Lessons Learned From an Almost-Wonderful Publishing Process

Roughly two years ago, I began the processs of blogging on this site in a very different manner than I had in the previous seven years. I turned my blog into an aggregator of various content that I posted elsewhere on the internet. This process has impacted not only how I published content, but how I interacted with other content online. There are plenty of lifestream/aggregation blogs on the web, but from what I have come across, I had carved out my own little unique process to quickly and easily generate content on my blog. It was that convenience that allowed me to overlook the litany of compromises to quality in the end product. My belief was that if I made it easy on myself, I ensured that I would post content more frequently which would provide value to readers. However, the process could often times not be so quick or easy and over the months it became clear that it was simply no longer worth the sacrifice in quality. The idea behind how I worked all these years still has merit and therefore I thought it would be worthwhile to share how I blogged these past two years, why it ultimately did not pan out and how I intend to move forward.

The Blog as the Hub

Two or three years ago, I was finding the process of writing for my blog increasingly challenging. I no longer had the spare time to write long-form content consistently and I did not feel comfortable just tossing out half-baked ideas. Concurrently, I was spending a tremendous amount of time posting content of smaller lengths on Flickr, Delicious and Twitter. These services had a plethora of third-party tools which made it easy to post content to their platform. While WordPress was working well for me, uploading an image and putting it into a post was not nearly as fast as it was for services like Flickr or Tumblr.

I changed my blog to act as an aggregator of all the sites I posted to. I found the suite of tools to post to services such as Flickr and Tumblr to be far faster and efficient than what I had used for WordPress. I ended up using WP-O-Matic to pull content from all these different services and post them onto my blog. Overnight, I was able to post four to five basic posts a day in roughly 30 minutes. In addition, I was able to foster a community of followers not just on my blog, but on Tumblr, Flickr and Twitter. This was great because it gave readers the flexibility to consume my content whereever they preferred.

I cannot emphasize how well this worked in theory. I had a collection of great third-party tools which were focused to make it extremely easy to post content to a specific service. I would then post across all those services depending on the type of content and WordPress would soon aggregate and publish it on my blog. The diagram shows the basic flow of how content would get published, starting with the tool used to post it, to where the content would originally reside to its eventual aggregation into this blog.

The diagram is pretty simple and, once again, in theory, so was my process. If the tools were sophisticated enough and each inter-connected piece supported each other in an ample manner, I *truly* believe the process would serve as a model for rich media blogging. The problem is, it did not.

Too Many Sacrifices For the Sake of Convenience

WordPress was never truly intended to act as a content aggregator. WP-O-Matic does a lot to make up for that, but there are some insurmountable obstacles that it simply cannot overcome. First and foremost, RSS was simply not the optimal format to pull in the data. Each service I was aggregating from had their own little idiosyncracies of how they chose to format their data in RSS. More often than not, this resulted in some very bizarre titles and copy on my blog.

Another large issue was that I had to make the decision to send content from each service into a separate category that had nothing to do with its subject matter. This meant that Tumblr content would be added to the ‘Tumblr’ category and so on. This resulted in all but worthless categorization for the readers.

The reliance on third-party services also would be problematic at times. Whenever Tumblr would be down, my blog would essentially be at a standstill. This was not frequent, but my heavy reliance on entities that were out of my control proved to be a letdown at times. In addition, formatting of content/media were almost completely out of my control and in the hands of the third-party services, thus tremendously limiting the options I had and the final quality of my posts.

At the core of all these problems though was the fact that my whole process and, for that matter, my whole blog relied on automation from a WordPress plugin. WP-O-Matic was the lynch pin of this concept and when it let me down, I had little to no options. For that reason, even when the plugin clearly had become stale and was not being actively developed, I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. There simply were not any other options and my whole process depended on it. This should have been a clear red flag.

The most constant and noticable issue were the duplicate posts. This would happen 2 or 3 times a week and there were times where the duplicates would just keep coming in. If you are a subscriber to this blog, you no doubt have experienced this. I must share my dismay for putting you through that and my surprise that you have stuck it through.

Takeaways

So, after two years of blogging in this manner and ultimately throwing in the towel, what have I learned (the hard way)?

The tools you use should enrich your process not drive them
While still very enamored with pieces of the publishing method, the whole process was driven by the functionality of a WordPress plugin. In retrospect, this limited the quality of content as well as the type of content I would post.
Keep your toolset simple
Reliance on third-party plugins and half-supported applications was my ultimate undoing. At some point, I spent more time massaging the tools than actually using them for their intended purpose. Keep your set of tools small and simple. The more complex and inter-connected your system becomes, the more likely they will eventually fail you.
Automation is great, except for when it isn’t
I cannot tell you how unimpowered it feels to have a system work against you and the only way to make it stop is to pull the plug. I love the concept of automating simple tasks, but it is often not worth the trouble.
Ease of publishing and quality of content need to be balanced
To this day, I firmly believe that making the publishing process easier for yourself will ultimately provide a better experience for the reader. The less hassle it is to create content, the higher likelihood that you will *actually* create content in the first place for your readers. That said, if that easier process comes at the expense of a significant drop in quality, you are defeating the purpose.

Next Steps

This shift in thinking is going to have a significant impact on how I move forward. The redesign that I have been working for is now conceptually defunct. I am trying to determine what is salvagable and what needs to simply be gutted. The blog as it stands will be going through an even more significant transformation behind the scenes. All of the hacks and strange ways I used the blog to make this old process work will have to be removed. It is going to be a lot of work, but it will be well worth it. I learned some really valuable lessons on the way that would never have been as primally understood if I had not gone down this path.

4 thoughts on “Lessons Learned From an Almost-Wonderful Publishing Process”

  1. I totally understand and agree. It’s hard not to want to simplify the process of publishing content. There are so many ways to get content out there and I think it’s natural to want to lasso them all into one envelope and display them collected in one place. I tried it a couple different times, but it never felt right to me. There was a point that I wanted my site to be about everything I liked, but that was too broad so now I try to make it specific and serve it’s purpose rather than a catch-all.

    I also agree that it’s hard to rely so much on a plug-in or something of that sort and see it wane and become stagnant. But may we learn from it. I did make a “social” page on my site that pulls in a feed from various sites (although it’s still not quite styled as of yet), so there is a sense of a lifestream going on, but it’s not the point of the site by any means.

    Anyways, I enjoyed your diagnosis and agree that quality shouldn’t suffer for ease of publishing, I’ll always have a dream for automation still though =)

    1. Thanks for the comment Evan.

      Yeah, the allure of automation is just so great. Taking a step back, it shocks me how much I was willing to sack in terms of quality to make this work, but there is something to be said about easily being able to post 5 times a day. I am certain that will no longer be the case unless I devote 2+ hours to the process or get much more efficient about how I find interesting content and then write about it.

      The next few weeks should definitely be interesting…

  2. Really interesting article that hits home. The challenge, as it seems with nearly everything in design, centers around who you ARE taking to, who you WANT to talk to, and what you’re willing to do to connect the two of them.

    I’m in the process of launching a company owned by my design firm and a blog is going to be a necessary (and likely best) marketing tool. It has been a really interesting turn-of-force to see the advice we give our design firm clients turned around back at us — and we’re facing this very same issue you wrote about. “Where do we plug into Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Tumblr? And everything else? Where is the work-versus-reward threshold?”

    Our current decision (I say “current” because it’ll shift as said company grows and moves) is to focus on WordPress and Facebook for big pushes, Twitter (and email of course) for customer support and random, pre-timed pings. Everything else will have to feed from these buckets. Our Tumblr site pulls in our Twitter and WP feed, we’ll look to see if Flickr can do the same thing. If a site is down or a plugin temporarily stops working and misses a glut of updates, so be it. If they stop working all together, that method will be shut down.

    At all times, we’ll keep an eye on our traffic and customer responses, tweak as necessary from these responses. We’re a small team, so we’re going to choose our battles carefully.

    1. Hey Kevin, really good points.

      If I were to do it all over again, I would have created main hubs of content. Meaning, all my short-form content from Google Reader, Delicious, etc. would be siphoned into Twitter and all my medium-form from Flickr, Vimeo, etc. to Tumblr. I would then aggregate all my content from those two hubs into my blog.

      This would have done a couple things: It would have limited the number of variables I would have had to deal with on a daily basis and, more importantly, it would have allowed me to concentrate on ensuring that the content coming from those two sources was formatted in a way that would work well in the blog. With the system I used, I was constantly designing for the lowest common denominator – that could have been much less the case with a more focused system.

      I think you’re definitely focusing on the right points and I would love to see what you end up with. Drop me a note when it’s live.

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