Interview with Brian Krogsgard of poststat.us
Brian Krogsgard is a WordPress developer, blogger, and content curator from Birmingham, Alabama. He is the creator and editor of poststat.us, which offers reader-validated, curated WordPress news, and which has quickly gained prominence since its creation in January 2013.
Brian was previously lead WordPress developer at Infomedia, and has recently begun a new job at Range. He is also a regular speaker at WordCamps, including WordCamp Birmingham 2013 (which he helped organize) and WordCamp Cape Town 2013.
We spoke with Brian about his work, the future of WordPress, and how to create great content as a WordPress blogger.
Bio and work: Personal history with WordPress | On working remotely
On WordPress blogging: Advice to WordPress bloggers | The WordPress content ecosystem | Guidelines for creating content | Revenue models for bloggers | Affiliate links
The state and future of WordPress: Working with WordPress | Usability of WordPress | The JSON API | Big Dumb Question
Bio and work
Personal history with WordPress
F: How would you describe your place in the WordPress community?
B: I’m a developer first and foremost. I’ve been doing WordPress work full-time for a little over two years, since August 2011. Ever since I’ve been involved, I’ve written about WordPress in order to help myself learn, and to share what I’d learned. So I’ve been involved in this news aspect through WordPress from the very beginning, but that’s kind of a separate part from my day-to-day work.
I originally worked as a contributor on WP-Candy, with Ryan Imel. I did that for a couple of years, and wrote 140 posts or so, participated in some podcasts and really embedded myself in the community, but mostly I was addicted to information and addicted to finding out what people were doing and how they were doing it, and learning business models. And eventually Ryan started doing other things, and I was still really into what I was learning and what I was doing; so I started poststat.us, in January of this year. That’s the backstory.
One of the better compliments I’ve received is that I was a rather Gruber-esque type of person in WordPress—which I took as a compliment.
As for how I fit into the community now, it’s kind of as a curator of information, and I take information, and I analyze it in a certain way. Sometimes that’s in link form, sometimes that’s in a longer form. One of the better compliments I’ve received is that I was a rather Gruber-esque type of person in WordPress [laughter]—which I took as a compliment.
So, that’s what I aim to do—I aim to inform people and teach people about what other people are doing. And if I come up with products or services that I think are interesting, I’m happy to do what I can to help those people, and spread the word about what they’re doing.
On working remotely
F: We understand you just started at Range, and will be working remotely from your home in Birmingham. Do you see any disadvantage to working remotely from a place that, maybe, has a small WordPress community or development community?
B: I’ll be able to say better, soon. I spent the last couple of years working in an office with twenty to twenty-five people and we were doing almost all WordPress websites. The challenge in that scenario is that your hiring pool is a lot smaller. So that’s a huge advantage for remote work.
When people are working out of an office, sometimes you use that physical proximity as a crutch to not properly document and communicate everything, since you can just talk to the person next to you. So I think remote work really requires you to log things better long-term.
Another thing remote work can do, and I can already tell, is document communications well. And I think, honestly, sometimes when people are working out of an office, sometimes you use that physical proximity as a crutch to not properly document and communicate everything, since you can just talk to the person next to you. So I think remote work really requires you to log things better long-term.
Range has this tool that they use called HipChat. It’s chatroom software, and there’s a room for each project that they have. And I was able to get it added to various projects and rooms. And I could see all the communications for those projects going back several weeks. And I could even see code deployments that were getting notifications sent to these rooms, so I could see what code was being written for those projects. So, you develop systems when you’re remote like that—and I haven’t experienced it full-on yet—but from a communications perspective it made it really easy for me to see what Range had going on really quickly.
I’m the first full-time person they’ve added, since the three of them formed as a partnership. So I’m a bit of a guinea pig, too. But I think there’s plenty of proof in the WordPress ecosystem, from Automattic on down, that remote teams can certainly work together and be successful. And a lot of the growth that a lot of WordPress consultants have seen wouldn’t be possible if they were limited to a certain geographic location.
On WordPress blogging
Advice to WordPress bloggers
F: If someone wanted to be a WordPress developer or a voice in the WordPress community—what kind of to-dos or not-to-dos would you tell that person?
More than anything else, blogging about what I’ve learned has helped set me apart.
B: Number one would just be, be curious. Curiosity will lead you to new places, to introducing yourself to new people, to learning what other people are doing who’ve gone before you, and, to a degree, mimicking some of what they’ve done. For me, reading and learning and trying things out naturally led to writing.
More than anything else, blogging about what I’ve learned has helped set me apart, and has encouraged the people who’ve hired me to be willing to take a chance on me, because they can see what I’m thinking right there on a blog post.
F: What’s driven you to take you the extra step from learning about something to actually writing about it?
B: To a degree, anyone that publishes anything online—whether it’s a blog or just tweeting links—to a degree it’s vanity. [Laughter] We read something and we assume, Okay, I need to put this in front of the other people that I have any source of influence on. That’s why we put our opinions on Facebook and our links on Twitter. And those of us who’ve ventured beyond that and blogged—we are high off a comment, or a good day of traffic. [Laughter] There’s a significant amount of vanity there, I’m sure.
I like to think that if I’m going to spend my time learning something, I might as well share it.
To be a little more purist than that, I like to think that if I’m going to spend my time learning something, I might as well share it. And any ancillary benefits that come from that are great. And for me the benefits that have come from that have been tremendous—essentially, a platform to be able to inform other people, and maybe alter their decisions, or even affect the people I write about. If I can have any positive impact, that’s extremely rewarding.
F: You’re not necessarily a psychologist—but do you have any advice for shy people, people who flinch at social media?
B: Well, I’ve never been shy, for one, so it’s hard for me to say. But I don’t know that shy people need to be shy online. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about the internet: this degree of protection you have. Although, on a podcast like this, that shyness is a little more difficult to overcome.
If you’re writing—I always like to write to someone, or to a specific audience. So if I were to say, “I want to write to the whole world,” it’s probably gonna be pretty boring. But if I write to a co-worker, imagine I’m informing them about something, being specific enough to have an opinion on it or give a recommendation, it can feel more like a one-on-one conversation, and less like you and the big, wide scary world.
The WordPress content ecosystem
F: How do you see the WordPress content ecosystem? What do you think there’s too much of, what’s there not enough of?
I wish I saw fewer lists. I think if people are going to recommend themes or plugins, it’s not actually that useful to be recommended five ways to do one thing.
B: I wish I saw fewer lists. I think if people are going to recommend themes or plugins, it’s not actually that useful to be recommended five ways to do one thing. I’d rather someone would recommend one way to do something, give a detailed description of how to do it and why it’s a good decision, and, for the list aspect of it, what alternatives there are if the first solution doesn’t fit someone. [With a simple list] you have to try all five—and then that person has something valuable, because then they can exclude the ones that are terrible.
I actually have an example, called Sell With WP. They’re doing a series comparing e-commerce plugins. Most times I’ve ever seen that, it’s terrible—but this one is much more in-depth, and it gives one to two thousand words at least reviewing the plugin: things it has, things it doesn’t have, what it’s useful for. And these are from people who actually make e-commerce websites—so it’s people who I trust more, and they’re writing more in-depth guides as to when and why you would use certain tools. I think that’s useful. I wish there was more of that.
However, creating good content is really hard. And as big as the WordPress ecosystem is, it’s pretty difficult to cultivate a large community around content, especially the content that’s, in my opinion, better. As much as we can hate on these lists, if you write a post that says, “Here’s five SEO plugins you need to check out,” you might get lots of people to read that, even if it’s relatively useless compared to a post that says, “Here’s the proper way to create a custom query on WordPress,” where you write three thousand words about all the intricacies of the Loop—your audience just got a whole lot smaller. [Laughs.]
F: Even though you did a lot more work.
I will probably never have a hundred thousand unique people who consider themselves fans of my website. But it’s possible to have one thousand or five thousand—and if it’s the right one thousand or the right five thousand, then I don’t mind.
B: Right. So it’s an interesting battle. However, I’ve decided for myself, I will probably never have a hundred thousand unique people who consider themselves fans of my website. But it’s possible to have one thousand or five thousand people that regularly read your website—and if it’s the right one thousand or the right five thousand, then I don’t mind. If it’s the core development team, the people running businesses on WordPress, the people freelancing on WordPress, power users at huge publishers—if those are my readers, then I’m pretty darn happy.
Guidelines for creating content
F: Do you anything aside from putting out really high quality content to try to attract high-quality readers?
B: I try just not to waste people’s time. That’s really the biggest reason I went to a link format for a lot of stuff. And I started the site with that in mind as well: it’s like, “Let’s just deliver people to the best content.” So I would try to link something up I thought was valuable, send them to the source. And it’s very rewarding to me if I can say, “Hey, I sent a couple hundred page views to some dude’s website, who spent a lot of time writing about the theme customizer.” That’s really nice, to be able to do that. And also, I didn’t write a useless three-paragraph summary of that post and then link to it, I just linked to it with a couple sentences about why I thought it was a good post. I love to be able to support someone else’s content that way.
And then, when I do my own content—like a full-length post—I try to make it valuable. I spend time talking to people. I try to use their project, I try to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I try to post with those things in mind. And that’s pretty hard, but I hope that it’s valuable to people. When I said there’s not enough good tutorials out there, I’d say it’s because that’s even harder than what I’m talking about. [Laughs.] You have to know the best way to do something, and then communicate that clearly.
You can post once a week, and if you’re saying something valuable, then you’ll definitely gain some traction in the community.
I’m looking at a blog post from July, and I remember writing this because I probably spent three or four hours researching on it, even though I knew what I was saying was the right thing. But explaining it the right way, and saying why something is the right thing, took me a long time. It ended up being a relatively short post, but something I spent a lot of time on. I don’t know how many people read it, but probably not that many. However, I think I’m able to say that what I ended up putting here is good advice. And if you can do that consistently, then you don’t have to post every day. You can post once a week, and if you’re saying something valuable, then you’ll definitely gain some traction in the community.
Revenue models for bloggers
D: What is your sense of ethics or responsibility around blogging? I think poststat.us has a really interesting monetization or advertisting model—where does that fit into the WordPress ecosystem, and why have you picked what you did there?
B: Well, I definitely didn’t pick what I’ve done for the money. I just started monetizing poststat.us about three months ago. And The Theme Foundry’s a great partner. But I don’t have a huge audience, and for any type of advertisting to give a good deal to the people advertising with you—traffic is a big part of that. So what we did, instead, was to say, “Here’s a prominent place on the website, and you’re the exclusive partner, and you get brand recognition in a very niche audience that’s applicable to what you do. And it’s just you. It’s not rotating ads, it’s not ten different advertisers. It’s going to be clear that I recommend your products, and I like your products, I’ve used your products, and you’re the partner for the site.”
I think it’s been great, and it really fits in line with my core values on what doesn’t bother me as a reader. I hate going to websites with thirty ads on them, and the people hosting those advertisements probably never knew anything about those products that are flashing in the sidebar. I think they’re a distraction. But even those don’t make money, anyway.
B: The thing that does make money—that I’m really not doing—is affiliate links. And I think there are people that do affiliate links well, and I think that there are people that do affiliate links poorly. I think if you use something, you like something, you recommend it, then put an affiliate link on there. I don’t have a problem. What happens, though, is people will post content because of the benefits to the affiliate program. So, it might say, “Here are Thirty Themes You Should Check Out,” or “Here Are Five Form Plugins that Are Awesome” and the four most prominent have affiliate links attached to them. And the themes are largely from theme vendors that have good affiliate payouts. I don’t like that so much. It does reduce trustworthiness. And, for me, I’d rather not have that revenue, and keep those right readers that I was talking about, because it definitely affects the way some people read.
I talk to a lot of people that do these products too, and I want to be able to say good things, bad things—all sorts of things—about their products, and I think it introduces a whole new area of strangeness if you have some kind of affiliate relationship with the same people you’re writing about.
Now, there may be a day where I put a link to my host in the footer. But that’s because I pay for hosting, and if I recommend my host, maybe I will be fine with it. But I talk to a lot of people that do these products too, and I want to be able to say good things, bad things—all sorts of things—about their products, and I think it introduces a whole new area of strangeness if you have some kind of affiliate relationship with the same people you’re writing about. So, for myself, I prefer not to have it, even though I know I could make a lot more money if I did.
D: Do you feel like responsible disclosure is adequate, or that you still don’t trust someone, even if they’re disclosing that it’s an affiliate link?
B: Disclosing affiliate links is definitely the way to go if you’re going to do it. I prefer it to be in a sidebar, or in the footer, or under a toolset type of thing. If you put it in a post, you put in a post—I don’t hate it. I think some people are able to post about things with affiliate links and I’m able to trust the content. But it just makes me question it, especially if I don’t know you yet.
I think you gain trust easier without the affiliate links. I’ve had a lot of conversations with Syed Balkhi at WPBeginner about this—because he knows I’m a little bit of a purist about it, so I don’t put them up. But he uses the products he has affiliate links for at WPBeginner, and that’s fine. I still wouldn’t put fifteen of them on there—on a lot of posts—and I pick on him about that. But it’s not really affecting his readers and their trust of him, and he’s been very consistent for a long time. So, for him it works. But there are definitely people out there who want the affiliate revenue, they think they can make a quick buck, and they’re going to slap as many in there as they can for that reason. And I don’t like that.
Plus, I think there are more creative models for revenue that don’t exist yet, or that haven’t been fully fleshed out yet, and I’m looking forward to see some of that occur, to see what can happen in the revenue space.
The state and future of WordPress
Working with WordPress
D: On a day-to-day basis, how are you using WordPress and what problems are you solving with it?
B: Well, I make websites. When I do my job well, I’m able to have a conversation with a client, or with a stakeholder, or someone, find out what problems they’re trying to solve, and come up with a way to fix them. My day-to-day stuff is mostly what I like to call “theme and light plugin development.” So, CSS, HTML, PHP.
D: How do you think WordPress helps you solve the problems that you’re discovering for your clients? Is there a reason it’s not Drupal or that kind of thing?
It’s clear that what makes WordPress different is that it’s easier to use than other CMSes. Compared to tools that have existed—for such a powerful tool that can be extended into a really powerful content management system—nothing comes close.
B: I’m not super-opinionated on the underlying architecture of CMSes. But it’s clear that what makes WordPress different is that it’s easier to use than other CMSes, even though there’s a huge trend that says WordPress is too hard to use for basic publishing. But when you compare it to tools like Drupal or Joomla!, WordPress is really easy to set up, and it’s really easy to tinker your way through things. I do still think it takes a partially technical person to use it. Hopefully that’ll change over time to where it’s as easy as writing a tweet or posting to Facebook or writing on Medium.
But compared to tools that have existed—for such a powerful tool that can be extended into a really powerful content management system—nothing comes close. A good example, if you all want to look it up, is Yuri Victor, who works for The Washington Post. He did a presentation at WordCamp San Francisco this year, and in it there’s a screenshot of the Post CMS—and it’s amazing. [Laughter] It’s just so complicated. So you put WordPress in the hands of a journalist or someone who’s been on the web before, and they’re just in love immediately.
Usability of WordPress
F: A lot of the time, it really does seem to take someone who is kind of HTML or CSS proficient to make a particular post or page’s content look how you want. Do you see that changing? And what do you think the roadblocks are? For example, I think TinyMCE might be holding WordPress back in terms of becoming an easy-to-use publishing platform for non-technical people.
I remember showing my mother-in-law how to edit the About page… She was like, “I don’t know what to type.” And it was like, “The text is right there.” But it looked like a scary system and she didn’t want to touch anything.
B: I would actually back up a notch from saying you need to know HTML and CSS. I think if the system is in place for you, then you can be very proficient at publishing, creating, and curating content with WordPress, just by knowing how to manipulate the tools. If your web site’s flexible enough, you should be able to do what you need to do, without HTML and CSS.
But, I agree with you, even for those people it would be nice if there were a lower barrier to entry. I remember showing my mother-in-law how to edit the About page on my sister-in-law’s website. And I pressed the “edit page” button in the toolbar, and she was like, “I don’t know what to type.” And it was like, “The text is right there.” But it was in TinyMCE, the whole view changed, and it didn’t look like the About page to her, it looked like a scary system and she didn’t want to touch anything.
So that’s what we need to really work on. And there’s some work being done there. There’s a project right now where people are working on front-end editing. There’s a project for content blocks that is really fascinating, and that could help with creating more art-directed content, and make it easier for people to do things.
There’s a lot of work to be done there, but I agree with you, and I think a lot of the core developers would agree with you: TinyMCE is not an awesome tool. Unfortunately, it’s kind of the best of the worst. It’s the tool that’s available, that we’re invested in in WordPress core, and we aren’t quite at the place where we’re ready to replace it. On things like making the admin responsive without mobile apps, TinyMCE is essentially the only thing holding that up, because getting it below a certain number of pixels—I don’t know how many, 400 or 500—is really difficult. It’s one of the biggest places where WordPress has got to make some decisions and evolve.
WordPress was really easy to use in comparison to tools that existed; but in comparison to some tools that now exist, WordPress might not be as easy anymore. And as tools continue to simplify, WordPress needs to evolve with them, and continue to get simpler and simpler, but to do so while maintaining that power it has. And that’s a very interesting dilemma.
The JSON API
F: Do you see WordPress finally breaking backwards compatibility for some things? How do you see that evolving from here out?
I personally think that we’ll eventually be able to create our own admin. So the default admin will be there, and wil be an option, but it won’t be what we’re required to use.
B: I personally think that, as developers and consultants, we’ll eventually be able to create our own admin. So the default admin will be there, and will be an option, but it won’t be what we’re required to use. And I think the JSON API has been worked on a lot recently, and is going to make its way into core—3.8 or 3.9, I think, if I remember correctly. Ryan McCue did most of the development for that on a Google Summer of Code project.
D: Do you think core is actually going to get there, to the point where it’s possible to do the entire admin just through an API, and maybe the admin itself is using that same publicly available API, or do you think there could be a lot of tension and holdup there?
B: I don’t think there’d be a lot of friction for that. And what you said in the second part, is what I think would be really great: WordPress itself using the API for the default admin. I talked to WP Remote a good bit and then posted about their relaunched service. They built an API, and then they used their own API to create the admin to manage websites from.
I think WordPress could do something similar, and for the default admin, you can use the 80-20 Rule that WordPress likes to abide by. You can create this admin for 80% of users that works great right out of the box. But with the API, you can really enable people to do fascinating things with WordPress because of the power of the API itself. And I don’t see how that goes against any core beliefs. I think it’s something that would fit very much in line with the type of development that core development goes under.
WordPress as an app platform
D: Do you have an opinion on the idea of WordPress as an app platform? Jake Goldman has a piece about his reservations about that. Do you have an opinion about that?
B: One of the things about being able to blog consistently for the past few years is that I’m pretty opinionated about anything someone asks me about. [Laughter]
I think WordPress could totally be an app platform. I think there’s probably been some decisions made in the history of WordPress that make it harder—like various naming mechanisms. The word “blog” is still all over core. Things like that make it a little challenging, but I don’t think they’re things that can’t be overcome. And I personally think WordPress does a lot of things really great right out of the box, like the ability to add and publish types of content, and manage users, and have theming and a plugin set up that’s extremely extensible. If you’re going to have an app platform, to have features like that in combination with an easy to use UI I think can be pretty powerful. But I think before it’s good at it, there’s probably a ways to go.
Big Dumb Question
F: Where do you see WordPress in five years?
B: [Laughs] Well, what was five years ago? 2008—which was right when I got involved with WordPress. At that time, I think, widgets were introduced—custom menus weren’t fully introduced yet, and custom post types weren’t out yet. Or, at least, not the API like we use it today—which came with 3.0. Multi-site and regular WordPress were still two different things, and bbPress was still a different thing, not add-ons to WordPress itself. That’s a lot of change in the last five years, and I think we’ll probably see that change amplified in the next five years. I think it’ll be dramatically different. But I think it’ll still be a tool that’s excellent at publishing. Matt Mullenweg likes to use the phrase, he wants to “democratize publishing.”
So, I think that the core goals of WordPress, the core beliefs of WordPress will still exist, and I think there’s room to grow. I’d like to see by that time, 30% or 40% of the internet running WordPress. But that could have a whole lot of different looks to it, like we talked about earlier. People could be using WordPress in totally different ways from one another. So, we’ll see—I hope to be making my living from it in five years, that’s for sure.
F: Well, Brian, on behalf of me and David, this has been really fun for us, and we really enjoyed this, and we really appreciate you taking the time to sit down with us.
B: I appreciate you all having me on.