A little while ago, over dinner, a good friend of mine introduced me to something called the “Quartz Curve”. Named for the online news magazine which coined it, it goes like this: if you plot the length of an article against user engagement, the resulting graph is bowl shaped. Specifically, the trough is between 500 and 700 words.
Shorter articles can be “Short, sharp creative takes on news stories that are creative and say something new”. Conversely, longer articles can provide “strong detailed narrative or insightful analysis”. Anything in between, though, will tend to be wishywashy, and no one wants that.
In the words of Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delany:
The place between 500 and 800 words is the place you don't want to be because it's not short and fast and focused and shareable, but it's not long enough to be a real pay-off for readers.
The standard of production for most traditional news organisations is still somewhere within that range. For a digitally native organisation there's an opportunity.
This got me thinking about this blog, the kind of articles I write here, and other blogs which I find to be worthwhile. Generally speaking, I aim for about 1000 words per article, which puts me (just) north of the Quartz Curve danger zone. I’ve been aiming for about one article every two weeks this year, but my average has been closer to one every three. Another point is that this blog has no real focus, aside from things I’m currently interested in.
When I think of other blogs (rather than bonafide news sites) which I consider really worthwhile, they do tend to mostly line up with the Quartz Curve. In terms of blogs which feature long, insightful (but somewhat infrequent) posts, two good examples are Ben Thompson’s Stratechery and Nick Szabo’s Unenumerated. Both sit at the intersection of technology and law. The first has a roughly weekly cadence and long but not unwieldy posts. The later has posts as and when the author feels like it, with months going by between posts. The resulting posts are... comprehensive. It would be fair to say that Szabo only speaks when he has something to say.
Stratechery has a quite a strong brand. It sits at it’s own domain. It also has a cohesive design, down to the “hand drawn” style of the diagrams Thompson uses. Unenumerated, on the other hand, sits at a vanilla blogspot sub-domain. It looks to to use the default blogger template. Lastly, Szaro’s diagrams and images tend towards the... functional. So there are definitely similarities and differences between the two.
Another example of note which straddles both walls of the Quartz Curve is John Gruber’s Daring Fireball. It’s probably the most notable and popular example of the “linklog” blog format. Most posts are short commentary on external sources. The title of the post actually links to that original sources and the same is true of the entries in the RSS feed (example). These posts are very frequent (usually Gruber posts multiple times a day), and range across the author’s interests. I often disagree with Gruber (he really can’t see straight when it comes to Google and other companies which compete with Apple), but he can also be very insightful. Particularly in his less frequent longer posts, such as this fantastic example from way back in 2004. That said, even at his most insightful, Gruber remains highly opinionated and lacks the critical detachment of Thompson or Szaro.
Which brings me back around to this blog and my own writing. I do plan to keep writing here. I’m also pretty keen on trying something a little more focussed. I want to try mixing together the short commentary with longer, more in depth and thought out writing. To that end I’ve started working on two other blogging projects.
The first I’ve launched already. It’s a blog about future technology called “Future Soon”. You can find it at ftrsn.net. Generally, it follows the “linklog” format. Originally I followed it exactly, but found some issues with that, so instead each post now begins with a “Source” attribution. I’m planning on posting these short referential posts with something like a daily cadence, and then writing occasional longer posts when I feel like I can add something. So Gruber’s format, with longer articles using Szabo’s cadence and Thompson’s style. Probably.
As to what issues I had with the linklog format... well, first I’ll have to tell you why I’m using Wordpress, despite previously expressing my distaste for it. It comes down to two things: price and ubiquity. I like Ghost (which this blog uses) a lot, but there’s no getting around the fact that it is more expensive. Compare the cost of hosting Ghost with it’s makers vs the equivalent options at Wordpress.com. For this experiment I actually went even cheaper than that. I’m paying about £1.25 a month for Wordpress hosting from TsoHost. This is much easier for me to justify to myself.
I could also self host Ghost, which is an option TsoHost offers for an extra £3 a month. Which is where the next issue with Ghost shows up: it’s lack of ubiquity. I trust Ghost themselves to support a Ghost blog. They’re the experts. I have less faith in a third party, and even less faith in a second party (meaning me).
I’m also planning to run ftrsn.net almost entirely from my phone and iPad. Wordpress has a really solid iOS app, plus good integration with both Ulysses and IA Writer. Running a Ghost blog entirely through the web interface on a smaller device creates far too much friction.
As I said before, I originally followed the linklog format exactly. This meant installing a plug-in and editing the theme to work correctly with it. It all worked fine, but it made me nervous. One of the main things I dislike about Wordpress is the hot mess which is it’s plug-in and theming system. One incompatible update could break everything. As it stands I’m using a slightly customised version of an existing theme, and very few plug-ins, which feels much safer. Should the blog go well enough that I don’t mind paying a bit more per month, I can easily transfer it to the safety of Wordpress later.
Likewise if using Ghost from an iOS device becomes a better experience I'd be tempted to pay the extra for Ghost hosting. It really is that much more pleasant.
Now... I did mention a second other blog project. That’s going to be a travel site, of sorts. More about it when it’s ready. Which it isn’t.
That’s stra-tech-ary, not strate-cherry. ↩︎
I’m guessing with an Apple Pencil. ↩︎
Nick Heer’s Pixel Envy is another good example. ↩︎
Chiefly Apple related tech news, but also baseball, plus Kubrick and James Bond movies, among other things. ↩︎
Yes, it is named after a Jonathan Coulton song. ↩︎
If you click through here, you can use the code “HarveyNick” for a 10% discount on hosting, which will kick a small amount back to me. ↩︎