Write.as Version 2?

I'm slowly, quietly mulling over the idea of a Write.as “version 2” that takes the past six years of lessons and starts from scratch, in terms of our user experience.

We've been hearing about more users fumbling over the interface, which always prioritizes composition over management. That's a design pattern unique to our blogging platform (and similar writing pastebin sites), but it doesn't make sense for (or to) every user. I don't ever anticipate going full-on “dashboard is the first thing you see,” but I can imagine redesigning it from scratch in pursuit of a middle ground.

We're also hitting the limitations of super-flexible concepts like our “anonymous” posts. This is an unchanged vestige of the original Write.as prototype / MVP — no sign-up publishing. It's continued to be useful over the years, both for writers and for us as a platform, as it's helped people find, use, and spread Write.as around without any friction.

Once we launched accounts and blogs in 2016, anonymous posts changed to serve as the gentle “on-ramp” to a Write.as account — try without signing up, create an account when you're ready, and seamlessly bring your posts over to your account. It's something I wish more platforms offered — the ability to use them without giving away personal data first, just as you can enter a store in the real world without first joining the loyalty program. It's a pattern any privacy-respecting service should emulate, if possible.

But I haven't revisited it in the context of where the platform is today. Should we steer people in a particular direction? Do we want to tailor it to particular uses (share a long tweet, write flash fiction, submit an essay to your professor)? It's probably time to take a look at that now, and consider the things we're currently trying to help people accomplish with the platform.

It's also turned out that a flexible feature like this has some shortcomings when used for certain tasks, each with their own expectations and assumptions, like creating draft posts. This recently came up on the forum related to emails getting sent out. In short, since we make no assumptions about your intentions when you move a post between blogs (or away from its “anonymous” status), we skip certain automated parts of the publishing process, like setting the “publish” date so that email publishing works. Perhaps we need a dedicated Drafts feature.

I can absolutely see us offering a “version 2” blog style, if anything. As I wrote on the Write.as microblog I just started, it's unnecessarily difficult to create a custom theme on Write.as / WriteFreely right now. To do so, you need extra-specific CSS selectors, plenty of !importants, and extra rules to make up for differences between the blog index and blog post pages. We can simplify the base rules to make customization much easier. There's also some default typography improvements I'd love to make standard. I'm just very hesitant to change defaults on people when not absolutely necessary.

Looking to our future, there are some power use cases I'd like to support that could require fundamental changes to the platform. For example, I'd like to give writers more ownership over their email subscribers. That potentially means loosening up the privacy protections we offer to readers as a platform, but ensuring writers can get the most out of our platform. That means fundamentally altering some expectations in the platform, and for that, I'd rather present it as an opt-in alternative, instead of imposing a new default across the board.

I'd also like to support heavier publishing workflows for content creators who need to schedule posts and have fine control over post metadata, for example. We started working toward this with our Classic editor in Labs, but haven't completed the thought. Especially as we've added complementing tools like Submit.as, I see this being important for certain users of ours.

There are also features I've purposely avoided adding, largely in the name of getting across some values I used to hold, like that internet platforms shouldn't incentivize the creation of more cheap “content.” My views have evolved a bit, and I can see the utility in helping people spread their work through a variety of means — especially when spreading means a process of creation in itself. I can imagine combining tools like the text-to-image prototype in development with our platform to facilitate the process of promoting work beyond just what the original author does. Adding this feature now would mean to change some core aspects of the platform. But it could fit a “V2” platform that is more social, connected, and that floats more the mainstream of web publishing today.

These are only ideas right now that I'm bouncing around. I don't take drastic changes lightly when they're affecting almost 200,000 people, but I'm also not resistant to change, especially when we have years of experience to tell us what's best for everyone. We don't have any firm timelines on changes we might make. But it's on my mind, and I think our progress forward as a platform will depend on it.