self-host your blog

It’s easier when things are easier.

One of the reasons we created CoSchedule was to consolidate tools into one place so blogging and social media were made easier. When it comes to choosing where and how you will blog, you have two choices: Let someone else host it, or host it yourself.

One sounds easy, and one does not. Most of us make a choice based on what seems easier.

To be clear, self-hosting doesn’t mean you set up a rack of servers in your garage and panic when a storm comes through. It means that you pay someone else to host your website, but that you have control of it. Still, having control comes with headaches, and that doesn’t sound easy at all.

But easy comes at a price.

Why You Should Self-Host Your Blog

Let’s start with the hard-sell right out of the gate: you should always be in a position of controlling your own content.

What does that even mean? And why would it matter?

  1. No terms of service problems. Most of us don’t really read the TOS when we sign up for an online service. Your content, your media, your ads, the words you use, the way your comments section is handled–do you know if they follow the provider’s terms of service? How would you like to wake up and find your blog gone from a TOS infraction that you had no idea you’d committed?
  2. No service shut-down panic. While you would expect most services to alert you and give you some kind of useful export option, there’s no guarantee. Most bloggers rely on the fact that they are on a “big” service and are safe from this, but let’s say you’re on Blogger. Do you really think Google has a reputation for not randomly shutting down services it decides are no longer beneficial? And what if the export from the service is clunky and useless? You may still have your content, but is it in a usable format that you can get back into a different format?
  3. No limitations or random restrictions. When you aren’t self-hosting your content, the restrictions placed on what you can and cannot do are not to serve your interests, but the service provider. You may be limited in how you can customize the appearance, what ads provider you can use, what analytics package is available, or even how you can sell products. Why allow your content, your business, to fit the restrictions that help another business’ bottom line instead of yours?
  4. Professional appearance. While you can get a custom domain integrated into most hosted blogging services, many bloggers are attracted by “free” and don’t bother. Having a yoursite.blogplatform.com URL might be OK for a person/personality, but it is not as professional-looking for a business or brand.

And probably the best reason to self-host your blog? To avoid digital sharecropping.

The Problem Of Digital Sharecropping

In some ways, Web 2.0 turned content into a commodity. It made it cheap and easy to create and to find.

We don’t care who wrote what we’re reading. We only care that it’s “good content.” In turn, we don’t care where we find it, under what conditions it was made or is owned, if it’s around tomorrow, and what the implications of all of that might be. We only have the battle cry of “good content!”

Content is especially a commodity when you don’t have control of what you’ve created. In fact, you, the content creator, are a bit of a commodity when you don’t control your content. It’s digital sharecropping.

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If you put all of your time and energy creating great content on a site you don’t control (i.e. a site you don’t host), you are essentially sharecropping your content, a concept first coined by Nicholas Carr:

“…putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very few.”

Ouch. This was back in 2006, mind you. Consider how far down this path we’ve come in eight years.

When a service is free, you are the product.

There is no viable business model in which no money changes hands. At some point, money must come into play. Whether through ads, the gathering of statistics and demographic information, or whatever method necessary to generate revenue, there is no free lunch. If you aren’t paying for the service, then you are the product.

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For many of us, we don’t mind. Carr states the case perfectly:

“…the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy.”

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This seems like a fair exchange for most, because the idea is that if you get enough attention, the cash will follow. In other words, you have to operate in the attention economy before you can live happily in the cash economy.

But is that true? Think about this:

  • How many blogs are out there?
  • How many actually last?
  • How many bloggers are writing into the void (a small audience that while wonderful, can’t sustain them financially)?
  • How many blogs are pulling in enough attention to shift into the cash economy to the point they can actually live off of it?
  • How much attention do you need before you shift economies?
  • How does the constant growth of new blogs affect the equation that determines how long you stay in the attention economy before shifting into the cash economy?
  • Is social media a ponzi scheme? (I threw that in for fun)

…businesses realized that they can give away the tools of production but maintain ownership over the resulting products. – Nicholas CarrClick To Tweet

The point here is that you may not mind being the product because you enjoy the free service. Or, as Carr wrote in a later post, we sharecroppers don’t seem to mind this setup because our true interest is in “self-expression or socializing, not in making money.” Carr also points out that our individual contributions don’t amount to much on their own, but then when pooled together across the entire web, the business suddenly makes big money.

If you’re OK with this, fair enough. Just know that you are providing the income, with your content and activity, for someone else. Hold out hope for that shift to the cash economy if it keeps you going.

But I don’t like being a product. And if I’m going to stay in the attention economy for my entire blogging existence, I at least want to know that I’m not subsidizing someone else over in their cash economy. I want to at least have complete control of my own content and call my own shots.

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When things are cheap and easy, they are commodities.

Why Don’t Bloggers Self-Host Their Blogs?

Why don’t all bloggers self-host? It’s a good question, when you look at it in the light of the larger picture described above.

But most of us don’t look at that bigger picture, because we’re making decisions based on what is easiest.

We look at the smaller picture, which is “what is the easiest way to get my writing out to the world?” and “how can I do it for as little money as possible?”, and that’s the extent of our digging. We don’t think “what if Weebly closed down and I lost everything” or “what if there’s fine print I didn’t read that says they can use my content without asking” or “what if someone is making money off of my content and I don’t see a penny?”

For some, there may be no desire to have full control over their content. They might not care about being at the mercy of an outside provider, and the have chosen not to self-host for several reasons.

  1. They are just getting started. This is a fair reason. You want to go swimming for the first time, you don’t dive into the Mariana Trench. Getting started on a basic platform, at no cost, is a good way to see if you really want to do this blogging thing. It’s important, though, to use a platform that can easily convert/export to a more permanent home later.
  2. They are told that it is too complicated for them. I’ve read blog posts that are so discouraging towards self-hosting that I am almost convinced myself. Look how scary and complicated it is! For some, though, it truly might be. You might not want to deal with what it takes to run a self-hosted WordPress blog. You’re not interested in installation, plugin, conflicts, backups–you just want to get started writing. One option is to hire a professional to set up and manage these things, allowing you to control your content even if you don’t know the nuts and bolts of the system.
  3. They aren’t interested in learning how to manage their blog. Some bloggers are perfectly happy to let others deal with the mechanics of blogging. If they can’t afford to pay someone, then they naturally gravitate towards blogs that have a simple setup, automatic back-ups, and so forth.
  4. They like the social dashboard feel of the other systems. Blogs on WordPress.com, Tumblr, Blogger, etc. have a social feel to them. They make it easy to follow other blogs on their platform, like a reader, so that you can easily read, comment, and get involved with blogs right there in your dashboard.
  5. The WordPress family confuses them. People are confused (or unaware) of the differences between WP.com and WP.org. They don’t understand how JetPack, Akismet, and Gravatar come into play. So they sign up for the free blog at WP.com and have no idea that there was another option.
  6. They are unwilling to spend money on their content. Far too many bloggers want everything for nothing, and I never understand why. I don’t make money on my personal blog, yet I invest money into it because it’s part of how I impart value on the content I create there. Even if only for my benefit, it helps me see it as not being “throw-away” content.

Some of these reasons are valid, for different people, particularly the desire to just get started. I don’t have a problem with that scenario. The problem is if you are trying to build a serious platform and collection of content, whether for money or PR or reputation. Those reasons are too important to leave in the hands of a company who isn’t looking out for your best interests.

Popular Blogging Platforms

This crazy internet–it’s the great equalizer, right? We can all write and publish, no cost. And we have so many great blogging platforms to choose from. As popular and easy to use as these blogging platforms are, however, they all have one thing in common: they are gated communities.

You don’t get to choose which plugins you’ll use. Your customizations are limited to what they allow. Your options are limited to what they deem acceptable for their gated community. You may want to use a particular shopping cart or widget on your blog, but the gated community says “no.”

Blogger

To set the record straight, I started blogging on Blogger, before Google bought it. For years, Blogger had the nifty ability to use their blogging platform to FTP posts to my self-hosted site. It was very handy; while I used their service to create and publish the content, the ending content was on my host. I maintained my site with HTML and CSS and sent my blog via Blogger.

Blogger no longer functions this way. In 2008, the FTP ability was ended. I had just made my move to WordPress a few months before because there were hints that this was coming. As much as I loved using Blogger (and I still have almost a decade of old posts in draft over in my Blogger account), I wanted to completely control my own content.

Blogger is owned by Google, and your blog is on their property. You rent (even if it is “free”) blog space from them. Google has been known to shut down or change services once in a while, as you are probably aware.

Weebly

I’ve helped a few friends set up Weebly sites. Frankly, they are fun to build. It’s all drag-and-drop and you can have a great time customizing your site, including a blog. Simple clicks, icons, and filling in the blanks…basically, it’s everything the WordPress dashboard isn’t (yet).

But a Weebly blog? As much fun as it is to build in drag-and-drop, your blog is on Weebly’s property. Exporting it out for other platforms later will be challenging.

Medium

Medium is a delight to write in. Clean, sharp-looking, easily shared, professionally designed. And your content is mixed in with some seriously high quality content and there are no distracting ads or other elements that readers don’t like on Medium blogs. It has plenty of buzz and is loved by all the cool kids on the block. Heck, I have an account on Medium, as does Garrett. We rework our content and publish on Medium. We’ve even talked about how Medium is ground-breaking in how it analyzes content and the stats it provides you.

Why wouldn’t want to write on Medium? It sounds like a headache-free dream for a writer who just wants to write.

It is. It’s all those things. But again, you don’t control your content.

Tumblr

I have a Tumblr blog. Of course, it is really just the off-shoot of my main personal blog. Using CoSchedule, I share anything I write on my own blogs to that Tumblr blog. If Tumblr died forever tomorrow, my original content was still where I created it and in my control.

Using Tumblr is fun; it has a super-simple blogging dashboard and mobile app. And also, 11% of the network is porn. And there are entire legions of seemingly innocent hashtags that you shouldn’t use lest you accidentally align yourself and your trusting reader in anyway with that porn.

Visiting Tumblr is, for me at least, a kind of cross-your-fingers-and-click experience. While I know what not to click and am pretty careful about what blogs I follow on Tumblr (a seemingly SFW blog can suddenly spit out a NSFW image in your feed — you learn quickly), I wouldn’t be comfortable if that were my only blogging platform.

Because not only is your blog on rental space on Tumblr’s property, there are some sketchy alleyways on that property that you don’t want your readers to accidentally stumble into. Your readers take the whole experience of visiting your blog as your responsibility, so if they click a hashtag and end up with a screen full of NSFW, they hold you responsible.

Social Media Networks

Some people use Facebook and Google+ as their blogging platform, an idea we definitely don’t agree with. Beyond the sharecropping aspect, your content is severely locked into a singular platform with restrictive rules that, as we’ve learned, can change on a dime.

Writing longer posts to accompany the links you share from your original blog post is one thing. That’s a great idea, in fact, and we recommend doing so. But your completely original one-of-a-kind content that appears nowhere else should never be locked into a social media network that may or may not let you export and may or may not change the rules tomorrow.

WordPress.com

If you want to get your start blogging without self-hosting, WordPress.com is a good route to go. While you still have your content on someone else’s platform with all of the usual issues that brings, WordPress.com can export later into a WordPress.org blog and you’ll be off and running. It’s a flexible foundation to start on and g

Why make the move from a WordPress.com blog to WordPress.org blog? Because you’ll have access to great plugins and services (like CoSchedule!) that you can’t access on the limited WordPress.com platform. You’ll also have access to the great diversity in themes and options that has developed around the WordPress platform.

Which option is best for you?

That is your decision. How much control do you want over your content? Do you mind feeding someone else’s cash economy? Is attention enough? Can you create content within the confines of a restrictive platform? Have you ever found yourself annoyed at what you can’t do on a blogging platform and requested additional features?

The decision is yours to make, but do make a decision with an eye on the bigger picture, looking to the future of your blog.

Do you think bloggers should self-host or use a blogging platform?