February 3, 2014

Farewell to Svbtle

Note: Since publishing this post, I have ended up exploring multiple platforms including Ghost, WordPress, and Medium.

When I began using it, Svbtle was undoubtedly the most appropriate platform for my needs.

It was leaner than WordPress had been before it, and unlike many of its competitors, it was built around the idea of clean and focused presentation of content.

I’ve recently transitioned over to the fledgling Ghost platform, where I think my needs will be better served. I want to explain why I made the transition in light of Svbtle’s recent opening to the public.

Exclusivity and Alienation

Being exclusive was a mixed bag; on the one hand, it ensured that there was some sense of value to having access at all—having a Svbtle blog was something of a status symbol for the blogosphere. A petty but not irrelevant consideration.

On the other hand, the downsides became apparent as I spent more time using the platform.

Svbtle has a concierge email address that serves as the beginning and end of all support for the platform. The simplicity of the engine means that you’re unlikely to have any questions about technical issues, but if you do then you’re entirely at the mercy of this one support line.

There is no forum, no bustling developer community to turn to. You’re very much on your own and the sensation can be distressing if you’re coming from a richly supported platform like I was.

Moving from WordPress to Svbtle was like moving from a crowded city to a pristine island. The air is cleaner, but you had better enjoy solitude.

Icons & Stealth Updates

I ran into this concern shortly after signing up. At that time, Svbtle had only just begun welcoming in less famous people, and us new folk were not granted the privilege of having custom icons for our blogs like the all-star Svbtle founding members.

This was understandable, to some extent, except the limitation was never mentioned. In fact, as far as blog settings go, Svbtle offered essentially no customization beyond the ability to change colours.

I wasn’t bothered by the simplicity, but I was bothered by the lack of feedback—I assumed my membership invitation included the same privileges I saw on the Svbtle blogs of writers I admired who had been welcomed before me.

When I emailed to ask about how I could set up my own custom icon, I was entirely ignored.

Icon settings did appear for me some weeks later, but they were not announced. When I set my icon, it didn’t feel exciting, it felt like I was drawing a happy face on a soccer ball—my very own digital Wilson to distract from the utter loneliness of Svbtle.

You see, nothing is ever communicated to you as a normal” Svbtle user. New options just magically appear in the dashboard, changes miraculously evolve in your workspace with no warning. Layout adjustments and type tweaks surreptitiously sneak in one day.

If you’re not constantly visiting your Settings page, you’ll miss these things entirely, and if you don’t like any of the changes then the deafening silence from Svbtle HQ will quickly remind you of the value of your opinion.

Is it too much to ask for the occasional email? Nothing special, just hey we’re adding some experimental Twitter/Facebook buttons you might want to check out in your Settings” orcongratulations, you are now cool enough to set your own blog icon!”

Maybe I’m spoiled by the brilliant updates from Nathan Kotny of Draft, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect some level of communication between a service and its users. Nathan, of course, uses Svbtle, but he is one of the special ones.

How can I tell? Because his posts get featured on the homepage, which brings me to another major issue at the crux of my decision to part ways with Svbtle.

Svbtle Magazine

In theory, Svbtle is a magazine of sorts where content from the network is surfaced on the homepage and featured to a tremendous audience.

When I received an invite for Svbtle, I had visions of getting a post featured and having my work read by a wider audience than if I were writing elsewhere. This illusion quickly faded as I realized that Svbtle’s magazine ambitions are focused on a very particular kind of content.

In essence, if you don’t own a startup and write material that is directly relevant to the interests of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, then your writing is not wanted on the homepage (with very few exceptions).

As I write this, the Svbtle homepage features 12 articles. Of those posts, all but one are written by and for the demographic described above, and 3 of the articles are written by the same person.

Also bewildering, from a reader’s perspective, is that the magazine archive is impenetrable; there’s no way to view previous articles. Once a post has fallen off the homepage, it’s gone—unless you have the link or have followed that writer, the post vanishes into obscurity. There are no categories, and no search.

In this sense, Medium is a far superior product both for readers and writers, as content is less ephemeral. The downside of Medium, of course, being that the identities of individual writers too easily disappear into the publication.

To be clear, I’m not whinging about not being featured on Svbtle—Dustin Curtis is welcome to run his publication however he sees fit, and my posts are not consistently appealing to his target audience anyway—but the editorial process, like much of Svbtle’s workings, remains invisible to the average user.

Assuming one writes something that might be suitable for the interests of the Svbtle readership, how does it get chosen? Why, after so much time nurturing so many talented writers, does the homepage continually feature only a handful of authors?

Even if Dustin dislikes my writing, I have encountered several others whose posts seem perfectly suited to the magazine both in content and style, yet they too are absent from the homepage. Why?

The obvious answer would be: Dustin (and his editorial staff which may or may not exist) features the work of writers he admires most. Fair enough! But that begs the question…if I have minimal chances of being included in the magazine, and my experience with the platform is permeated by this sense of exclusion from the elite members, then why stay?


As soon as I’d asked myself the question, I knew the answer. It was time to move on.

While KickStarter has seen its fair share of failures, its successes tend to be spectacular. I eagerly supported a new blogging platform called Ghost, and my early access allowed me to spend some time with the new kid on the block as these issues with Svbtle accumulated in the back of my mind.

Ghost’s mandate was in perfect harmony with my blogging needs, and the return to a vibrant, welcoming community of developers was a welcome change from the stifling isolation of Svbtle and its clique-driven hierarchy.

My life raft is not without holes; trying to install Ghost on my own server has proved to be a much larger hassle than I had expected and the hosted service has some complications with custom URLs, but such is the nature of beta software.

The important thing is this: within hours of posting my concerns on the very active Ghost forums, I had help from numerous kind strangers. When I emailed support, I received a personal answer within forty minutes. That’s service.

Where Svbtle was rigid, Ghost is flexible; where Svbtle treats its normal users like a lower caste, Ghost does its best to welcome people enthusiastically; where Svbtle’s chilly kudos button—the golf clap of blogging—discourages conversation, Ghost is a lively marketplace of discussion.

In short, while there are many things to admire about Svbtle, its path diverges from my own and I’m excited to roll up my sleeves and be a part of something livelier and more inclusive.

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