebook, and it’ll automatically appear — nicely formatted and organized — on the website. This is easy and gives you control over quality, but you have to rely on two services: Evernote itself, and (If you’re looking to make your own blog, I highly recommend it at any rate.)
  • A classic solution is WordPress. After running its famous “5-minute install” on your website, you can manage and publish content without touching any code at all (it supports rich-text editing like Microsoft Word or such.) It’s really easy and gives you control over content, but it still requires getting your own website and handling some messy setup. After that it’s smooth sailing. (I use WordPress for my own site, and I’m very happy with it.)

So it’s certainly possible to easily, independently publish your content with these hybrid platforms, and as of now those are the best solutions for those who want to express themselves on the internet.

There’s still room for something even better — something that requires nearly no setup but still allows for large-scale control over content and quality. Maybe that’s structurally impossible, but that, I think, would fully realize the potential of the internet as a publishing platform.

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Neel Mehta

Harvard College. Web developer. Sometime philosopher. Baseball junkie.

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