Stratechery 4.0: Not Just Another WordPress Site

Many moons ago I refactored Stratechery 3.0. I use “I” only because it’s convenient. Usually, when you do work with someone like Ben Thompson, it’s collaborative. At the time the bulk of the work was centered around gutting the old Stratechery codebase and making room for a new _s-based theme, new membership software, a better mobile experience, and more exposure for Daily Updates, Ben’s highly sought after and substantial analysis of the tech news of the day.

This time around, for 4.0, it was all about content discoverability. This meant, in short:

  • creating new content taxonomies;
  • integrating better search;
  • avoiding the disruption of Ben’s revenue stream while allowing paid content to selectively be shared freely;
  • exposing featured insights in the lesser noticed areas;
  • and improving the readability of Stratechery’s content.

The actual list of work done was much, much longer than this, but it shouldn’t always be the goal of a developer to expose everything but the kitchen sink. What the Stratechery reader sees on the front end is the tip. My job was making sure that it appears exactly as it should but, more importantly, ensuring that Ben is able to interact with the rest of the data management from the control panel of his site. The part that people will never see was the most difficult.

Working on Stratechery, or a site like it should be a requirement for anyone in WordPress or web publishing development that thinks he knows it all. Sometimes we create solutions we believe real, serious writers need, only to find out that everything we thought about publishing was wrong. Add in a revenue component, and our shortsightedness becomes even more apparent.

When I think about someone like Ben, who makes his living by writing independent, high-quality, fierce, uncompromising analysis of modern technology and all that it entails, I don’t know if WordPress alone could ever meet the mark. There are so many holes in the software’s publishing experience that it’s almost a certainty that themes and plugins as we know them—both custom and premium—will always be around to play patchwork.

We were promised that premium solutions (themes, plugins, you name it) would die back in 2008 and I’m still selling them in 2018.

Toss in Gutenburg, sure. Throw in style packs on themes if you like. Do what you will with content blocks or Jetpack or this or that, and it still won’t address a vast majority of issues that are faced by writers who depend on a predictable, controllable, unbreakable publishing experience.

If I had to recreate Ben’s website using WordPress and only WordPress, I wouldn’t be able to. We tried it. God knows I would have loved to make it happen, but it just wasn’t possible. Stratechery is the perfect example of a website that with WordPress should just work but doesn’t, and it’s also a perfect example of a business website that doesn’t look the part.

Stratechery is what I would show anyone who thinks that WordPress is just for blogs (it’s not) and also anyone who says that Jetpack-powered WordPress is enough to run a real business (it’s not). What’s my point here?

It’s mostly that I don’t know what WordPress is supposed to be anymore but I don’t mind where it’s at. It’s been shuffled into the category of my “must-haves” for site building but taken out of the category of quick-and-easy solutions for the average business owner.

What would I suggest now? I don’t know. There’s a void that can still be filled. WordPress powers a massive portion of the internet and will continue to do so, but it’s not immune to losing market share. We’ll see how things play out in the next decade. I hope that WordPress is still around. It’s how I spend the majority of my waking hours. I’d be lying, though, if I said that I didn’t think it could be completely disrupted by something better.


I wanted to write a post-mortem on the Stratechery 4.0 launch yesterday but I was too busy buying the dip.

Social Media

Facebook was great for keeping up with family while I was abroad in Vietnam during 2004. It’s still how I keep up with what old friends and distant family are doing. It’s now toxic though and creates false glimpses into people’s lives that make me feel bad about myself. The news feed is unusable. Stories aren’t interesting. Notifications are high noise and low signal. I don’t use it that much anymore. A few minutes per day, if that. I would not miss Facebook if it went away.

Twitter was how I met every single close friend who I made in Hanoi from 2009 onwards. I didn’t know anyone up north, searched around for tweets related to the city, and participated in a few meetups. Fast forward nearly a decade, and the platform has become, for me at least, an information firehose for political news, trending topics, cryptocurrency drama, blockchain and WordPress developments, and a timeline that’s almost unusable. I would not miss Twitter if it went away.

Snapchat used to feel fun and a little exciting. Private Snaps with friends felt intimate and temporary, forgotten the moment I watched them twice. Now the platform has an utterly terrible UI, aggressive and offensive advertising, unhappy celebrities who are abandoning the software, Stories that are impossible to navigate, and filters that are its only saving grace.

WeChat is my China hookup. LINE is my Japan hookup. Zalo and Viber are my Vietnam hookups. I enjoy all of these apps.

Instagram stories are pretty good. Out of all the platforms that do stories, this one does them well enough. The food porn, hot influencers, funny videos, and passing glimpses into the lives of friends far away make Instagram enjoyable. It’s one of my favorite time sinks.

Telegram is where I go to have real conversations with groups of people who I have never met and who are all interested in the same things: blockchain tech, the best memes on the internet, and cryptocurrency. Telegram is fantastic. I check it often.

Medium is okay, not great. I’d use it for a company blog, but when it comes to content discoverability and enjoyable reading, Medium’s quality is starting to get a little thin. I do support the platform with a monthly subscription because I do like rewarding better writing.

Anything I didn’t list is probably something I don’t use enough to care about one way or another. WordPress doesn’t count; to me, it’s just software, not a means of being social.

Launching

The cycle is always the same. Work happens in a fury. Things quiet down for a while. A project appears finished. And just before launch, it seems as though no work was done. The fury picks up again, launch happens, and tomorrow all is forgotten. We move on to the next thing.

Pre-launch jitters or coffee jitters. I’m not sure which I’d choose as a chronic illness.

Everything I’m Doing Is Wrong

I’m building a home. It’s a perfect little home, with brick walls that are surrounded by mountains and greenery. It’s small and quaint, taking up approximately forty-five square meters on a plot of land that’s three times as large. There’s plenty of room to grow flowers, plant a tree, exercise, play with the cat and her friends, live in privacy, and sit and watch the mountains during sunrise.

I could not ask for more. I dare not ask for more. This is everything I’ve ever dreamed of.

And yet it’s not enough.

The neighbors ask why the house is so small. Passersby seem surprised that the only foreigner they’ve met in their entire lives wants a house that’s the tiniest on the street. And friends and family meddlers continue urging my wife and me to adjust our budget to add this or that because without it we’ll be unhappy. This introduces palpable stress into our marriage.

It’s a strange feeling, to want nothing more than what I can afford, upfront in cash, paid-in-full, taking on not a shred of home debt, while at the same time facing pity. It’s odd. I’ve never dealt with something like this before, probably because we don’t have a child, but it’s incredibly strange.

I don’t know if it’s a Vietnamese thing or a human nature thing but trying to actively convince someone else that I’ve never been more content with what I have and desire nothing more, all while facing skepticism, is weird. It’s just weird. I don’t know how to process it.

This will probably happen again. It will most certainly happen again if we have a child, and the struggle I’m now facing is how to remain as firm as I am without being mean. I lack gentleness when it comes to meddling; I get triggered by it quickly. I lash out like a rabid animal whose cave has been invaded. Whether it’s my mother-in-law or extended in-laws, a best friend, or my own mother or siblings, the reaction is the same.

Get off my lawn. I am my father’s son.

I’ll need to work on my people skills. There must be a way, in short, to say that I’m happy. I’ve never been this happy. I have what I want exactly as I want it and I wish for nothing more because unhappiness is primarily produced by choice and unrealistic expectations.

I don’t know that I’ll ever have enough. If the internet and advertising are any indications, my life up until now has been a complete and utter disaster. I’m doing everything wrong. Everything I’m doing could be remedied by more. This is what I’m being sold.

And yet I feel nothing but the opposite.

Brief Update on Life

I haven’t shared much about what’s going on.

I’m still developing WordPress themes, plugins, and custom client work. I cut ties with my business partner last year, WordPress.com all but shut down premium theme submissions until they say otherwise, and it took a little while to secure trademark rights to a few of the more important parts of We Cobble.

That said, with WordPress now at a firm 30% of the web and my team being so close to the launch of our site and a ton of new themes, I’m still long-term bullish on work in this space, even if it means giving more control over to my staff. Gutenberg seems to be all the rage these days. It’s like, so in man.

Since late 2016 I entered the cryptocurrency market (again) and have since then slowly but steadily immersed myself in all things blockchain. This takes up a small portion of my time but gives me the most hope. The community is just as catty and nonsensical as WordPress’, so I feel right at home. 2018-2021 will be like nothing we’ve ever seen. If WordPress democratizes publishing, then blockchain technology democratizes the entire web. The tide has already started to shift.

I started building a new house today. They say it’ll be done in a month. I’m tired of renting and if I go broke in tech at least I can say I’ll never be homeless.

My wife and I are still trying to have a child without success. When the house is done we’ll likely go to Thailand for a while and do IUI. I’m not super-antsy about this. I’d like to finish the house first before thinking about a child.

I haven’t been to the States in 3 years. I haven’t traveled anywhere interesting in 2 years. Feels odd. Very odd.

I’m fat again. My diet now is pretty restricted. I’m at the age now where being fat is a multiplier for how miserable I’ll feel in my 50s. Trying to clean it up.

Anxiety stuff is gone. I haven’t had a full-on meltdown since moving here and only on a few occasions have I needed medicine so the trade-off of living in a boring place seems to be peace of mind. I don’t have panic attacks, intrusive thoughts are nonexistent, and the existential crises are long gone. It’s difficult to get me worked up right now.

I’m ready to move out of this karaoke bar. It’s noise torture, lack of sleep, lack of privacy, and feels like jail. The customers here are insane and drunk. The house can’t come soon enough. This is a major source of tension and stress right now. I’m ready for it to be over.

I don’t miss the States.

The cat has turned into three and the doggy next door loves me. Star is still the boss but several other cats have become addicted to hanging out with us. It’s probably the free food.

I’m not asking for much right now. I’ve learned that it only leads to unhappiness. I’m okay with what I have. I don’t need much more. I’m trying to stay patient.

Vietnam is still looking like where I’ll die. I’m good with that.