This post is part of a series about publishing platforms
Although blogging platform Ghost is in early stages of development, I decided to include it in my research on publishing platforms. The reason is simple. A lot of smart people wrote excited posts about this platform. Let’s find out why.
Most of the platforms I’ll research in this series are closed systems that I can’t even give a spin. Ghost is the exact opposite. It’s open source. It’s non-profit. And if you’re tech savvy enough, it’s free.
So I’ve written part of this post in Ghost. But before we get there, let’s dive into the history of Ghost.
Once upon a time, a WordPress veteran complained about clutter
It starts with John O’Nolan (1987), a kite-surfing developer living in Egypt. He used to be a notable developer in the WordPress community and even worked as deputy head of the development group that is responsible for WordPress’s user interface. In the autumn of 2012, after seven years of building WordPress sites for clients like easyJet, MTV, Microsoft and Virgin Atlantic, O’Nolan wrote one of the most-discussed WordPress critiques in the history of the blogging platform.
“I’ve been building blogs using WordPress almost since it first existed”, O’Nolan wrote, “The longer I work with WordPress, though, the more problems I have with it when I’m building blogs.” He then made the point that WordPress has grown into a full-fledged content management system, and that its founder Matt Mullenweg dreams of WordPress becoming an operating system for the web. O’Nolan applauded this mission, but he did notice one major downside:
There’s too much stuff everywhere, too much clutter, too many (so many) options getting in the way of what I really want to do: publish content.
O’Nolan proposed a new platform, based on WordPress’s core, but with a totally different set of features. Its name? Ghost. Because ‘like a ghost writer, Ghost, is your ghost publisher’. “It does the hard work anonymously, getting your content online so you can focus on the most important things: Your ideas. Your content.”
O’Nolan had made mock-ups of Ghost’s main features:
- an editor with a split-screen. You write in the left pane, with markdown, and a live preview of your post runs in the right pane.
- a good-looking dashboard which provides the blogger with essential information, like the number of article reads, live visitors and the size of your drafts collection. It would also integrate social statistics, like Twitter followers and Facebook likes:
There would be less plugins, no native comments, fewer options: just a simple, mobile-friendly and visual admin for bloggers who want to focus on writing. Moreover, O’Nolan noted that Ghost should become a non-profit organization, so that ‘every decision made would be about improving the software, not the bottom line’.
His concept for Ghost received 80,000 page views in the first two days. In a discussion on Hacker News (where it scored 502 points), WordPress-founder Mullenweg commented on O’Nolan’s ideas. He said that WordPress had invested heavily in a simplified user experience and that this ‘new experience’ had lead to ‘huge boosts in user engagement’.
And then, Ghost became a reality
Probably inspired by the attention for his mock-ups, O’Nolan launched a crowdfunding campaign to make Ghost a reality. I’m impressed by his determination. I’ve seen countless of designers and developers publishing fancy mockups, but few of them actually dedicate their career to making them come true.
The crowdfunding campaign started on April 29th, 2013 and aimed for 25,000 pounds. Unlike O’Nolan described in his first post about Ghost, it would be a completely new platform (and not based on WordPress). After raising the necessary amount, Ghost would offer a paid hosted version and use the profit to invest in new features and improvements. If anyone wanted to host Ghost on their own server or with a third-party, they could download the free open source software and install it themselves.
When the funding period ended 29 days later, O’Nolan had raised 196,362 pounds from 5,236 backers. Ghost launched to the public on October 14, 2013 and offered these services:
If you need to host more blogs or become really popular, prices vary from 30 dollars to 250 dollars.
Unlike most publishing platforms I will discuss in this series, I can actually give Ghost a try. That’s why I wrote the next part in Ghost itself, using the trial version of its Pro plan.
Liveblog: How Ghost works
My experiences while writing this bit in Ghost, noted as a stream of consciousness:
- The editor has a focused design. I only see a writing and a preview pane. Ghost asks you to use Markdown, which is a plain text formatting syntax that converts HTML. All the famous tech bloggers use it. And now I am too, because Ghost wants me to. No WYSIWYG here.
- So far, I like writing with Markdown. It helps me focus on the text.
- I can’t figure out how to upload an image. Drag and drop didn’t work. I’m afraid I have to host them somewhere else? (Hm, maybe on my WordPress blog?)
- Ah, found it! I have to type ‘!()’ and then an image upload box appears in the preview pane.
- I like the SEO/metadata feature. It shows you a preview of how your article will look in Google. If you don’t like the preview, you can provide a specific page title and meta description for search engines.
- Works on mobile and tablet as well.
Liveblog: then I styled my blog’s template
- The default theme of my Ghost blog looks clean. It reminds me of Medium.
- There’s a big RSS button, which I like, since RSS is still the best medium to follow blogs.
- I’ve used photos by Garry Winogrand to see how Ghost implements photos . Well, they’re implemented beautifully: adapting to the width of your screen.
- Ghost asks me to install a new theme as part of their sign up tour, but I don’t want to. How can it get better than the default theme? I love it.
- Site looks great on mobile too. This is too much guys.
A short review of Ghost
I think it took me fifteen minutes to get used to writing with Markdown. That being said, I’m used to writing in HTML, so I’m not entirely sure it would take everyone such a short time to adept. Moreover, I doubt whether Markdown will ever catch on outside the developers community. O’Nolan really seems to think so, thus I respect his decision to actually push for Markdown.
As you can tell by my notes, I’m impressed with how Ghost handles featured images and how well a blog looks on different devices (both the blog design as the admin panel). Just like O’Nolan promised, there isn’t much left for a user to do then to start writing.
Unfortunately, Ghost hasn’t released all promised features yet. Most notably the dashboard, that got Ghost so much attention in the first place. Overpromising is always a problem with crowdfunding, and I’ve found some disappointed remarks in Ghost forums and on other blogs about the lack of certain features. Such as this one: ‘How I ended up on Medium after installing Ghost‘. The Ghost team seems aware of this crowdfunding problem and manages expectations with a public roadmap.
Actually using Ghost for a (new) site?
I’d never migrate this blog from WordPress to Ghost, since I’ve been building a site here for eight years. Moving it, and all its SEO juice and the site’s structure, would be close to madness. But if I started a new blog today, I would consider the clean and focused experience of using Ghost.
The only problem I’d have though is that I couldn’t get the self-hosted version of Ghost to work. I don’t have the necessary SSH access with my hosting party and frankly, I’m not savvy enough to use it either.
Competitors like WordPress are easy to install on your own server. Ghost isn’t (yet). This is a problem for bloggers who want to own their words and thoughts (like me) by hosting it on their own server of with a third-party.
If self-hosting Ghost was easier, the platform would be a great alternative to, say, Medium. Because your writings look as beautiful as they do on Medium and you own your own ideas and words (instead of hosting them on Medium).
Unfortunately, I didn’t see any mention in the roadmap of making the self-hosted installation version more accessible. I can understand why, since this isn’t where Ghost makes the necessary money to survive. And more importantly, it’s Ghost’s mission to make publishing simple for the masses. As you can tell by the popularity of platforms like WordPress.com, the masses aren’t really into self-hosting.
Not that Ghost is afraid of offering stuff that geeks like. That’s the paradoxical thing about Ghost. Although they want to make publishing accessible for the masses, they stay truth to some hardcore developer practices. Like the Markdown language, open source code or prominently offering RSS instead of a more common subscription model, like newsletters.
Maybe Ghost has two missions: making publishing more accessible and bringing aspects from the web back that we had lost, such as RSS. Considering that I’ve toyed around with version 0.5.7 and that I’m already impressed, I have high hopes for this ambitious publishing platform.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Ghost review! I’ll keep updating this page. Last time I did was on January 15th, 2015. Let me know through Twitter or the comments form if you have any questions or suggestions and subscribe to the RSS feed for further updates.