Source Code: Your daily look at what matters in tech.

source-codesource codeauthorDavid PierceNoneWant your finger on the pulse of everything that's happening in tech? Sign up to get David Pierce's daily newsletter.64fd3cbe9f
×

Get access to Protocol

Your information will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

I’m already a subscriber
People

Building your own website is cool again, and it's changing the whole internet

Writers, creators and businesses of all kinds are looking to set up their own space online again. To do that, companies are trying to figure out how to deal with two very different internets.

People

Stuck at home, everyone's had to figure out how to both run their business online and be part of the way the internet works now.

Photo: John Schnobrich/Unsplash

Websites are back. After years of being sucked into the vortexes of Facebook and Yelp pages, devoting their time to amassing Twitter followers and Instagram likes, creators and businesses alike have seen the benefits of hanging up their own shingle again. Legions of writers are setting up Substack newsletters. Millions of people and businesses are setting up shop for the first time online using Squarespace or WordPress. Wix reported 7.8 million new users in the last quarter alone, and more than 29% revenue growth.

The driving force behind all that growth? Thanks to a pandemic closing stores, keeping people at home and leaving a lot of people without jobs, the only way to move forward is to figure out the internet. "Everyone describes the pandemic as an accelerant," said Squarespace CEO Anthony Casalena. "For a lot of people that meant accelerating getting online, adapting their business model." He said he's seen restaurants, for example, start Squarespace sites to host their menu and contact information, then start to think about selling a cookbook through their site, or maybe mail-order cocktails.

In part, it's a digital transformation story, hurried along by the shutting down of the real world. But almost everyone I spoke to also seemed to think there was something else going on, more to do with changing opinions about the tech giants that increasingly host the internet inside their walls. "I think we're just seeing a trend towards people wanting to control their online presence," Casalena said. "It's ultimately very dangerous for anybody to only have a Twitter presence, or only have an Instagram presence, or only be on Facebook, because of the obvious lock-in and control those platforms have on you." He sees Squarespace and others as a crucial antidote to that: a space on the internet that users actually control, that's not subject to algorithmic ranking or the tyranny of one-star reviews.

John O'Nolan, the CEO at blogging platform Ghost — which has also seen huge growth thanks to the pandemic — said he sees it as a question of scale. "Five, 10 years ago, people used to say, 'Twitter's like being at a cocktail party,'" he said. "Today the scale of Twitter is like a football stadium. And that's a different dynamic. It has different expectations on behavior, it has different things you can get out of it." It's noisy, he said, and it's also unpredictable. One thing he's heard from new Ghost users is that they just want something that's not going to change, or go away, anytime soon.

This trend applies to practically everyone trying to make money through or on the internet, but the easiest way to understand it is to talk about Substack. Chris Best, Substack's CEO, told me that he co-founded the company in part to change the dynamic between writer and reader. "The theory was that the incentive structures we've created with social media are encouraging all the wrong stuff," he said. "We end up in this place where we delegate so much of our attention to our algorithmic social media feeds whose job it is to keep us maximally addicted and build the most addictive thing possible." All that, and it turned out to be a pretty bad business model for the writers themselves.

Substack doesn't see itself as a newsletter platform, or an email-based product. The company is fundamentally interested in fostering direct relationships between readers and writers, rather than let them be mediated by companies whose interests are not always aligned with either side. Best said that Substack looked into micropayments, so people could pay tiny amounts to read a story, but decided that asking people to make lots of payments, no matter how small, was asking too much. "The friction of deciding to pay for something" is problem enough, he said. They landed on subscriptions as a simple, relatively low-friction way to establish a connection.

Substack landed on email as a delivery mechanism for a couple of reasons. One, because it's a direct, intimate connection point that absolutely everybody already understands and uses. But also, because Best and his team understood that just having a website isn't enough anymore. "Everybody used to read blogs," he said, "because you'd go sit down at your computer, type in myfavoriteblog.com, and that was how you read it." That's not how people use the internet anymore. "Anything that's not a little square on your home screen, you're not going to go with it." Most of those home screen squares, Best pointed out, "are owned by one of those attention-monster things that are trying to break your brain." Everybody's phone has an email square, it's a place for communication and connection rather than constant attention, and so it felt right to Substack.

Would Best rather people go back to bookmarking their favorite blogs, reading them in RSS readers and typing in myfavoriteblog.com? Maybe. Maybe Subtack wouldn't need to exist, Google Reader would be huge and everything would be different. But that's not how the world works, and Best figures he can get at the same one-to-one relationship a different way, without asking people to add another square to their home screen. "I'm trying to make a product people like and use," he said. "You have to both know why you want the world to be better, and deal with the world as it is."

This is a core tension of the internet right now, and a question all these independent publishers, website makers and businesses are asking themselves. What does it look like to both own your own space online, without giving too much control to social platforms and tech giants, while still recognizing that the audience and business you're looking for is mostly going to find you through those social platforms and tech giants? Facebook likes to tout that small businesses essentially depend on Facebook ads for survival. Most small businesses surely wish that weren't the case. But if they simply try to pretend it isn't, they're done for. Striking that balance feels like an increasingly crucial business decision.

Ev Williams has been thinking about that balance for a long time. He built Blogger, helping power a whole generation of independent publishers. Then he built Twitter, helping suck all those Blogger sites into a single feed and service. Now he's CEO at Medium, and he's absolutely convinced it's possible to have the best of both worlds. "Part of the concept of Medium from day one," he said, "was 'how do you have the flexibility and the space to publish more substantive things than make sense on social media, but yet still be part of a network?'"

Networks make discovery easier, helping users bounce between things and people they like and centralizing all their content in a single place. Plus, the web can be a lonely place sometimes, and networking tools make it easier for them to collaborate. "What we're hearing from people is this desire for connection is very strong," said Siobhan O'Connor, Medium's VP of editorial. "Connection, community, support — we're seeing it even among bloggers on Medium." So Medium has spent years improving its commenting platform, added curation tools and trying to make the whole platform feel more connected. At the same time, though, it has rolled out custom subdomains, given writers more control over their profile page, and tried to make each Medium blog feel unique.

Williams and others said that YouTube offers some tips on how to strike that balance. "It is a massive network of its own right," Williams said, "and integrated with the whole internet. That works." (It may be impossible to embed a Medium article, he said, but everything's still just a link. And there's nothing more shareable than a link.) Medium was built with its internal network in mind, while other platforms are looking for ways to build it now. Substack's Bundles feature lets multiple authors work (and sell) together, and the company's testing a product called Substack Reader that would become a centralized place to read all of a user's newsletters. Squarespace recently launched a Member Areas feature, letting sites build their own paywalls and foster that community themselves.

None of these companies wants to build their own walled garden, though. They know that doing so only incentivizes the kind of bad algorithmic behavior that they were built to fight against. So they're also stuck grappling with what it means to help bloggers or businesses build their own homes on the internet, and then wade into the social morass to try and promote themselves.

At the very least, these companies said, they have to make sure pages are easily crawled by search engines and look good in social posts. Casalena said he's interested in going even further: He has this dream of building a data structure and format that can be shared to discovery platforms all at once. "Why are you typing your address in over and over again? Squarespace should be transforming that metadata … I think it's completely valid to think we would have your information synced to the top places where you might be discovered, because discoverability is a massive part of why you have the website in the first place."

In a lot of ways, the current move to independent publishing and people wanting to own their own websites is a move back to the old days of blogging. The mid-aughts blogging era died out in part because social platforms aggregated everyone's audience in only a few places, but also because there wasn't really a business model for being a blogger. "If I was a great blogger that was adding a ton of value," Best said, "really shaping the culture and doing the best possible job of it, it was still pretty hard to have a sustainable business." Now tools like Ghost, Squarespace, Substack and WordPress make the business part of the equation easier. Same, too, for businesses, which can use Shopify plugins and seven lines of Stripe code to become a full-fledged online shop.

The question is the audience. The social networks continue to try and monopolize users' time and attention, which means sending them to Facebook Pages instead of Squarespace sites and to Twitter profiles instead of Substack blogs. Without that audience, independent publishers and website owners don't have a chance. So they're striking out for the middle ground, to find a way for everyone to have a home online that doesn't rely on the whims of a tech giant, while reckoning with the fact that the tech giants effectively run the online world. If life in 2020 feels like living in Facebook's world, they want to build another one. A better one. But not too far away.

Does Elon Musk make Tesla tech?

Between the massive valuation and the self-driving software, Tesla isn't hard to sell as a tech company. But does that mean that, in 10 years, every car will be tech?

You know what's not tech and is a car company? Volkswagen.

Image: Tesla/Protocol

From disagreements about what "Autopilot" should mean and SolarCity lawsuits to space colonization and Boring Company tunnels, extremely online Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his company stay firmly in the news, giving us all plenty of opportunities to consider whether the company that made electric cars cool counts as tech.

The massive valuation definitely screams tech, as does the company's investment in self-driving software and battery development. But at the end of the day, this might not be enough to convince skeptics that Tesla is anything other than a car company that uses tech. It also raises questions about the role that timeliness plays in calling something tech. In a potential future where EVs are the norm and many run on Tesla's own software — which is well within the realm of possibility — will Tesla lose its claim to a tech pedigree?

Keep Reading Show less
Becca Evans
Becca Evans is a copy editor and producer at Protocol. Previously she edited Carrie Ann Conversations, a wellness and lifestyle publication founded by Carrie Ann Inaba. She's also written for STYLECASTER. Becca lives in Los Angeles.

As President of Alibaba Group, I am often asked, "What is Alibaba doing in the U.S.?"

In fact, most people are not aware we have a business in the U.S. because we are not a U.S. consumer-facing service that people use every day – nor do we want to be. Our consumers – nearly 900 million of them – are located in China.

Keep Reading Show less
J. Michael Evans
Michael Evans leads and executes Alibaba Group's international strategy for globalizing the company and expanding its businesses outside of China.
Protocol | Workplace

Apple isn’t the only tech company spooked by the delta variant

Spooked by rising cases of COVID-19, many tech companies delay their office reopening.

Apple and at least two other Silicon Valley companies have decided to delay their reopenings in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Photo: Luis Alvarez via Getty

Apple grabbed headlines this week when it told employees it would delay its office reopening until October or later. But the iPhone maker wasn't alone: At least two other Silicon Valley companies decided to delay their reopenings last week in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Both ServiceNow and Pure Storage opted to push back their September return-to-office dates last week, telling employees they can work remotely until at least the end of the year. Other companies may decide to exercise more caution given the current trends.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | Workplace

Half of working parents have felt discriminated against during COVID

A new survey found that working parents at the VP level are more likely to say they've faced discrimination at work than their lower-level counterparts.

A new survey looks at discrimination faced by working parents during the pandemic.

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

The toll COVID-19 has taken on working parents — particularly working moms — is, by now, well-documented. The impact for parents in low-wage jobs has been particularly devastating.

But a new survey, shared exclusively with Protocol, finds that among parents who kept their jobs through the pandemic, people who hold more senior positions are actually more likely to say they faced discrimination at work than their lower-level colleagues.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Protocol | Enterprise

Alphabet goes deep into industrial robotic software with Intrinsic

If it succeeds, the gambit could help support Google Cloud's lofty ambitions in the manufacturing sector.

Alphabet is aiming to make advanced robotic technology affordable to customers.

Photo: Getty Images

Alphabet launched a new division Friday called Intrinsic, which will focus on building software for industrial robots, per a blog post. The move plunges the tech giant deeper into a sector that's in the midst of a major wave of digitization.

The goal of Intrinsic is to "give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they're completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications," CEO Wendy Tan-White wrote in the post.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Latest Stories