What Makes A Platform, or How Do We Recreate Old Blue

It’s not enough to just make something. It’s got to be worthwhile. So if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this right. Let’s start with the past.

What made Old Blue so good?

Old Blue (the site I will not name for fear of Big Red) was lightning in a bottle. There’s not way any site can hope to recreate the same success. It was the right parts at the right time, and whatever truly takes its place will be something unexpected. So what were the right parts?

The Easiest Way To Actually Blog

Old Blue removed a lot of the friction of blogging. These weren’t just technical challenges, though it took care of those as well. There were no servers to configure, no software to download. You picked a username and boom! You had a blog.

Big deal, other services (like WordPress and Blogger) were that easy. Where Old Blue really excelled was in getting content onto your blog. You were allowed and even encouraged to post content you found, not just content you wrote yourself. This was emphasized further by the “reblog” functionality that allowed you to easily repost content from another’s blog onto your own, giving you content for your own blog while attributing it to the original poster.

The problem of starting a blog is easily solved. Old Blue solved the much harder problem of how to easily get content onto a blog.

Dashboard Confessions

Even with the reblog button, though, there was still the matter of finding blogs to reblog from. For this, Old Blue took a page from the then-new Twitter and added the ability to “follow” other blogs. Their posts would then show up in a standard format on your “Dashboard.”

While this took away a large portion of the customization, it made keeping up with blogs easier than ever. There was no worrying about RSS feed readers or poorly-configured Google Analytics to worry about; readers got to read and bloggers got their consistent audience.

Mid–2000s Geocities-Style Self-Expression

Purists will complain about the single-column layout of most Old Blue blogs. They will decry the lack of responsiveness, complaining in tandem that the owner has neither heard of smartphones nor twenty-seven-inch monitors. One comment complained that the state of web design on Old Blue was similar to Geocities in the mid–2000s. I agree wholeheartedly, but I see it as a positive.

Self-expression has always been a part of the social internet. It started with Geocities sites, migrated to MySpace profiles, and eventually settled on Old Blue blogs. All of these allowed mostly unrestricted styles, letting site owners pick and choose random HTML, CSS, and JavaScript snippets from across the internet and blend them together into a miasma that was unmistakably them. Old Blue took it a step further, allowing custom domain names for free. If you didn’t want Old Blue’s name anywhere on your public blog, you didn’t need it.

Did it look ugly? To some. Did it sometimes break? Yes. But it gave people ownership over their blogs, allowing them to feel like their space was truly theirs.

Anything Goes

Everyone “knows” that Old Blue was full of illicit/NSFW material. And, let’s be honest, it’s made it hard for many to take the service seriously. In a professional context, the last thing a service needs is something work-related showing up next to something, well, not safe for work! This is doubly true when it comes to advertising, a sad fact that has robbed the service of much-needed revenue.

And yet, this exceptionally permissive content policy had a side-benefit. Content creators were free to post without fear of their content being removed for a nebulous “terms of service violation.” This was especially relevant in the wake of other online communities like LiveJournal and FanFiction.net nominally “cracking down” on adult content. These crackdowns were, at best, selectively enforced and relied heavily on community reports; the end result being illicit material that was nominally disallowed but somehow acceptable or unknown to the wider community was able to survive on those sites.

Content creators whose work was illicit (or even objectionable in other ways) could post freely on Old Blue without worrying about their content suddenly disappearing. This drove more people to the platform, in turn making it more attractive to other content creators with “safer” material. The network effects took over and made Old Blue a force to be reckoned with.

Hyper-specific Hyperfixations. Or not.

Old Blue made it incredibly easy to sign up and start a blog. That blog could be as specific or general as you wanted. And when you got to the point where you needed a different space, you could start another blog. And another. And another.

Content creators could make different blogs for different fandoms, different levels of content safety, or just different ideas in general. This gave rise to creatively-named specific blogs, like the notable “effyeah” named blogs, or particularly specific names like “picsthatmakeyougohmm.”

What Would We Need?

So, using these principles, what features would a potential replacement for Old Blue need?

  • Low-friction signups
  • Easy to find and post content
  • Easy to make multiple blogs
  • Easy to follow interesting blogs
  • Open-ended theming
  • Custom domain option
  • Clearly-defined (if not permissive) content policy

Five of these are technical problems. Good programming and good design can make these features sing. The issue is the last, social problem: the content policy.

The only site of any significant size that has survived with a permissive content policy is Archive Of Our Own. It’s run by the Office of Transformative Works, a nonprofit dedicated to making a space for works that would not otherwise have a home. As such, they have devoted significant resources to ensuring their policy can withstand legal challenges, and they rely on true tax-deductible donations to fund the site instead of skittish advertisers. Any platform that would truly wish to fill the shoes of Old Blue would probably need to take a similar approach.

An alternative is the one taken by WordPress. Savvy web citizens know that there are two sides to WordPress: the free website where anyone can sign up for a blog, and the open-source software anyone can install for free on their own web server. While downloading and installing WordPress is not necessarily for the faint of heart (it requires some technical knowledge of web servers and how to maintain them), WordPress is widely considered one of the easiest pieces of web software to install and use.

This ease of deployment allows the free website WordPress.com to have a stricter content policy, since anyone adversely affected can take their content to a self-hosted blog with a little effort. This is more than simply offering a blog “backup”; WordPress has built-in mechanisms to move content from one WordPress-powered blog to another with few changes. A blog hosted on WordPress.com with a custom domain can be changed to a self-hosted WordPress blog with few to no visible changes to visitors.

While the WordPress method doesn’t eliminate the social problem of a content policy, it does reduce the stakes. If a group of users find the content policy onerous, they can set up (and pay for) their own WordPress-powered platform.

What next?

And here is where I will cut this off. I humbly submit this for comment, knowing I’ve left some things out that may not have been integral to my experience on Old Blue but essential to others.

I’ll also be working on a follow-up to discuss particular technologies that could be used to create a new platform in this vein, so if you have any suggestions there, I’m all ears.

But I do want to close with this: these are ideas. These are thoughts. And that’s all they are. Building a platform takes a lot of work, both in the programming but also in how it is socially maintained. And as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Big Red are learning, the rules you choose to have and how you enforce them can have dramatic consequences to the community that builds up around your platform. This is not something I can tackle on my own, and it is not something I would ask anyone to volunteer for.

This is a thought exercise, a way of getting these ideas out of my head. I hope you find it useful, or at least a little informative. And if it helps shape whatever platforms come next, I’ll be even more happy. Thanks for reading; I’ll see you next time.

Evan Hildreth @oddevan