Platforms change but cool URIs don't.
With the recent news of Twitter’s board accepting Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter, some folks are talking about leaving Twitter. In the long scheme of things, being founded in 2006 makes Twitter a young company, but the internet is different and over the past 16 years it’s become a central platform for many folks working in the technology field (among many others). Twitter has become especially important for folks writing content online, to the extent that it’s the most effective distribution mechanism for many writers. This is certainly true for self-published authors doing their own marketing, but I’ve also heard stories of publishers stipulating in their contracts that authors must be active on Twitter as well as partially filtering prospective authors by the size of their Twitter following.
I hope that Twitter remains a vibrant, effective forum for discussion as well as an effective distribution channel, but it’s an important reminder that even the best platforms don’t last forever. Tumblr and Flickr were the home of many vibrant communities before they were both acquired by Yahoo! MySpace similarly faded out after being acquired. Digg’s tech platform and data didn’t survive its acquisition. Facebook is still around, but the early APIs that powered its application ecosystem are long gone. Even Twitter itself shifted from encouraging a rich, API-centric, developer ecosystem to implicitly shutting down most API usage.
You can certainly argue that those platforms aren’t really content or distribution platforms, but it’s hard to look at recent subscription newsletter darling, Substack, without thinking about the increasingly unpredictable paywalls of yesteryear’s blogging darling, Medium. In theory you can simply replatform every five or six years, but cool URIs don’t change and replatforming significantly harms content discovery and distribution.
For folks who invest a great deal of time into creating content online, I think this ultimately means that you need to own your content, own your DNS records that connect readers to your content, and own your mailing list. As long as you control those interfaces, you can move platforms without impacting discoverability. Sure, it’s a bit of work, but this blog has moved five times, from Dreamhost to Linode to AWS to GCP to Github Pages, over the past 15 years and as far as I am aware all the URIs still work. If I’d routed folks directly to Medium or to a Github page on the Github domain, I wouldn’t have been able to do those migrations cleanly (incidentally those platforms didn’t exist when I started writing, but that’s not really the point here).
Probably the most important URI is the one where your RSS feed lives. RSS is a much less important distribution mechanism than it was a decade ago, but RSS readers are some of the most valuable readers because they include the subset of folks who first discover content to reshare on various social news platforms.
For a long time I held fast to the dream that RSS would be enough, but I eventually started a mailing list as I started to ramp towards releasing An Elegant Puzzle. Even today that list isn’t particularly large, but it’s still over 6,000 folks that I can reach directly even if Twitter disappears tomorrow (Staff Engineer’s mailing list is a bit larger, Infrastructure Engineer’s list is brand new and very small). It’s also a highly engaged subset who are much more likely to reply to the email with their thoughts. I’ve reluctantly come to believe that URIs and email are the durable interface and protocol that will live long past every given platform’s peak adoption (although, just imagine the sheer chaos of gmail shutting down one day, I do regret that I haven’t yet moved my email to my own domain, probably a good project for this year).
If you plan to write across decades, you simply must own the interfaces to your content. You should absolutely delve into other platforms as they come and go–they often become extraordinary communities with great distribution–but they’ll never be a durable home.