“You’ve Come a Long Way,” WordPress

Kyle Pearce reviewing the Storehouse app.

While researching some things I had posted on Google+ some years back, I stumbled across a post I had made in 2014 about Storehouse which was a new publishing platform for “visual storytelling”.

What amazed me about reflecting back upon it (particularly the animated example under the title section of “Beautiful stories everywhere” on their website) is that the same thing can now be achieved within WordPress in terms of outputting a beautiful structure and layout to tell your story. This has largely been in part because of what Gutenberg has achieved in empowering the end user to finally be able to visually layout their own content fairly easily.

This got me thinking and wondering if many people even realize WordPress has this power now. If you don’t, it would probably be a pretty huge change and it would probably radically change your perspective of the platform in turn.

At the same time, it has made me realize how powerful and easy to use the platform is now, regardless of where I want it to be in terms of it evolving into my dream platform. In effect, I have to recognize that it is far more powerful than it ever was and becoming far more powerful than other platforms every day.

This is something I’m not really leveraging in its basic sense. In effect, helping people to simply become aware of it and to utilize in its basic current state, regardless of the fact that I want it to become so much more still (which will probably be achieved by the end of this year though with full site editing).

Anyways, all that said, one thing that is still lacking with WordPress is the mobile user experience, at least from my perspective in terms of using the WordPress iOS app. It is pretty much in its infancy still and cannot even compare to the simplicity, power, and ease of use that the Storehouse iOS app had six years ago in 2014. It would be nice if the WordPress iOS app development team took some lessons from the design and functionality of the Storehouse iOS app and implemented them into the WordPress iOS app.

It’s also interesting to see that in searching the Web to discover what happened to Storehouse, it appears that the platform shut down in 2016 because they couldn’t build a large enough user base. I remember at the time in 2014 thinking that if the Storehouse had translated their technology and created a WordPress app, even selling it for something like $20 (which would have been an outrageous price for an iOS app at the time), they probably could have easily garnered a huge client base for what they wanted to achieve but in a completely different context than they initially imagined.

In effect, they wanted to create their own medium, their own walled garden (similar to Medium at the time), yet many people weren’t interested in that. So if they had just pivoted at the time, using their existing technology in a different way than they originally imagined, they could have still been around today but in a different form. And interestingly enough, perhaps WordPress might have even bought the company and integrated their technology for their own WordPress iOS app sooner. Who knows? We’ll never know.

BTW it’s interesting to see that a competitor to Storehouse at the time in 2014 is still around. Exposure, created with the help of Derek Powazek (who also worked on HotWired, Blogger, & Technorati), looks like an extremely well integrated proprietary platform that simplifies the experience of web publishing for the end user, so they don’t have to go through the headaches of what you’d normally have to go through in setting up a WordPress site (i.e. themes, plugins, etc). Even their pricing seems very reasonable.


Harnessing Quantum Creativity

The key to prospering in the creator economy is to maximize interaction while reducing friction. Generally this means minimizing the amount of input required from users (i.e., Twitter’s counterintuitive 140-character limit). They need to contribute freely and naturally without having to think twice. In Saffo’s view, the creator economy will reward businesses that leverage tiny amounts of user input. “The companies that will be the biggest,” he says, “are the ones that harness the smallest quantum of creative activity.

The Creator Economy: Futurist Paul Saffo On The New Business Epoch

Seriously fucking brilliant and so true.

This is so in line with what I’ve said before about how the path to the New World is found within the in-between spaces of the Old World (in other words, within liminal moments while we’re in transition between things, having a few moments to scribble or jot down an idea).

Mirrors perfectly with Tiago Forte’s vision of work being broken down into smaller “bite sized” tasks as well.

Also resonates with what I’ve said before how WordPress needs to get its act together and seriously tackle microblogging with the ability to embed articles previews (probably using JetPack) with full functionality similar to Embedly (or like pretty much every social network platform under the sun, i.e. Twitter, Facebook, etc).

Creativity Web

A Web Platform for a Life in Design

Something dawned on me last night before I went to bed. I realized that all of these different aspects of my life are trying to come together in a unified way.

To put it another way, I believe that my evolving focus on computers, the Web, community, culture, personal development, organizational development, identity, social innovation, and play are all leading to weaving all of these things together into one thing.

That one thing is a highly flexible and customizable Web platform that allows an individual to express their life fully in many different ways and forms (i.e. short form, long form), thus allowing them to creatively weave these different knowledge flows of their life together and design something emergently new and innovative in the process, their own unique life path and identity.

Expressing Our Inner Selves Outwardly

What I’m talking about here is effectively building an open source Web version of a Second Brain. One that isn’t dependent or reliant on a third party proprietary systems which could potentially cause you to lose years of knowledge if the company goes under and there isn’t any way to easily export it and import it into another system.

The problem with trying to create an open source Second Brain right now though is that most platforms aren’t flexible enough to achieve this (including WordPress). For example, most people predominately still use social networking platforms such as Twitter and even Facebook because short form microblogging is infinitely easy to do on these platforms. This allows them to express themselves quickly and without thinking about it (which of course can be a bad thing as well).

In comparison, most people today feel that long form blogging requires much more of a serious intention, commitment, and effort to achieve. It shouldn’t be this way. Open source platforms like WordPress shouldn’t be hard-coded spaces primarily designed for long form writing. Microblogging should be built into it from the start as well but it’s not. Perhaps by the end of 2020 this could change, as we’ll hopefully have the ability to have full site wide block editing, including maybe the ability to customize which post elements to display on a per post basis (thus finally emulating post formats without the need for specialized post format functionality).

Seeking A “Profound Kind of Learning”

For example, one of the core developers working on the full site wide editing of WordPress is Enrique Piqueras. I discovered his Twitter account, which is fairly active, and later found his blog as well, which is fairly new but has a couple of posts on it. His very first post though entitled Writing to Grow: Why I’m Starting This Blog is quite poignant and enlightening, as he notes the following.

I want to take advantage of the more profound kind of learning that takes place when organizing and sharing your thoughts in public with the Internet.

Enrique Piqueras

This is an amazing intention to set because I believe trying to organize and share our thoughts, even in just having an intrapersonal relationship with ourselves, opens up doorways to learning and growth that we couldn’t conceive of or plan when we first started. That’s because we’re taking things that are internally subjective within our life and objectifying them externally, so as to be able to fully observe, understand, and manage them. In effect, you can’t manage what you can’t see.

For me, this is what the power of blogging can achieve on a basic level. You’re able to pull seemingly intangible thoughts out of your head and make them tangible with writing. And more often than not, you won’t make sense of your thoughts until you’re in the act of writing and things emerge in the moment from it. So it’s a very personally rewarding experience just for yourself, ignoring the fact that someone, somewhere might connect with what you’re saying and learn and grow from it as well.

Seeing Our Learning & Growth Over Time

But what’s interesting about all that I just said above is that at the end of Enrique’s blog post, he said the following.

If I do this right, I’ll reread this in a few years and cringe.

Enrique Piqueras

While I’m sure this was said in jest, it does reveal a deeper cultural problem with blogs and personal websites in what people believe they should be used for. They seriously need to go beyond just being long form writing platforms to being platforms of expressing oneself however simply one chooses.

In fact, in my own life, it was all of my short form thoughts and notes that collectively came together over the years (many not even on my blog) and started weaving together into something larger that made me who I am today, bit by bit. And when you have the opportunity to literally look back on your thoughts and life, seeing your growth, development, and transformation over the years, its definitely not with a cringe but rather with a sense of awe at the potential you have already achieved and can still achieve ahead of you.

All said and done, I think we just to need to let go of these “hard-coded” beliefs and expectations that are holding us back from reaching our own innate potential already within us. As Alfonso Montuori said, creativity is effectively just the process of “stepping out of our own way.”

Diving Into The Ocean of Ourselves

Finally I think a quote by Tiago Forte may be the perfect close to this post because it reveals why many of us might feel like our lives are scattered or without focus because they often are scattered across different digital mediums. But by bringing our Self together in one space, we have the potential to integrate our life and our identity by seeing creative hidden connections within them. We just have to reach into the deep ocean of ourselves at the end of our thought streams and pull these treasures to the surface.

Everyone is doing a constant stream of these things, but it’s scattered and mostly hidden. Your blog is where they become explicit and public, like a portfolio for anyone to see.

Tiago Forte, Creator of “Building a Second Brain”

Collaboration Between Theme & CSS Style Editor Developers

While WordPress is moving forwards with implementing full site wide editing via blocks, my guess is we won’t see a viable production ready version of this until at least the summer, potentially even the end of the year, as it is a pretty big leap for people. That said, once it is implemented and people understand the huge paradigm shift with it, they’ll love the increased functionality and flexibility. All that said though, what happens in the meantime?

What I mean by this is that I don’t want to have to just sit around and wait another year before I can do anything new with the platform, I want to try to start making step forwards with WordPress in other different ways while this work is being undertaken. As I mentioned in my future of the Web and WordPress post, I think the next step after full site editing will be a unified HTML & CSS framework and even integrated site editing capabilities. The question I have now is can this future feature be emulated in some way right now.

Plugins such as Microthemer most definitely give a person the capability to integrate a visual CSS style editor into WordPress right now. Yet as I noted in my future of the Web post, it’s still a limited experience because every design pack style you can create and even export to share with a friend who could import it, requires that friend using the same exact same theme as well. Even more so, you have to create your own Scaffold (selectors) for each theme you want to use it on, rather than just having them readily accessible from the start (thus making it easier to understand what you’re doing as a new user).

Integrating A Theme & Style Editor As A Unified Package

To me, the ideal situation here is that Microthemer needs to partner with a specific theme developer, whereby the theme developer focuses on the custom functionality and layout side of things while Microthemer focuses on the styling side of things. Together they sell their separate products as an integrated package though, each empowering and simplifying the others experience.

To achieve this though, many things need to be done differently than how they’re currently done. The theme developer is effectively just creating a base template with content or layout customizer options only. Anything relating to styling (i.e. colours, fonts, sizes, etc) would be left out of the customizer. In effect, the most the theme developer creates in terms of styles is a CSS reset and base foundation with default fonts and sizes.

Now Microthemer, as the visual CSS style editor plugin developer, takes the theme from the developer and creates a Scaffold of CSS selectors within Microthemer and applies styles to it. What I just said here may sound obvious but it’s not. The emphasis here is that the actual CSS styles of the theme, beyond the base CSS reset, are actually contained within Microthemer.

Simplifying the End User Experience

Why is this important? Because if you use Microthemer on a theme that has CSS styles already applied beyond just the CSS reset, you create a situation where it can confuse the Microthemer user modifying it. For example, say the theme developer applies a 1 pixel dotted border around a post but Microthemer creates a design pack Skin style which changes that to a 2 pixel solid border around it. Now imagine if a Microthemer user uses that design pack Skin style and modifies it by wanting to remove the border altogether. If they delete the specific Microthemer style on that specific selector, suddenly it defaults to a 1 pixel border and they’re confused, since they thought it would be gone not change to something else.

This is why CSS styles beyond the CSS reset should all be contained within Microthemer. That way if the Microthemer user wants to removes a style on a selector, like a border box around post or a line divider between posts, deleting the styles applied to the specific selector easily achieves this. The other way though, if the theme has CSS styles beyond the CSS reset, to remove them requires actually applying additional Microthemer styles to counteract and remove the original theme’s styles.

Again instead of waiting around for a pair of developers to think about this and do it, I should just do it myself. In effect, I already have Microthemer, so I just need a start theme pack of some kind that has little or no style settings (i.e. fonts, colours, etc) but primarily just content and layout options. I then create the Scaffold selectors in Microthemer for this starter theme and apply a Skin style settings to it.


My Original Vision of the Web Evolving Now

All this talk about the future of WordPress and how it is starting to align with a vision I had a decade ago for a next generation CMS got me nostalgic with seeing if I could find some evidence of this vision in the past. Interestingly enough, while searching back within my emails, I actually discovered conversations I had with Anthony Casalena, the Founder of Squarespace, about frustrations with Squarespace’s evolution at the time and how it differed from what I was envisioning.

Block Based Content & Layouts

The first instance I found was back in May 7th, 2010, where I was telling Anthony in an email of trying to help a client using Squarespace Version 5 and figuring out a hack to effectively use multiple posts within the list view of a Journal (blog) module as layout “blocks” to emulate a single page grid layout. The reason I came up with this hack was because no web platform had come up with a way to do this yet at the time, yet end users were seeing it done on hand coded sites, so were wondering why they couldn’t do it yet and even attempting to do it with horrible results, as noted below.

You’ve probably seen it yourself. Someone asking on the forums how to layout three blocks of text side by side in a horizontal row. For most end users, this is like trying to part the Red Sea. I’ve even seen one recent client go so far as to use the space bar and broken lines of text to emulate this effect. It’s both hilarious and sad to see at the same time.

Nollind Whachell in a conversation with Anthony Casalena, May 7th, 2010

What’s interesting is that Anthony was already thinking about this as well and informed me that Version 6 of Squarespace, which was being worked on at the time and would be released two years later, would overcome this problem by introducing block based content and a grid system to lay them out with which Squarespace called the Layout Engine. So this was the first major hurdle that I wanted to see overcome.

The only downside to this approach though is that I wanted this solution to be site wide, so you could layout your entire site this way. A radical leap at the time, yes, but Squarespace Version 6 was a complete rewrite of the entire platform, so if it had been on the table then I think it could have given Squarespace an even farther head start than other companies. Today, a decade later, Squarespace still hasn’t transitioned to this capability yet and WordPress, one of the few companies I thought would never tackle this, is finally taking its first steps in trying to achieve this which is simply amazing.

Squarespace’s Greatest Strength Was Its Flexibility

In understanding where I was going with this all, I was envisioning a CMS platform that was highly flexible and customizable for the end user, that put power of Web design in their hands without the need to code. To understand what I’m trying to get at here, this goes way beyond just block based content and grid layouts within the content area of posts and pages. In effect, I was even envisioning ways in which the end user could even manipulate and customize normally hard-coded functionality using a visual script engine (which I believe Drupal has something similar now but I’ve forgotten the name of it).

This was the beauty of Squarespace in Version 4 and 5, you could take a Journal (blog) module and make it emulate a lot of different things. For example, by changing the sort order in the module options area, making it sort alphabetically by the title rather than sort reverse date order by the post date, you could turn a Journal module into a company directory, even adding categories to show which people were in which department.

Going further than this, I was even envisioning how different modules such as the Journal module (with comment threads) and the Forum module (with response threads) were effectively the same thing on the backend in terms of content but it was just how the content was displayed on the front-end, along with additional different list views, that made them look different. So if you could remove this hard-coded functionality and change it to a set of flexibly, functional options, you could open up the platform and make it much more flexible overall, going even beyond just blogging and simple site building.

Creating A Platform Flexibly Expressive To Its Very Core

If you think about this, this was the core of my vision. It was making the platform more flexible by breaking it down into smaller bits. So wherever there was hard-code functionality, I wanted to see it removed and replaced with simple yet powerful options that allowed for numerous customizations. Another email conversation with Anthony later in October 4th, 2012 highlights this when I indicate my frustrations with the direction of Version 6 of Squarespace and what I was looking for instead with my own CMS vision.

As I’ve always said, SQ greatest strengths were it’s core features but more importantly because of how those core features were highly flexible (i.e. use a journal module for a variety of things).

What my CMS concept does is expand upon that, so instead of building on top of these core features (like every weighed down CMS platform out there today), I break down the core features even more so, so as to make them even more flexible and customizable (and without the need for custom fields, for the most part). This probably won’t make sense but a lot of the ideas for this came from my research in cultural behaviours because most CMS platforms assume functional behaviours when they shouldn’t.

Nollind Whachell in a conversation with Anthony Casalena, October 4th, 2012

What I meant by “cultural behaviours” is that within most companies today, everything is culturally “hard-coded” in the same way and thus there is little room for freedom and autonomy in organizations which is what people need if they want to have the flexibility to express themselves as real human beings. So Web platforms are mirroring this hard-coded functionality in the same way and we need to remove as much of it as we can to create platforms that are truly empowering and flexible for people.

Replacing Specialized Functions With Flexible Functionality

Here’s a quick example of what I mean. Most Web platforms hard-code sidebars as a separate unique function with separate unique content block functionality within them called widgets (which requires a lot of programming time to do so). Yet what WordPress is doing now, by breaking down their system into smaller parts and replacing them with universal blocks, is that you can replace a lot of these many different hard-coded functionalities with these flexible, universal building blocks instead. So now what the WordPress full site editing experience is beginning to show is that a “sidebar” is now nothing more than an additional block column and the “widgets” within it are now just blocks as well.

All said and done, this creates a platform that is much more flexible, customizable, and expressive for the end user overall, empowering them to do more with it than they could have ever possibly imagined before. That’s my future of the Web that I started envisioning over a decade ago and where I want to see it continue to grow and evolve in the decades ahead.


My Vision of The Future of the Web & WordPress

The last couple of days I’ve been reviewing a variety of aspects of using WordPress and I’ve come to realize something with regards to what I want to see happen with the Web and how WordPress can get us there…if it evolves in the right way.

To understand where I want things to go though, you have to understand where I’ve come from though.

Back around 1996, I actually started building online community sites around video games and shared information and news about these video games upon my site (before the word “blog” was really a word). This was all hand crafted HTML coding with no backend engine to generate posts or pages.

In the new millennium, I wanted to reduce the tediousness of crafting everything by hand and so I start fooling around with Radio Userland and later Movable Type. Both had their strengths and weaknesses, with aspects of them still more innovative than some current platforms today.

Squarespace: Great Form & Function

Sometime around 2004 though, I came across a proprietary platform called Squarespace created by Anthony Casalena, its founder and lone developer. Once I started exploring and playing around with the platform, I soon came to absolutely love its rapid and natural approach to site development. While radically different from the Squarespace that many know today (since Version 6 in 2012 was a complete redesign), the key strengths of the platform (solidified in Version 5) were its separated content, structure, and style areas (with style being further broken down into layout and style).

Another awesome feature of the platform in Version 4 was that you could actually modify parts (not all) of the HTML code of a template and export it simply as an XML file. With Version 5, the ability to edit HTML code was removed but you could still export a custom style of an existing template as an XML file. This was pretty amazing because it allowed you to easily share a template / style with anyone (i.e. friend, web designer customer) as a simple single file.

With Version 6 though, as I noted above, this will all lost. Squarespace radically shifted from being a designers platform to a developers platform. Now if you really wanted to do anything serious with the platform (or even sometimes something just basic and simple), you had to do it manually via code in the backend. Even worse, a lot of some of its best functionality and flexibility was removed (i.e. forums blocks, journal sorting options, etc) and the style area was severely neutered from what it once was as well.

Other Platforms Today

When I look at a lot of platforms today (even the current version of Squarespace), the main problem I see is a lack of organizing all of this complexity of the platform in a simple way. Note I’m not saying removing the complexity but rather organizing it so it seems accessible and simple to make sense of and understand. Yet instead of achieving this, they actually simplify their functionality, dumbing it down in the process, because they can’t figure out how to properly design an organized interface for their platform with great usability in mind.

With WordPress today, we see Gutenberg emulating the block based Layout Engine first introduced in Squarespace Version 6 and allowing WordPress to make a huge leap forward in terms of layout and design possibilities. And while the current version of Gutenberg focuses on layout possibilities within a page or post content area, future versions will allow layout possibilities for the entire site.

In my opinion, when WordPress reaches the point where you can modify the layout of the entire site, it will have to radically rethink what a theme is as well. In effect, if the layout functionality is embedded in platform rather than the theme, this will dramatically reduce the number of theme variations. In effect, themes will no longer differ based upon their layout but will just differ based upon their style.

Unifying The HTML & CSS Framework

When this happens, I believe WordPress will finally move to a unified HTML & CSS framework which was what made Squarespace so powerful for designers in Version 4 and 5 as well. Why? Because once you have a unified HTML & CSS framework, it will finally allow the fluid flexibility and openness of changing site styles on the fly without having to worry about the backend HTML structure as well. Yet you can’t do that right now in WordPress because the CSS “style” of a site is hardwired to the HTML structure of it. This effectively makes the styles of a theme proprietary to the developer and theme, rather than open to the community.

So by creating a unified HTML & CSS framework and by integrating layout options within the platform rather than within the theme, what’s left within the theme is basically style options (ie. fonts, colours, sizes, borders, background images, spacing, etc). Because of this, the Customizer will undergo a radical remake and restructuring which I think is sorely needed, since right now there is no organizational separation between layout and style. They’re just all mixed together in an illogical sort of way to me.

Once this happens and themes effectively just become about styling your site, I think the next evolution will be the creation of an integrated style editor to dramatically improve the user experience and usability. Think about it. What Gutenberg is doing today for layouts, allowing them to be modified live within a post and page content area, and eventually anywhere on your site, it can achieve the same thing tomorrow for styles. In effect, the ability to modify the style of your entire site live.

Empowering & Expressive Designs

While many people might say WordPress can already do this and I will even agree that it does, it does this quite meagrely and horribly. In effect, the user experience is kludgy, without any great design and usability put into designing a better experience overall. Some plugin developers, such as Microthemer are trying to improve this style design experience but what’s missing with it is a unified HTML & CSS backend structure to WordPress to really make it powerful and easy to use.

For example, Microthemer has the ability to import or export Design Packs which contain either Skins (styles) or Scaffolds (selectors). Yet the problem with this approach though is that whatever design pack you create, its proprietarily locked to the WordPress theme they are created with. So even though my friend may like my style design pack I created for my site, he can’t use and import my exported version of it, unless he changes his WordPress theme to the same one as mine.

This was effectively the beauty and simplicity of Squarespace back during Version 4 and 5. It was like as if WordPress had a unified HTML & CSS backend structure and Microthemer was built into it for free. And even more so, every installation would also have this unified Scaffold (selectors) with a bunch of Skin (styles) to choose from by default. Even better, if you customized a skin style yourself, effectively making a new one out of it, you could easily share it with a friend by simply exporting it and having them import it.

When WordPress reaches this point of evolution and integration, it will go beyond just democratizing publishing on the Web to empowering the design of it as well. I think this is an incredibly important point to mention because expressing and communicating ourselves goes well beyond mere words. If anything, Gutenberg is making this readily apparent right now by showing how empowering and expressive having integrated layout controls on a website can be.


Considering Web Design Again

After being ecstatic about the future direction of Gutenberg and even more excited about the future direction of CSS Flexbox and Grids and how they both work together, I’m at a point in my life where I’m seriously considering getting back into web design again.

Having said that, over the past few days I’ve been reviewing where all of these things are at in terms of their development and usage to see if it’s worthwhile to start working with these now. Based upon what I’ve found, I don’t think it’s worthwhile getting on board just yet, at least for myself, due to the following reasons.

  1. Gutenberg is still probably at least a half year away from completion.
  2. While Flexbox seems to be gaining traction, there doesn’t seem to be many style editor plugins that incorporate it yet (i.e. Microthemer does include it).
  3. CSS Grids almost have little to no adoption yet, so I haven’t really seen any developer tools that I’d like to use incorporating them yet. Even more so, very few theme developers seem to be developing with it either.

All said and done, if I can find a theme developer that is really breaking new ground with Flexbox and CSS Grid within their themes (even providing customizations due to their flexibility) then I’d seriously consider web design again. The key thing in all of this is that I don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel and relearn everything from scratch. Rather, I want someone else to invent the wheel for me, as a foundational tool, that I can then build upon and modify to my needs, as well as for the needs of others.

Update Jan 17/2018: Completely rethinking this.

What I just realized is that I’m no better off if I wait to dive into this all. In effect, I have needs in terms of my website right now and I’m finding most WP themes don’t meet my functional needs no matter how great they look.

All said and done, to meet my needs right now, I’ll may as well dive in building templates with WordPress right now since certain aspects of it will still exist when Gutenberg is launched, whereas other aspects will completely disappear. The key thing is to not to lose track of what will disappear when Gutenberg is released, so that I don’t waste too much time learning it, only to discard it later.

Whats clearly evident though is I need to map out both my current needs and vision of what I would like WordPress to become (i.e. my next gen CMS vision).

Update Jan 19/2018: Seems I’m not alone in this situation. Spoke to PixelGrade, a prominent WP theme developer, and they are in a sort of holding pattern as well, waiting for Gutenberg to stabilize and finalize before they fully test it and update their existing themes for it. Seems to me there’s not too much I can do if I want to work on web stuff for Gutenberg until it actually stabilizes. In effect, the foundation of my work will be based upon it, so can’t do much until that foundation is stabilized.

Update Mar 6/2018: Having spent the time trying to get a theme that works the way that I want it to for this site, I’m realizing that WordPress has a long way to go before it has the tools and structure that work the way I want it to. Based upon what I’ve read, it looks like Gutenberg may emerge out of beta by mid 2018 and I’ll reassess by then. In the interim, I’m quite happy with this Scrawl WordPress theme and the modifications I’ve made to it. It almost has a feel to it. Even more so, it will allow me to easily add content in a variety of forms, long or short form.

Update Mar 15/2019: More than a year later after writing this post and after reviewing a variety of themes, most with mediocre Gutenberg support at best, I believe I’ve finally found a theme that has the design & functionality that I’ve been looking for which is Authentic by Code Supply Co. While this theme isn’t 100% perfect, it is amazing and way, way, way better than many other themes I’ve reviewed. In fact, the back end Customizer area is awesome, especially with regards to the customization that can be achieved with the Header, Navigation, and Featured Image areas. In fact, I’d even go so far to say that it meets the design & functionality I experienced when using Squarespace and even surpasses it in certain areas. Therefore, in going forward, while I will probably not do full web design work again, I’d definitely like to use this theme to help other people “get online” in a simple yet empowering way.


My Past Towards The Future of the Web

In the 1990’s, I was fascinated with the emergence of the Web, as well as the emergence of online multiplayer video games. I built online communities around these video games in my personal time which eventually lead to professional work as a Senior Web Developer building communities hubs for notable video game publishers such as Sierra, Activision, and Konami.

Discovering Squarespace

After the Bomb period though in 2001, I went freelance and eventually discovered Squarespace in 2004 as a web publishing platform and I absolutely loved designing with it. As an integrated platform, Squarespace was light years ahead of the competition, incorporating a way to structure, layout, and style a website, all within a browser. Because of this, you could rapidly develop a website in just a few days or weeks instead of few months. At the time, I saw so much potential and evolving possibilities for the platform.

With the release of Squarespace Version 5 and Version 6 though, it was becoming more and more apparent that the platform was not going in the direction I had hope for. When Version 5 was launched in 2008, I remember being told you could build “anything” with it but after addressing my concerns, no public admittance of the limitations of the platform came out until a Squarespace 2010 Roadmap post. Hoping Version 6 would address these concerns in 2012, the platform as a whole was almost completely neutered for a rebuild, losing most of its flexibility and functionality to become more of backend developer platform, rather than the stellar front end designer platform it once was.

What I Had Hoped Squarespace Could Be

Throughout the years using Squarespace, I had been asked what I wanted it to become and I think in 2012, when I launched Evolution for Squarespace Version 5, I think this was a cumulative last ditched attempt at articulating what I had hoped it could be. Evolution was basically a javascript-based framework file that you loaded onto your Squarespace site, thus empowering it with more flexibility and functionality, thus overcoming the limitations of the platform.

The idea and inception for Evolution actually started out years earlier when I was much more involved in the Squarespace community forums. At that time, I kept seeing different people coming forward with the same problems and yet nothing ever got fully resolved or made easier. While I tried to help people out solving specific problems, I found that it was like sticking a finger in a dam that kept sprouting one leak after another. In effect, to solve all of these problems, a completely new way of working with the system needed to be devised.

While I tried to help people out solving specific problems, I found that it was like sticking a finger in a dam that kept sprouting one leak after another.

While Evolution includes features for incorporating Grids and additional Styles (i.e. magazine style elements such as hero images with text overlay options) on your Squarespace site, it was its Placement feature that was its primarily selling point. In effect, it allowed a person to move Squarespace content blocks anywhere on their site rather than just within the page or post content area. This was something not even Squarespace Version 6 could do.

Alas, while there was evident community interest for these features within Evolution, once people realized they had to manually activate these features using CSS “Activator” classes, they quickly lost interest. In effect, people wanted these features integrated into Squarespace, not hacked on top of it. Unfortunately most of these people didn’t realize that you couldn’t modify Squarespace core features, only Squarespace could do that. Therefore, without much further ado, my professional web design career ended.

Common Conventional Problems

What is interesting to note though is that after web design, my interests gravitated to community development and how that related to organizational development, more specifically The Future of Work. What’s amazing to realize is that upon reflection of both of these interests, web publishing and organizational development, both at their core have very similar problems. They both try to force people to work in limited ways with predefined behaviours of functionality “hard coded” into the system, rather than letting people flexibly construct their own behavioural functionality that works for their own unique needs.

They both try to force people to work in limited ways with predefined behaviours of functionality “hard coded” into the system…

For example, most web publishing platforms let you create a blog which is a collection of posts, formatted in a typical fashion, and sorted in reverse chronological order. The beauty of Squarespace Version 5 and earlier was that it didn’t limit you to this. Any end user with no coding experience whatsoever could create a collection of posts sorted alphabetically or chronologically by making a few adjustments to the block settings, thus allowing them to create an alphabetic company directory using categories to define the different departments of the company. In comparison to achieve the same simple modification in Version 6, you would need to be a Web Developer with years of experience under your belt.

Another example is the usage of blocks for content creation, which Squarespace itself introduced as its Layout Engine in Version 6. This was truly a ground breaking leap for Squarespace but it limited its usage to just the page and post content area, rather than letting the end user layout and build their entire website with it (i.e. header, content, sidebar, footer).

WordPress: Gutenberg

After leaving Squarespace, I did try to find an alternative platform comparable to it but nothing came close. I did eventually settle on using WordPress for my own site but I found its community highly fractured, all using different approaches, thus making jumping from one theme to another highly frustrating. In comparison, switching themes in Version 5 and earlier of Squarespace was a breeze, as all of the templates utilized the same HTML structure and CSS class Selector names, thus making it extremely simple to modify a new theme.

When WordPress initially announced Gutenberg, it first came across as a “new editor” that would provide enhanced functional and flexibility to WordPress. This somewhat peaked my interest and gave me hope for using WordPress for design and development again but what I really wanted was something that went beyond just the content area. Low and behold, after being out of the loop on the status of developments for Gutenberg for a while, I was stunned to watch a December 2017 WordCamp presentation by Morten Rand-Hendriksen in which he articulated capabilities within it that mirrored my own idea of a next generation CMS (see 18;00 minute mark of video), similar to what I had wanted Squarespace to become.

This to me is The Future of the Web. It is what I had initially envisioned a decade ago. That this same vision is being seen, understood, and accepted by WordPress, the most popular open source web publishing platform on the planet, just blows my mind even more so because it means they are building it for a community with easy sharing and portability in mind. I can hardly wait!

This to me is The Future of the Web.

In closing, let me just say this. While I’m thankful for Squarespace for truly breaking ground in using LEGO-like blocks to build a website, initially with “blocks” being page modules and then later creating actual block elements on a page / post level with the Layout Engine, I’m so glad it is an open source company such as WordPress that is taking this next big leap, as it will hopefully open up a new accessible frontier for the Web as a whole.


Systems Need Feedback

Interesting post by Jeremy Keith relating to comments on blogs.

Most blogs allow comments. There’s no doubt about it; having comments enabled is likely to increase the popularity of your blog.

But that, in and of itself, is not a good justification. It assumes that popularity is desirable. The truth is that, when it comes to personal publishing, it’s not the amount of people who visit that count, it’s who those people are why they’re visiting that’s important.

His point that “it is not the number of people that matters” is so true and it actually mirrors some of the concepts relating to permaculture and ecosystems in the sense that it’s not the number of connections that matter but the quality of them. Thus if you have a blog and you’ve only got ten people who frequent it, that doesn’t matter. What matters is the quality of the relationship with those people and what each of you are getting out of that relationship.

The difficulty then is keeping track of these conversations. Trackback would be a good option but it relies on a certain level of techiness on the part of the responder and again, the issue of spam raises its ugly head. These days, it should be possible to replace trackback with search using third-party tools like Technorati and Google Blog Search. Expect to see that kind of functionality built in to more and more blogging tools.

True this is an option but he’s right in that the biggest problem with this approach is keeping track of these conversations. I’ve fooled around with some ideas on how to get around this myself but still don’t see a way yet. Again though, if you used a Technorati link to show all people responding to your post, you still have the problem of an overloading of comments even if people posted them on their own blogs. No matter what method is chosen some way is needed for these quality comments to bubble up to the top so that they don’t drown in the sea of comments.

Personally, I’d like to have enhanced comment / trackback system that allows me to selectively pick out people who’ve provided quality feedback and highlight these people first, yet you could still read the other feedback if you wanted as well. This emphasis on quality not quantity (i.e. best go to the top, from my point of view) would hopefully entice others to write more quality feedback as well.

Still having said all that, often times the best feedback comes from the most unexpected places. For example, I would have never have thought to research about permaculture in relationship to the Web but I stumbled across someone’s comment on another person’s blog and discovered it by chance. Now strangely enough I’m hearing more and more about the Web as an “ecosystem” which is what permaculture deals with (i.e. working with ecosystems, instead of working against them). Therefore, yes I’d still like most of my posts to be open to comments, since you don’t know where ideas or inspiration may come from.

Maybe Jeremy’s idea of being very focused with your discussions is the key since it will hopefully attract a smaller and more discerning group of people (specifically interested in that topic).