Review of new book

To Be or Not To Be…?

On WordPress, that is.

Here follow the confessions of a cynic. As of October, there will be a hiatus on this site, my primary presence on the Internet. I’ve got a few posts scheduled till early October that will still go live. The reason is that I have to consider the future of this site, and others, on this platform, WordPress.

When I started this more than ten years ago, I had just relocated from South Africa to Canada. In South Africa, I had written book reviews for a national magazine. I was in Public Relations, and writing for a national magazine was important to prove my expertise and build my experience. I had a public profile and I had to keep it up. I wanted to keep doing the book reviews in Canada, firstly because it had become a habit, secondly to keep showcasing my writing abilities (for the sake of finding work), and thirdly from a genuine concern that I had about the need to support writers, readers, and independent publishers. So, sevencircumstances was (re)born.

Beginning with WordPress

In the beginning, WordPress was the ideal platform. You got a domain, a platform, and on that platform, a simple web page template. You log in, you open the blank page. You start to type. In time, I learned a bit of coding – how to add a line, format a picture or a video, change the font or the colour, or manage the hyperlinks, using HyperText Markup Language. (You could see and write your code as an option on your WordPress page.) HTML is the standard markup language for documents designed to be displayed in a web browser.

I got quite proud of the amount of HTML script I could write. Nice, clean script, I always thought, looking at a page with no holes, repetitions or asymmetry, with everything working cleanly. HTML was great. One wrong space or character and the thing just didn’t work, that’s all. As someone who had worked for software companies for years I felt obliged to do this the hard, but classic way. The fact that I could do this myself was important since there were then, and are still, few templates or, as they’re called these days, themes, for writing extra long, academic-type content on blogs or websites. Customization was a necessity.

More pics than text

In time, things changed. There were various updates to HTML, and by 2014, there was HTML 5, which is the current language used on the world wide web. It allows everyone in the world to see web information in the same way. If you open a website and see that some images are displayed as a box with an X in it, or some text is invisible, or the links in the menu bar don’t work, that’s probably because the programming of that template, which is done by the service provider, is out of date. For instance, you know the formats for picture files are basically .jpg, .png, .bmp, .gif and recently, there is also WebP. I have never used the .webp image format and I see that my software cannot open or convert those image files. As time goes on, there will be others.

HTML changed and with every change, so did WordPress, and so did I.

The importance of social media grew, and pictures, video and multimedia as a whole became more important than text. I found myself putting in more and more pictures and videos – from the site design itself, to featured images in the banners of posts, to the images in the posts, to videos of the posts. I went from doing graphic design and creation perhaps 5% of the time, to doing that 40% of the time. Of the 8 hours spent doing a post, half might be to do the text, 3 might be doing graphics, and 1 might be doing what then became Site Engine Optimization (SOE), organizing the information on the site. The images, once pics of maybe a few 100 KBs, became multiple MBs in size, as the quality of compression provided on the platform, and the quality of viewing on the devices of users became better and better. These days, I work at pixel level and it takes lots of time.

As the site grew to hundreds of authors, and hundreds more of books, and thousands of pages, the words and the thinking about the words got harder and the other stuff consumed more and more time.

Addicted to pretty pictures

And I got addicted to the pretty pictures.

Man, it was eye-candy. I scoffed at those “old” sites written to be displayed in frames with tiny, blurry pics in horrible, loud colours, and unspeakably ugly fonts.

WordPress followed the trend towards increasing visual appeal. Their choice of themes and templates grew to hundreds. Every blogger could look so slick and professional they even seemed like professionals. It led to the rise of the “empty” site, meant to draw in clicks and links: a pretty page or two with hardly any info on any of the pages. But they were real pretty though, no matter how crappy the contents.

From a site with a few hundred passive pages, mine grew to a site with more than 350 posts and then the views grew and the visits and followers grew and soon this site became targeted by all sorts of hacks and spammers and god knows what. The people who wanted me to “put your site first on Google” or “make money off your site” were the most irritating.

WordPress continued to refine their security and anti-spam measures to rid me of the worst. But it was and remains a scary thing to see how crazy the world has become.

Too many domains, too much PT

In time, I owned many domains ( a domain is the address at which your stuff can be found on the www, like – http://www.sevencircumstances.com) and I am now running, writing and illustrating, five sites on WordPress.

There’s this site, and another one about my business, one for a friend who makes perfumes, one about my family history (which is actually an online version of a book), and one about my music. It is a major, major amount of work, because being the nit-picking perfectionist that I am, I want my sites to be best-in-class. Good to look at, up to date, perfectly functional, enjoyable to use and most of all, with well-thought-through, balanced contents, which had no spelling or grammar mistakes.

I eventually moved to a premium accounts for all but 1 of the sites, to make sure there were absolutely no ads, and that they all look as good as can be.

Easy-peasy for the amateurs

Then WordPress changed their site editing system: from being able to write your own code and do your own thing, no matter how wobbly or ugly it was, they introduced the “block” system. This was to cater to social media-obsessed idiots. In this block system, you “pull” blocks of text, images, links or whatever, onto the page your are developing. No coding needed. And if you looked at the coding page, it went from the literal code, to, well, code in which the complexity was hidden.

Example: old style code:

<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:8-cell-simple.gif#/media/File:8-cell-simple.gif"><img class="aligncenter" src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/8-cell-simple.gif" alt="Animation of a transforming tesseract or 4-cube" /></a>
This object is the 4D equivalent of a cube, known as a <strong>tesseract</strong>. By <a class="extiw" title="wikipedia:User:JasonHise" href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:JasonHise">JasonHise</a> at <a class="extiw" title="wikipedia:" href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/">English Wikipedia</a> - Transferred from <span class="plainlinks"><a class="external text" href="//en.wikipedia.org">en.wikipedia</a></span> to Commons., Public Domain, rtrvd. 2017-07-08

Example, new style code:

<!-- wp:image {"align":"center","linkDestination":"custom"} -->
<div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:8-cell-simple.gif#/media/File:8-cell-simple.gif"><img src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/8-cell-simple.gif" alt="Animation of a transforming tesseract or 4-cube"/></a></figure></div>
<!-- /wp:image -->

See? Much simpler.

It was like moving from working in MS Office in Windows, to working on a Mac. From lots of details, to one simple move.

I hated it.

I still do.

But, I had to concede, the results were visually appealing, (and if I didn’t over-think it, easy to get) and my sites performed exactly as I wanted them to, on all sorts of devices and platforms.

So I learned to use the blocks system and stop myself from adding in bits of code.

It was like a fire consuming itself: the more I did, the more I had to do, the more I had done, the more I had to continue doing, just to keep the sites going.

A big stumbling block was when WordPress took away their dedicated spelling and grammar checking tool. From then on, users had to check their text by using the spelling and grammar check of the search engine on which they are working, in my case, Google. Google’s check is just not very good. It’s not a patch on let’s say, the checker for MS Word. So from then on, before I could publish anything, I’d have to cut and paste it into Word, do the checks, make the corrections, and then publish. But it showed that WordPress’s users were more interested in links to Instagram and YouTube, and in images and videos, than in correct English.

Moreover, the more time I spent on sourcing and creating pictures, the less time I spent on writing shorter pieces. Everyone knows it takes longer to produce a short writeup, or condensing it from a long write-up, than to just write and leave a long, rambling text. Rambling is easy. Being succinct but still accurate, is hard and takes time.

Something had to give.

It did, last night.

Time to pull the plugs

I knew that it was time to refresh the themes (templates) that I use on WordPress because if you don’t every 18 months or so, the formatting becomes obsolete, and one piece at a time your contents becomes un-viewable or inaccessible. For instance, a simple thing like a link to a video: it could be a video that I had personally made, but the default is a link to YouTube – and that video could have been removed. So, every time that I wanted to put in my own video, it was just a bit more of an effort to make sure it displayed and ran correctly since it was not just a YouTube link.

In fact, every quarter, I have to use a commercial broken link checker, which generates a list of all the broken links and non-functioning things on my sites, what I’d have to fix or remove. And believe me, this list was hundreds of items, every single time, because this site alone has more than 3,000 pages. (The catch is, that if you leave these broken things on your site, Google’s site crawlers that access and index your site, keep coming up against them and eventually your site gets blacklisted as a fake or a broken one.)

Last night, I checked into the platform to look at the gazillion of blog/site themes, to choose one that would not totally mess up the settings on my patchwork “technicolour dreamcoat” of a site (considering how old some of the contents is).

I saw most of the themes were gone.

No long could I buy a pre-designed theme and start using it on my site. There were only the free themes left, most of them for business, one, insultingly, for a free theme, is simply a blank page – well, darn it, of course it should be free. It’s blank! And there are others for one-page sites, for amateur, probably fake, users.

To import and use a premium theme, I was told I would have to upgrade to a business plan (more expensive). Then I’d have to negotiate importing this theme, coding and all, by myself. This was confirmed this morning by a response to my email to WordPress (a.k.a. Automattic):

“As of 31st August 2021, we no longer offer Premium Themes as part of our WordPress.com or Jetpack plans. The premium themes were built on older WordPress tech and won’t support future WordPress experiences like the Site Editor in Full Site Editing etc. If you purchased a specific Premium theme and would like to switch back to it, we can help with switching back to that theme. Just let us know what theme it is, and we can do that on our end. If you are looking for a more custom theme to use on your site, you may want to consider upgrading to the Business plan.”

“May want to consider”? I think not. Do they have you by the short and curlies if you want to go on having a pretty site customized exactly for your contents? Yes.

Well, there goes the design and and the eye-candy.

However.

I feel a right fool writing this. WordPress’s change in business model simply opened my eyes to what an idiot I have become. Maybe I should not say damn WordPress, but thanks WordPress.

I can tell myself, I told you so

I am the Prophet of Doom who has always told my clients, no platform is forever. Download your contents and print out your blogs as books because one day they will disappear off the Internet. Not even WordPress, which is still, as on Wikipedia, “WordPress (WP, WordPress.org) […] a free and open-source content management system (CMS) written in PHP and paired with a MySQL or MariaDB database”, will never change. It will. It has. WordPress, which used to be my comfort in a world of gougers and rip-off artists, has been a steady platform, with steady costs. Exchange rates may have increased, but the $99 bucks for annual use has stayed the same. But, how could it?

Learned a new word: “freemium”

The answer is, that WordPress is actually not “free” anymore: it is a “freemium” site. WordPress is owned by Automattic, Inc., an American company which in September 2019, was valued at US$3 billion! It started as offering open source blogging software, primarily on its platform, WordPress, but now it offers freemium sites.

Freemium, a portmanteau of the words “free” and “premium”, is a pricing strategy by which a basic product or service is provided free of charge, but money (a premium) is charged for additional features, services, or virtual (online) or physical (offline) goods that expand the functionality of the free version of the software.

They had to make money and this is how they make it.

Of my five sites, only one is “free”, which is indicated by the address extension “.wordpress.com”. (If you don’t pay, or as they say, upgrade, you get WordPress in the domain name, and WordPress ads on the site.)

So, my Socialist and anti-establishment, basic techno-geek mentality is what drew me to it, and it is this mentality is what will cause me to say goodbye to WordPress.

Other options

I have tried other “free” blog hosting web services, and tracked carefully what they costs and what is involved. Reason being, this is how you communicate these days, external communication starts and ends with websites. Tumblr is not bad, but does not work at all well with long-posts with such things as footnotes, appendices, foreign language text and quotations. No messing with the code allowed. Blogger seemed to be not very well developed or institutionalized; Weebly the same, and let me not mention Wix. Very flakey indeed. In terms of functionality, or sheer dominance of the industry, those don’t remotely compare to WordPress. Instagram is for people with really short attention spans – pretty pictures, tagged to hell and gone. Don’t even talk to me about rubbish like Tik-Tok. Facebook is a quagmire of unwanted advertising where your contents is mutilated and sold on. I didn’t look at equivalents in other countries or languages.

I am not being impractical – there are good reasons why, as of 2021, 41% of websites (period) are built on WordPress.com. They are good, and would still be the best choice if you think you are getting a free blog hosting service.

Therefore, I believe I have a couple of options to consider:

  1. Drop the fancy designs, revert to simple pages and text. Like this post.
  2. Keep the fancy designs, move to another platform with nicer designs, like Squarespace, a popular choice for artists and people working with visual media. Their stuff is really, really pretty.
  3. Keep some sites on WordPress, move the specific media files, such as the sound files on the site with my music, over to a more suitable place like Soundcloud.
  4. Close down some of the five sites. Disappear them.
  5. Close down all of the sites. Disappear all of them.
  6. Cease to give a damn and just keep going as is. Who cares about professionalism. I’m retired. It doesn’t matter.

The reason for a site’s existence

The simple fact is that it is still true and will always be true, that websites and blogs basically only have value because of the information the provide. All the rest is to draw in visitors, viewers, and followers. And all of that is to make money off a site, which requires you to sell your soul, as I’ve pointed out.

The information is what is worth something, yes. But the stuff you are providing information ABOUT is what has actual worth – your books, your paintings, your music, the buildings you built, the work you have done. All the rest is vapour. No-one will remember it. It has potential value only. You will die, and what you did will be forgotten. Unless you made something truly beautiful or did something truly transformational that moved the world from point A to point Z, permanently. And how few people in history have ever done that?

If I’m looking for certain information, for facts, I need it to be in writing, preferably attributed and from a reliable source. I don’t care how it looks. It can be from an ancient page on the Wayback Engine, in a .pdf file found online, or in a Google extract from a published book, or from a book or an ebook or whatever. If it is audio that I’m looking for, I need a .wav, mp3 or .ogg file, or whatever. I don’t need the decorations around it. And so on. It’s the idea that matters, the thing you wrote or made that ADDS something to the world, that is DIFFERENT, that is worth something.

I tried to convince myself that the pretty images and videos I was making had their own worth, because “it made the information accessible to people who prefer data presented in a visual or auditory form”. I was fooling myself. Just how many deaf or blind users did any of my sites actually get? Darn few, I know. How many people just got onto the site because of the pretty pictures? A lot. Hundreds. In fact, their number is the difference between the number of people who viewed (just looked) and the number who visited (read). And considering that many of those who just visited are in fact people looking to expand links to their own sites, I do not consider those people to be like me and have the same preferences.

I have long discovered, that someone like me, a serious reader and analyst, is not that common. I do my own thing and it is pretty niche. I do not remotely believe in popularity. I do not care what others think of me and my views. I am too old, and too aggro, and too egotistical. So what does it matter if I shut down all these sites? (I ask myself – and as I’m writing this, I realize that anyone who has read all these words right down to here will be rare as hen’s teeth.)

But I’m clarifying my thinking.

Is anything worth it?

Monetizing the sites, particularly this one, has never been an option because I have to be independent, not motivated by remuneration. Otherwise my opinions might as well be bought and be outright lies. Besides, I do not want ads for hemorrhoid cream and porn sites and body part enhancers on my site. Yuck. I do not write blurbs for the backs of books, or fake reviews for Amazon. Every word on this site has been my opinion, no-one else’s, written by me, about books that I bought with my own hard-earned money. It has no ads, I’ve never been paid one blue cent for a review. And if asked for a review by a publisher or author, was only compensated for by giving me the book I had written about. (Most times. Other times I bought the book myself.) And the publishers knew full well that I could decimate the book and pan it, if it were bad. They took their chances.

So, it’s not about the money. Or about the costs. Or about the platform and how it functions. It’s about the ideas and the memories of the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve read. It’s about what I (no-one else) have learned from reading each and every book. It’s not about the pretty pictures and the slick videos. It’s a reflection of the world inside my head. It’s about learning how all things are connected. I look back at the posts on this site and it’s like I’m reliving my past.

It’s not even about my reputation.

I have recently decided to just say, bugger this, I am not some faceless blogger like some of those people who have strange and worryingly biased vlogs on YouTube. I am almost 60, I have a list of degrees as long as my arm, I have worked hard and at a senior level for many decades. I know of which I speak when it comes to literature. In fact, I was born into it. I might suffer from a serious case of a poor self-image, but I am not fatally embarrassed by my critiques, or my poetry, or my paintings, or the music I have composed. So this is who and what I am, and why not publish under my real name? So I did. Pleased to meet you, faceless reader.

After ten plus years, other people now know who is writing this. But it’s rather too late.

Next steps

Ultimately, I’m going to give this a bit of a think. Since I am taking to the ether as always, I am not obliged to let anyone know what will happen.

Even the followers of this site, about 200 people, know, as I’m sure they themselves do, that this is just a freebie – it is an entertainment that is just one of the places they visit on the Internet that are too many to count. You have never met me, or I you. (I am not Jenny Lawson, The Blogess, who turned her blog into a bricks and mortar book store in Texas and does road shows to promote her books.) If, one morning, you wake up and see there have been nothing in the feed from sevencircumstances for some time, you will be neither surprised nor disappointed. One more blog, one less, who cares.

This post was written in plain text. No pics, no links, no tags or categories, no featured image, just two examples of code. I could not resist putting in headings. I am a grammar nazi at heart.

But I probably got more out of this myself that I have done for a long time. I had not realized just how long this road has been and how the world changed around me while I was busy making pictures in GIMP for the sake of developing contents to fit the platform.

I guess this is what happens to everyone who grows old. The world moves on and they have a choice, adapt or get off the planet.

1 comment on “To Be or Not To Be…?

  1. Waar gaan hierdie hoendertand ooit begin om jou te probeer antwoord? Ek sukkel om inligtingstegnologie se taalgebruik te verstaan, dus kon ek hier en daar nie mooi jou redenasie volg nie. Wat ek wel weet, is dat ek jou erg sal mis as jy sou verdwyn. Jou inskrywings is altyd die moeite werd om te lees en jou reaksies op onderwerpe wat my interesseer, bv. Rebusfontein en sneeu en Suid-Afrikaners in die vreemde en die mense wat hulle agterlaat, het my al menige oomblik van vreugde besorg.

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