the medium

Jack Kerouac inspired the new blogging platform Ghost, but will it inspire you?

May 28, 2013
May 28, 2013

I know what you’re thinking: Why do we need yet another blogging platform? Especially in light of the failure of blogging platform Posterous, the acquisition of Tumblr by Yahoo, and the ten year anniversary of WordPress, which is already powering around 20% of the sites on the web and shows no signs of slowing.

And on some level, designer and programmer John O’Nolan doesn’t have a ready answer for us. But the design savvy in the posting and management interface of his new blogging platform, Ghost, was compelling enough to net Ghost nearly £200,000 (about $300,000) in a funding campaign on Kickstarter, or eight times O’Nolan’s original goal of £25,000—even though, so far, it’s just a set of designs and the very beginnings of the code required to make it work. That, and perhaps the fact that he’s launching a non-profit foundation (those always sound good to potential donors) to support the development of what he modestly calls “just a blogging platform.”

But talking to O’Nolan, it becomes clear that his ambition is not quite so modest. It is, he says, to change how writers think, by changing the basic nature of how they write for the web.

This isn’t O’Nolan’s first rodeo. For two years he was the deputy head of the group that designs the user interface for WordPress. Before and after that he freelanced, building WordPress blogs for corporate giants, including Microsoft and Nokia. WordPress was designed for ease of use, but it has grown sophisticated and complicated over the years. That was one reason O’Nolan wanted to create something simpler.

The other reason, which speaks to his larger ambitions, was an intriguing essay by Jason Pontin of Technology Review about how the instruments we use to write have historically shaped what we write—and in the age of the web, how we communicate. Pontin’s thesis can be summed up like this: One reason Jack Kerouac could inaugurate the Beat era of writing was that—so he claimed—he got his hands on a 120-foot roll of teletype paper which encouraged him to write On The Road continuously, without breaks. (In fact, he was so calculating in his manipulation of medium that he taped sheets of paper together into a roll.)

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Ghost’s dashboard.John O'Nolan

This is where Ghost comes in, says O’Nolan. If he and his team can successfully create a system that makes it easy for writers to express thoughts without interrupting themselves to construct the elaborate, multi-media layouts that characterize articles on the web, everyone will start writing differently.

“This is the biggest thing I’m excited about,” says O’Nolan. “How can a tool affect the outcome of what it’s being used to create?”

Social media are probably the best example of this phenomenon. The “status update” as a form of communication—a personal note to just a few hundred of your closest friends—didn’t exist before sites like Friendster and Facebook. Twitter gave rise to the ultra-short dispatch, the public micro-debate, and a form of real-time journalism that is somewhere between text and TV. Tumblr is arguably responsible for the proliferation of animated GIFs. Pinterest lets you talk about yourself without using words.

Ghost is more challenging than these mediums. Its main feature is that you write text in a simplified formatting language called “markdown” in one window, while a preview of the resulting page appears in another window next to it. Markdown isn’t complicated (e.g., writing *something produces something, and writing **something produces something). It’s already popular on sites aimed at geeks, like Reddit and GitHub. It’s also already used in a handful of other blogging platforms, of which the closest competitor to Ghost is the recently-launched Dropplets.

Still, for generations of writers raised on programs like Microsoft Word or blogging software like WordPress, with their handy formatting toolbars, markdown takes some adjustment. But O’Nolan argues that if you’re writing for the web, using markdown instead of clicking on buttons—or worse yet, writing everything in raw HTML—actually changes what you write. “Rather than taking the author out of the mindset of thinking about a subject, markdown keeps them in a train of thought where they can simply get the ideas onto paper,” says O’Nolan. In other words, he sees markdown as the 120-foot teletype roll of the 21st century.

Is typing asterisks on one side of a screen and watching the results appear on the other really going to be less distracting than clicking a button marked B? O’Nolan could be wrong; the fact that markdown hasn’t gone mainstream by now could be proof that most writers simply don’t need it.

On the other hand, the lesson of Steve Jobs at Apple was that often the best “innovations” already exist, but have yet to be packaged into a product that is easy to use and appeals to people. Ghost is all about the packaging. Platforms like Dropplets, for example, require you to set up your own server to host your site. Ghost takes care of it for you. (That’s how it will make money.) The not-for-profit model and the fact that his code will be open-source, meanwhile, is the part of the package designed to appeal to developers who will help O’Nolan build it. A hundred of them have already pledged £250 apiece to the project (about $378) in order to have early access to the code.

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