The folks at Basecamp have been blogging since 1999, when Jason Fried would write by the light of a fire fueled by David Heinemeier Hansson’s savage indictments of the tech industry. A lot has changed since then (with the exception of DHH’s feelings about Silicon Valley). Basecamp’s blog, Signal v. Noise, changed platforms a few times. And it just moved again, this time from Medium to WordPress. In this episode, Jason and designer Adam Stoddard talk about leaving Medium for WordPress, the blog’s new look, and keeping SvN fresh after all these years.
- Signal v. Noise - 1:49
- Episode 01, "Sell Your By-products" - 2:00
- "Signal v. Noise moves to Medium" - 2:37
- Jason Fried and Adam Stoddard - 2:48
- Medium changed policy on custom domains - 3:55
- Medium's membership program - 6:10
- A Vox article on how Tumblr's ban on adult content negatively affects the broader community - 7:30
- History of WordPress - 9:55
- A Quartz article on how WordPress employees work remotely - 10:03
- Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress - 10:15
- "Medium has been great for us" - 15:51
- An Atlantic article about seasonally attired porch geese - 20:00
The Full Transcript:
[00:00:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:00:01] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.
Wailin: [00:00:07] I’m Wailin Wong.
Shaun: [00:00:08] And it’s 2019, so let’s talk about blogging.
Wailin: [00:00:12] We are going retro for the New Year. Did you ever have a blog?
Shaun: [00:00:16] I think so.
Wailin: [00:00:17] You think so?
Shaun: [00:00:17] Yeah. I think I had one as part of that time in my life when I was selling men’s bathroom products on Etsy.
Wailin: [00:00:25] So, you did content marketing.
Shaun: [00:00:28] Yeah, I did.
Wailin: [00:00:28] Shaun Hildner content marketing since, what, 2000 and what year was that?
Shaun: [00:00:33] Oh Man, that would’ve been 2009, I think. How about you? Have you ever had a blog?
Wailin: [00:00:39] I did. I lived overseas right after college and I started a blog to write about my experiences because this is pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram. So, this was the best way for friends and family back home to keep up on what I was doing. So I started a LiveJournal and it’s still up.
Shaun: [00:00:58] That’s amazing. What was it called?
Wailin: [00:01:02] I’m not going to tell you.
Shaun: [00:01:02] Oh no.
Wailin: [00:01:02] So, a few years ago I challenged my husband to find it and he could not even knowing everything that he knows about me, he was not able to find it. So, this is the challenge. If any listener can find my LiveJournal… I feel like I’m really just asking get doxed. But anyway, if you can find my LiveJournal, DM me on Twitter and I’ll send you a prize.
Shaun: [00:01:28] Oh you heard it here first. But why are we talking about blogging?
Wailin: [00:01:32] I don’t know. I just wanted to talk about my LiveJournal.
Shaun: [00:01:36] So after promoting your LiveJournal that you don’t want anyone to find, why are we talking about blogging today?
Wailin: [00:01:43] Because, you know who has a very OG blog is Basecamp.
Shaun: [00:01:47] We do.
Wailin: [00:01:47] Basecamp started Signal v. Noise, in what, 1999?
Shaun: [00:01:51] Sounds right.
Wailin: [00:01:52] And we actually covered a lot of Basecamp, early blogging journey in the very first episode of Rework. So I won’t go over all of that again. I’ll link to that episode in the show notes. For a long time, Basecamp hosted Signal v. Noise ourselves. We had an in-house editing platform called Blog Cabin.
Shaun: [00:02:10] It’s the most adorable name we’ve ever come up with.
Wailin: [00:02:12] It’s great. And I remember not really knowing how to use it because you know, we work with all web developers and designers and so I Blog Cabin assumed a level of familiarity with HTML markup, which I didn’t really have. But you know, I survived. It was fine. And then we switched to Medium for reasons we’ll get into later.
[00:02:40] That was at the end of 2015 and at the beginning of this year, 2019, we switched from Medium to WordPress. I talked to Jason Fried and our marketing designer Adam Stoddard, who came up with the design for the new Signal v. Noise about making that switch and embracing a more old-fashioned sensibility in how we do our blog.
[00:03:06] I wanted to ask you how the platform, the blogging platform, the technology, the software that you use to write, how it influences your writing and your desire to write.
Jason: [00:03:19] Let’s just say I found myself more recently not wanting to write for our blog because of the platform that we were on. So we were on Medium. Originally I liked Medium because it was new, it was different. There’s a lot of social sharing, which we didn’t have for their previous platforms. So it felt like a great way to get the word out. And for a while it was, cause we were on early and we had a lot of readers and so it was a big deal. But over time I felt like I was writing more for Medium than I was writing for Signal v. Noise. And that’s how Medium has sort of been changing. It feels more like it’s… I mean, they stopped allowing you to register for custom domains.
Wailin: [00:03:55] Oh, I didn’t realize that.
Jason: [00:03:56] For new accounts.
Wailin: [00:03:56] So the one we have, you wouldn’t be able to get something like that now.
Jason: [00:03:59] Correct. As far as I understand. So like we’re grandfathered in I believe, but we thought maybe they could cut the rope on that at some point, too. So it feels like everything’s for Medium versus for the author or for the publication. There are some publications, I think that might not be true, but for ours it was.
[00:04:15] And so I started to feel more and more like I was writing for Medium, which kind of tempered my enthusiasm and I just wasn’t really as excited about writing anymore. So, I had been writing less and less because of that. I also found that every piece of software has opinions built into it. And so the opinions of Medium are like long-form always. Which I typically like, but there’s a lot of short ideas I want to share that I can’t really… I could extend or stretch into an article, but it’d be a bad article because the idea was just a paragraph or so. And Medium has never felt like a friendly place to post that kind of stuff. Or if I just want to post three pictures or a quote that I liked, like I’d always have to wrap it in some story. But I have a lot of ideas that I want to share quickly, so I would go to Twitter to do that. And so, medium or the plat—yeah, both. The platform, the medium, it does influence what you write and how you write.
Adam: [00:05:09] Signal v. Noise, particularly on Medium, got to this place where it felt like the only thing you could write were kind of these meaty, long, think pieces.
[00:05:23] My name is Adam Stoddard and I’m a marketing designer here at Basecamp.
Shaun: [00:05:27] You all might know Adam from such hits as Basecamp.com and my favorite rework.fm. But he also had some reservations about using Medium.
Adam: [00:05:35] It was also the, the, the layout of Medium, where you have to click through to read anything and that creates this kind of pressure to justify that click through. Like if you click through something and it’s like literally a word or a quote, just like what the fuck was this? I just wasted my time clicking through here.
Jason: [00:05:57] To us, the issue is the business model. They made some announcements last year that made David and I start to question whether or not we want to stick with them longterm. One was tied to the custom domain thing. Another one was subscriptions, but not quite subscriptions from a business perspective but for individuals to subscribe or individual authors to subscribe. It didn’t seem viable. They could have charged us, for example, $500 a month or something. We would have paid that, for example, to have an ad free site with our own custom domain, but that’s not an actually—As far as I know, at least it wasn’t then and probably still isn’t an option.
[00:06:35] It’s, again, this advertiser-supported / kind of subscription-supported / whatever. But ultimately you’re writing for Medium and at that point the business model just didn’t feel compatible with where we wanted to go. Compared to something like WordPress where we pay per month for the service and it’s us. It doesn’t have to say WordPress anywhere on the site. No one has to know. We can design it any way we want. Medium is not that way. There’s a certain look to a Medium site and you don’t have as much flexibility. And again, that’s fine for people who are fine with that, but we just decided we weren’t fine with it anymore.
Wailin: [00:07:07] And so we moved Signal v. Noise to WordPress.
Adam: [00:07:11] There still will be plenty of long form pieces, but we could post literally just a video, just an image, a quote. All those things that you would have found back in the day on a Tumblr blog. I think with everything that’s happened with Facebook and like what happened with Tumblr, and the kind of encroaching of Facebook into Instagram, I think people are kind of starting to realize that they’ve been playing in someone else’s pool. And that there’s a cost to that. And that’s definitely something we’ve realized internally. And one of the reasons why we wanted to get off Medium and really kind of have it be fully independent.
Wailin: [00:07:56] The independence here is slightly qualified because WordPress is still someone else’s platform. But it was the best of all the options considered including taking the blog back in house.
Jason: [00:08:06] If we did it again, the same thing would’ve happened, which is that it would have gotten stale. We don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to these additional internal tools. So, you know, our old blog platform, like we never added any social sharing because we just didn’t and who’s going to have the time to. It’s hard to allocate time for that sort of thing. So, it felt like it was worth thinking about and thinking about why would we want to do it. And part of the reason was because we have, um, a text editor that we built internally called Tricks, which we’re using Basecamp and we thought we could make a Tricks-based blog and that would help improve Tricks in other places, but it didn’t seem like it was actually worth it in the end. So we decided to go with an established platform.
Wailin: [00:08:47] Yeah. I mean is there a feeling of kind of like, eh, when you realize you’ve got to pack up and move again?
Jason: [00:08:53] Not really.
Wailin: [00:08:53] Oh, okay.
Jason: [00:08:54] Yeah, not really. We were smart about a couple things. So, we had a custom domain, which means we can point those URLs that were linked on Medium will still work on the new blog. So, if you do a Google search or something and there’s something in the search results. So we’re safe there. We’ve imported… with WordPress’s help, we’ve imported all the content into WordPress from Medium, so we haven’t lost anything. And you know, frankly, even if we did, it wouldn’t matter. I feel like, yeah, I don’t care. Like we’ve done this before in the past. Old blogs, many generations ago, they’re just gone and it just doesn’t, I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter. Like it’s just, if it’s out there in the, in the archives somewhere, it’s out there. If it’s not, it’s not. Like, I don’t need to save every piece of writing I’ve ever written.There’s no reason for that.
[00:09:36] So, but we did plan ahead just in case. So I think we’re all right. I think we did the best we could.
Wailin: [00:09:42] There was another reason for choosing WordPress, which is that their company ethos lines up with Basecamp and a lot of ways.
Jason: [00:09:48] They’re a lot like us. So, they’ve been around, I don’t know… I’m going to get this wrong, 10, 15 years. Maybe longer. I’m not even sure. And we’ve been around for almost 20 years and they’re 100% remote and we’re not 100% remote, but we’re mostly remote. They are… they’ve raised money but they, they have an independent… I mean, they’re independent company. Matt Mullenweg, I’ve known him for years. He’s a really interesting guy. They’ve built a really cool crew over there. Good product. They’re focused on one thing or, actually, they have a variety of other things too, but WordPress, the publishing tool, is really their main thing.
[00:10:27] And it just felt like that was a cool company to support. But we did talk about that, because there was a few other options and I can’t remember the other finalists, but we just felt like WordPress was similar to us in a way where we could get behind them. They’ve been around for the long haul. I talked to Matt about it—Mullenweg—and he’s like, we’re going to be here forever. And I believed him just like… Of course forever is not true, but like, long enough. Right. They’re not going to be… because some of the other ones we looked at were really interesting but new and you just don’t know, like, are they going to be around in three years? It’s hard to, it’s hard to tell. WordPress, seems like they’re gonna be around, and we want to support that kind of longevity and that kind of independence.
[00:11:05] So, that was an easier decision, I think. Because of that, and also just the community around it and the network behind it and the plugins available and all these things. It was just like it made it possible to extend what we want to do with SvN. We also wanted to bring some personality back to the blog. So if you look at the new design, it’s different than we’ve had before. It’s a little bit more colorful. We can play with it in ways that we couldn’t with Medium because it was kind of fixed in this. I mean there’s different templates you can kind of play with, but essentially it’s fixed.
Wailin: [00:11:41] Yeah, Medium just has look.
Jason: [00:11:43] Has a look and, and the look is actually really nice and that’s one of the nice things about is that if you’re new, especially to publishing and you want to write something, you want it to look good and their editor is fantastic. I don’t mean like their human editor. I mean like their text editor is really nice. It’s a great place to write. It feels great and it looks great by default, which is a big win, but we wanted some flexibility and some personality back and wanted to kind of own the experience a bit more.
Adam: [00:12:06] I really wanted to kind of go back to basics and have it just be this single stream of text that you just read. Like you land on the site and you just start reading and you can read the full post right there on the page and you scroll and read and it’s this really natural thing and there’s no… One of the problems with modern blogs is, there’s so much shit around the actual thing that you want to read. And, you know, in a lot of places it’s advertising, but it’s also not advertising. It’s like, here’s 12 related articles and a billion tags and all these categories and it’s just kind of overwhelming. So so we really want it to just kind of pare it down and, uh, have it be this just kind of a nice simple thing.
[00:12:58] You know, I think, like Safaris reader mode is kind of an indictment of how a lot of blogs in particular are [inaudible]. That is a bandaid on a serious problem. It’s because people are making websites that at the end of the day isn’t putting the content front and center. And that’s really what we wanted to do. And then in terms of just kind of aesthetics, I went through a bunch of different looks like there was kind of a more like vintage electronics theme that I was running with for a while. But I really… Once I kind of tried this more kind of a poppy electric direction, I don’t know, that felt really nice, uh, for where we want it to go. It just feels a little more… I don’t know, it feels nice for our blog that’s been around for so long to, to really kind of change up the aesthetic direction and just kind of have something that’s a little… Just kind of makes a different statement and, uh, stands out in a different way than, than it has in the past.
Jason: [00:14:03] And also we’re going to change the design up I think more frequently, like the mast-header at the top, we’re going to play with that maybe every month or so. I don’t know. Adam and I have been talking about just messing around with it in a way where it’s more of an art project and just kind of treating SvN as a fun place to write, to express ourselves visually as well with the design, and play around in ways that we probably pretty much haven’t with Medium. Like we kind of changed the color ones. I think that was all we are able to do.
Wailin: [00:14:26] Woo.
Jason: [00:14:26] Yeah. I think it’s more of an artistic playground I think that’s how we’re going to start to see it again. And I think that was always what made it fresh for us and now it’s become, it feels a little bit more corporate in a sense because it’s in this like rigid template or breaking free of that.
Wailin: [00:14:41] Yeah. You should have seasonal mastheads.
Jason: [00:14:45] We’ve talked about that. Yeah. Adam did some wonderful, interesting mastheads that are really colorful and totally like “off-brand.” You know, who knows that our brand look is, but it’s clearly not us in a great way. And, I was excited about a number of them, so I think we’re going to play with them. Maybe we’ll randomize them. Maybe every time you load it there’ll be a different one or we can throw some more in the pile or take some out or yeah, play with snow or sun or whatever it is.
Wailin: [00:15:13] Yeah.
Jason: [00:15:13] t’d be cool too if we could detect via your IP if you’re coming from Australia or something and, or like the southern hemisphere, and flip the design. That’d be kind of fun. So it’s like, summer there now. But I think, and maybe even… I don’t know, I don’t think he designed it this way, but we talked about, I believe… At night, depending on where your time zone is, like having the design dimmed out or like play with that a little bit and just kind of having some fun again with that, because we don’t have a lot of room to do that with other projects that we have. So I think it’ll be kind of fun to play with that.
Wailin: [00:15:44] Yeah. It’s interesting. Before I sat down here, I looked up the old posts we did about moving to Medium and they’re just full of unbridled enthusiasm, which is the way it goes. Right. Because then after you have some experience with something, you kind of gain more of a understanding of it or your understanding of it changes or your experience with it changes. One thing… You had said that you were excited about the social sharing tools and reaching a bigger audience and testing some different things for distributing your writing. And do you feel like you like tapped that out? Did that live up to its promise and now you’re ready to not rely on the social sharing as much?
Jason: [00:16:22] Yeah, it did live up to its promise, initially. So, before we switched to Medium, basically the only way we got the word out was either RSS subscriptions to our blog or, I think we would post stuff on Twitter or something. And I felt like we’ve capped out or tapped out that audience. And what was interesting, I think, about Medium at the time was that they had really nice social sharing tools, especially with Twitter. And you could like suck some text and it would, it would embed an attachment image.
[00:16:48] It just had like a nice feel to it. And I feel like we were able to reach a whole new set of people that way that we couldn’t before. But at some point, again, you sort of maybe tap that out too. And you also begin to discount perhaps the value of social sharing in that way. And you start to think about, you know, how can we build our own readership back that we… own is the wrong term. But like I’m going to use it. We don’t of course own the readership, but like that we control. So for example, with the new blog, we’re going to be, allowing people to sign up for a newsletter, an email newsletter where we send every week we just sent out a list of the post via email. We couldn’t do that on Medium. I don’t think, at least it wasn’t built it, or, it wasn’t obvious
Adam: [00:17:28] But email is this kind of like wonderful universal conduit for things and without the syndication that Medium provides, we really needed a way to… for people to easily keep tabs on SvN without actually having to go visit the site on a daily basis. And then that’s also why like there’s no social sharing buttons on the blog. Those are the worst. Like and I mean, honestly in my experience people don’t use them so it’s just again, this like clutter that they get added to every website that is marginally justifiable. That like you do it just because like that’s the thing you do.
Jason: [00:18:13] But also, I’m going to be excited to write again because of the different content types we now have. Again, because there’s a lot of short things I want to share and we wanted to do this in the beginning, that’s sort of interesting. I think changing platforms just gives it a breath of fresh air as well. I hope more people here will write on SvN now.
Adam: [00:18:31] I can see plenty of times where like, oh, here’s… I’m going to post up a gallery of like process images for this thing that I was working on. As opposed to like, oh, I’m gonna, I’m gonna take, you know, what feels like an inordinate amount of hours to write this long meaty post on SvN. And I’ve done that a few times. But, I don’t often feel like I have something so profound to say that I’m going to… That hasn’t been said first of all, you know, make me, make me feel compelled to spend the time to, to write a post about it. But with a lower threshold, and not even a lower threshold, but just more, more kind of acceptance of the different kind of posts. Uh, yeah, I think I’ll end up posting a lot more potentially.
[00:19:22] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:19:28] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.
Wailin: [00:19:34] You can find our website at rework.fm and you can find most importantly, our new blog at SignalvNoise.com.
Wailin: [00:19:54] you grew up in the Midwest. Did you have a neighbor or maybe your mom did this, I don’t know who had like a cement goose on their doorstep.
Jason: [00:20:02] Give me some more details. Yeah, it sounds kind of familiar, strangely, but I don’t know what you mean.
Wailin: [00:20:09] It’s like a Midwestern thing to have a decorative goose made out of, usually cement. It’s very heavy and it sits on your doorstep. It’s like an outdoor decorative thing. And you buy outfits for it so you can like dress it up for the seasons. My piano teacher growing up had one and it was like one of my favorite things to go to her house and then see how the goose was dressed up because you know, for the holidays might have a Santa hat and then springtime it would have like an Easter bonnet or whatever. And um, anyway.
Jason: [00:20:39] I’m trying to remember. I feel like our neighbors may have had something like that, but in the back of our house, my parents have a rusty duck, which is a little bit different, but similar.
Wailin: [00:20:48] Okay, yeah.
Jason: [00:20:52] They have some strange animals. They get like these… they go to these art shows, on the weekends in the suburbs and they get like… You know those animals made of like I’m industrial parts, like gears for the… I think they have a frog made of an old car fender and springs for the ears or whatever. So, they’ve got some rusty old animals in the back, which aer probably—definitely—safety hazards at this point. They’ve been like rusting away.
Wailin: [00:21:20] I once… I was at this store, A Thousand Villages, and it sells kind of artisanal objects, usually, from around the world. And, there was one in my town and they had like a bird that was made out of little salvaged metal parts.
Jason: [00:21:35] Springs. Yep.
Wailin: [00:21:35] And I picked it up in such a way that it just sliced my hand open.
Jason: [00:21:41] Oh, shit.
Wailin: [00:21:41] And I bled profusely.
Jason: [00:21:45] In the store.
Wailin: [00:21:45] In the store.
Jason: [00:21:46] Like, rusty metal too.
Wailin: [00:21:48] I mean… yes.
Jason: [00:21:48] Tetanus shot. They had one in the back. Just to give you one real quick.
Wailin: [00:21:50] I didn’t even realize it until I was like trying to pay for something this drop of blood appeared on my wallet and then my girlfriend was like—
Jason: [00:21:57] That’s creepy.
Wailin: [00:21:57] —are bleeding. And then I was like, oh it was that like metal bird thing I picked up. And I got like hustled to like the employee bathroom and I bled all over their sink. It was so embarrassing.
Jason: [00:22:09] I love that that’s the emotion. It was like, it was embarrassing. Not like, it hurt, or anything, or I was going to die. It’s so embarrassing. No, I could see that. I mean those things seem so sharp and so dangerous and rusty and like there’s just nails sticking out of them and it’s not good.
Wailin: [00:22:22] Yeah.
Jason: [00:22:22] So we have that in our backyard.
Wailin: [00:22:24] Okay. Okay, well, that’ll be like inspo for the changing masthead at SvN, then, which is how we got on this topic.
Jason: [00:22:28] Yes. We can maybe do a goose in the masthead, and like only the Midwesterners would get it.
Wailin: [00:22:31] I’m going to pitch that to Adam.
Jason: [00:22:32] Yeah, do it.
Wailin: [00:22:32] Who’s from California, so he’s going to be very confused.
Jason: [00:22:34] What the hell you’re talking about? Well, we could, we could do like regional things, regional specialties, you know.
Wailin: [00:22:40] Yes.