Getting Started Blogging with Drummer

I recently started blogging with Drummer, a new Outliner made public by Dave Winer. It has been a wonderful experience. I don’t know what it is about a single outline as a base for your blog, but it feels natural. I have been enjoying writing and playing around with my Drummer blog. However, it is not easy to fathom the simplicity of the whole system just through words — only trying it out will make you appreciate the ease. I wanted to capture what it is and how to quickly get started with it for myself and others to follow.

Drummer documentation captures most of this information. But for someone, like me, who’s new to the concept of outliner, the whole stuff can be pretty overwhelming. So, here I capture what I learned and liked so that it helps other newbies like me.

What’s an Outliner?

An outliner is basically an editor that can edit an outline. What is an outline, you ask? Well, outline is text items represented in a hierarchy, with each item having a parent (typically a title) or multiple sub-items (typically related points). There’s a lot more to know, but I am more focused on drawing a parallel with regular blogging terminologies.

You can think of a first parent item as a title of your post. Each sub-item that follows is like a new paragraph. You can further divide the items into sub-items, that’s grouping related points into a subtitle for example. The only difference is instead of it being represented as a header and list of paragraphs, it is a tree-structure of points, closely related and unrelated.

If a post doesn’t have any child, it’s a titleless post, a micro-post — something like a tweet.

Dave Winer is the strongest proponent of using the outlines as the base for the blogs, he uses them for his blog, Scripting News. The basic hierarchical structure of an outline, makes using outliner for blogging powerful. Both the types of posts, long-form and micro, sit well together. After all, it’s just one long list of text items one after another. Whether they have a sub-item or not define how they get represented. Or that’s how Dave likes them represented.

Drummer is one such outliner that benefits from the years of Dave’s experience. He has understood all the nitty-gritty of blogging through this form. So, once you overcome the initial struggle of unknown, the experience is pretty smooth.

Is it a Blogging CMS?

Not really, Drummer is just a web application that can edit outlines. These outlines are typically represented as an OPML file. Basically, all you do with Drummer is edit OPML files of different forms. It wraps a few special OPML files — mainly blog.opml — to give them specific meaning while using them as base for blogging.

But, all we do is edit these OPML files then, what builds the blog?

Well, the software that runs Dave’s blog does that job. It is called Old School (because Dave believes this is the old school way of blogging) and is hosted by Dave. In a way, Old School is the blogging CMS and not Drummer.

So, from my understanding, the way the thing connect is as below.

  1. You sign in with your Twitter account and that creates the necessary backend — basically a S3 store for your OPML files — based on your Twitter username.
  2. You create, view, edit the OPML files using Drummer. The special files like blog.opml and about.opml hold special meaning for Old School. (Update: In fact, about.opml is just used for representation. You can name it anything.) So, you update them and through a command in Drummer (Build my blog), you communicate to Old School server to refresh your blog.
  3. Old School receives the communication and based on provided inputs, it identifies the files to use for building the blog. It reads the OPML files from the backend store for the files and converts them to static files that get served as your blog.
  4. Old School also serves you blog at the http://oldschool.scripting.com/<your-user-name> URL. So in a way, you don’t need to host any additional software.

In a way, then, Drummer and Old School together act as your blogging engine. Drummer is your editor where you write your posts. Old School acts as a CMS to build and serve your blog.

How do I get started?

Dave has a got a handy documentation in place that you can follow. I will point to the relevant parts in the documentation so that you can follow along and get started.

  1. Main blog: Follow the getting started guide to get a blog up and running with Drummer. In short, create a blog.opml outline file. Make the outline public. And finally, build the blog using Tools > Build my blog.... This should open a new tab with your blog rendered with Old School. You can customise your title and description of your blog and a few head-level attributes.
  2. Title and Description: Modify/add the head-level attributes title and description and rebuild your blog.
  3. Header Image: Add a head-level attribute urlHeaderImage pointing to the header image of your choice and rebuild your blog.
  4. Copyright: Add a head-level attribute copyright with the text you want to appear in the footer and rebuild your blog.
  5. About Page: If you want to create a new tab in your blog for your About page, create a new about.opml outline file using Drummer, make the outline public, add a head-level attribute urlAboutOpml pointing to this public outline and build your blog again. (Update: In fact, about.opml is just used for representation. You can name it anything, as long as you configure the value for urlAboutOpml accordingly.)
  6. Link Blog: If the concept of linkblog excites you, you can use another software by Dave, Radio3. Just add a new head-level attribute urlLinkblogJson pointing to your linkblog JSON file, which would look something like http://radio3.io/users/<your-user-name>/linkblog.json.
  7. TimeZone: To make sure the dates are rendered correctly on your blog, add a head-level attribute timeZoneOffset for the place where you would be blogging from. The value should be the offset from UTC — for example, +5:30 for India or -4 for New York.
  8. Creating Post: Head over to your blog.opml file in Drummer and click on the + icon (for New Note), write what you want to write and rebuild your blog. Your post should be up.
  9. Adding Links: Select the text to which you want to add a link, click on the “Link” icon (the second icon from top in the icon bar that sits on the left of the editing area) and insert the URL.
  10. Adding Images: This one’s slightly tricky. First, have your image hosted on some place where it would be accessible publicly. Get the URL to your image. While on the item you want to associate the image with, click on the “Edit attributes” icon (the third icon from top in the icon bar that sits on the left of the editing area). Now you can either create an inline image (with attribute inlineImage), right-margin image (with attribute image), title image (with attribute metaImage). I wish this work was simpler.

At this point, you should have a well-configured blog up and running. Keep Drummer interface open in tab and keep adding entries. This method of updating your blog will soon grow on you.

What else can I customise?

Even though you have all the basics covered till now, there is still a lot that you can and should do. But I would recommend get comfortable working Drummer and check for yourself if the workflow fits your routine and liking. If it doesn’t, these additional configurations are just a distraction.

Anyway, if you find out that you are enjoying this system of blogging, here are links to a few additional configurations that you can perform.

A Few Additional Notes

  1. There’s a Mac app (electron based) called Electric Drummer that can act as an outliner. However, you should avoid using it for blogging if you intend to blog from multiple systems. Changes made through the app can overwrite ones as done on the web Drummer. So thread carefully.
  2. Drummer is evolving. Dave is working hard to make sure all serious reported issues are resolved. Early adopters are trying out a hundred things independently. If that sounds fun, the Drummer support issues page is the place to go.
  3. You can stay-to-date with all things Drummer by following this official blog.
  4. How does Drummer cost zero? Dave answers.
  5. Why is Drummer, and other software from Dave, so tightly coupled with Twitter? Dave answers.

I intend to use Drummer as a place where I form my thoughts over the time. The ease of the updating process makes posting unformed thoughts a breeze. So, in a way, this space represents the most raw me. You can follow this me as he experiments with my Drummer blog. And of course, there’s an RSS feed.

Reminder to self. Stop being too serious about what and where I post. Be aware, though.

Of course, I am giving Drummer a try. I have got the basics set up the way I like it. I know there are a hundred other things that I can do. But I want to understand how things work with Outliners first. The link blog based on Radio3 is a nice addition that I can use for sure.

Would you call yourself an editor of your blog? I prefer the word writer.

Why Do I Write?

Don’t write for others, write for yourself. Most long-time writers give this advice to someone who is just getting started. Actually, screw that. Every person who does any amount (and form) of writing gives this advice to every other person who wishes to do some form of writing.

Easy advice for others, but very difficult to follow oneself. To be frank, what does “not to write for others” even mean? Or write only for yourself?

I write when my mind blanks out. I write when my mind gets crowded. Most of the time, I write as I comment on something I read or listened to. At times, a thought makes me go, “Hmm, that’s curious. I should write more about it.” Occasionally, I write because I want to force myself to write.

Writing something, anything, makes me focused. It calms me down. “I write because I have an innate need to write,” says Orhan Pamuk. More often than not, I share his sentiment.

But I am not perfect. I also write because I want others to read my writing. Trigger a conversation. Read what others think about my thoughts. As an introvert, that’s my only way to open up to others. I don’t care how many people read what I write. As long as I know that some do.

Numbers don’t matter to me. Conversations do.

On a philosophical level, everybody understands this belief of “not writing for others”. Write what your mind wants you to write, don’t write what others want you to.

You write because your thoughts are important. You write because you are brave and willing to expose those thoughts. But, most importantly, you write because you have something to say.

A fascinating perspective. It is worded succinctly, but it still is philosophical. Everybody has something to say. But not everybody writes. So, what motivates you to put your thoughts in words?

The thing with debugging issues is that sometimes, the systems just don’t want to work. Especially late at night. If it isn’t a life or death sort of issue, just sleep over it.

Why? Why do I sign up for upgrading platforms late in the night? My sleep has been ruined a lot many times than what I am proud of. Sigh!

After a two-weeks break away from all the timelines, it was good to scroll through a couple of them today.

The break also made me realise that I have made a few new friends online, especially from the wonderful community at Micro.blog. I missed the interactions with these folks. Each one of them is a brilliant creator in his or her own way. Bloggers. Photographers. Writers. They all are natural. They all inspire me.

I feel at home here, feel am part of this community. Not a feeling many platforms online can cultivate within you. It’s wonderful to be back and read through the lively discussions. The growth hasn’t dented the warmth, something that is pretty palpable here.

Isn’t it fascinating that there are two services so similarly named, Discourse and Discord, being used by different platforms as discussion boards for their users? I always get confused between the two. I like one, I hate the other.

By the way, here’s a meta update which I forgot to put out there. I have ended the trial of the Glass app — the subscription price was hefty for my usage. I am not a photographer, you see. So, I did not fit there. At the same time, I decided to pay for Ulysses and Reeder. I love both the apps, and they reduce that slight friction from the two activities that I love doing.

I updated my Now page today, the weekly reminders help. Sure, I don’t update the page every week. But I am doing that way frequently than what I would otherwise.

Some newsletters are just too long for my liking. I can read long ones if they are genuine essays, someone sharing what they are or have gone through. Some life experiences. Or something of interest for them. But when you curate, and still have hoards of links to some external content, I am not in. In short, long texts are fine for me. Not 100s of links.

When you say you curate, you should curate. Not include link to everything that you and your friends read.

If you were to take a guess, when do you think the term “microblogging” was first coined? Another term that was gaining popularity the same year was “vodcast”. I am relieved it didn’t catch on — neither the term nor the media format.

I modified my homepage today to group posts by date and sort in chronological order in the day. Why? I never liked the reverse-chronological order across.

It’s crazy how one’s mind works. Here are two posts separated by 4 years. I recently published one a couple of weeks back. I had published another in 2017. Both the posts talk about a similar observation, about the constant fight between the coder and a writer in me. It reads in such a similar manner. The choice of words, the structure, the flow. It should be pretty apparent to anyone who reads it that both the posts come from the mind. From the same author.

Surprisingly, when I wrote the recent post, I had no clue that I had written about the same topic earlier some time. In a way, then, the adage that “there’s no original work being written, but just rewrites” is not that far off.

Ulysses looks to be a really great app for writing all types of posts. Sure, it does not work cross platform - something I dearly wish it did. But I have iA Writer for that. My big problem at this point is I have no clue what editors I am paying for currently, for which platforms and in what form - subscriptions from Google Play Store, App Store or I have them out right purchased. I need to sort this mess up pretty soon. Sigh!

I see the dark mode is enabled for Micro.blog on the web. Nice to see the update @manton @vincent. However, to my eyes, there’s too much contrast with the choice of colors. For some reason, it strains my eyes. The changes are welcome, but felt this was a necessary feedback.

I am reading many people's writing process today and am absolutely stunned at how simple my writing needs are. I don't write drafts after drafts in any tool. All my drafts are one line ideas in my notebook or saved articles with tags "to-write". I find time for writing and complete a post about an idea or article.

For that matter, most of my posts are spontaneous -- I get a thought and I put it down into a post. I don't insert too many images, individual or as part of the posts. Sure, there are times when I need to spend time on researching or explaining some projects that I am working on. Or when I am writing a fiction. Such posts are very rare, though (and continue to become even rarer as the time goes on).

Plus, I like writing in Markdown. But I am not too attached to the language. I could very well go about writing posts after posts without using any of the Markdown syntax. The most I do is emphasize a word or a line. It won't matter to me how I do it. That said, I continue to enjoy writing my post in Markdown editors and would do that wherever I get a chance.

There was a time when all my posts originated in some text editor installed on my laptop. But that's not the case any more. Most of the posts that I write are in a portal of sorts hosted on web - mainly Quill. (I wish Micro.blog had a better writing interface, though. The current one is too basic and doesn't work well for longer posts). On a mobile device, I only write microposts and I would post them from some Micropub client -- I use Micro.blog apps (Gluon or Dialog) or Indigenous.

All in all, I have realized I have a simple publishing workflow. I open a web or mobile app, put down my thoughts and hit publish. So, what use do I have for the text editors any more?

I dislike the fact that I have published very few long form posts recently. It's as if I can only think in micro form. Should it matter? I don't think so. But I have slowly come to the realization that I am writing with one eye on the character count. It's really foolish of me to do that. But I do this subconsciously.

Somewhere deep down, a thread also continuously evaluates how the post is going to look in a timeline -- the only one where I believe it matters would be Micro.blog. Again, it's foolish. But I have realized it affects me. If it didn't, I would be publishing more posts with titles.

I need to bring my mind out of the habit to character check my posts.

I am happy with the format that I’ve settled on for my newsletter Slanting Nib. A regular personal update followed by the recommended reads. Plus a colorful artwork from India. It’s simple enough for me to curate and I feel should be clean enough for the readers to follow.

“The happiness of loneliness” - such a curious phrase from my yesterday’s post. I really enjoyed reading this one a day after. I like to reflect on my posts from past. There’s on this day for the yearly reflection; for the daily one, I’ve setup an email digest. Tinkering time.

The reminder that Patrick Rhone inspired me to set seems to be working. This is a second update to my /now page in the last one month. Nice!

Revisiting 2020 through the /now page

I updated my /now page today after a long time. I usually maintain a thought’s archive as part of the page for the updates that are no longer relevant. The idea behind is revisiting the thoughts that once were at the top of my mind is another way for me to retrospect.

Today I’ve reset that section for 2021. And below is an unadulterated list of the thought archive from 2020 – so in a way a snapshot (incomplete, sure) of the year that went by.

  • I’m trying to get into a habit of regular meditation. I want to give it a chance again.
  • I’m in love with the Hamilton soundtrack. I keep going back to it every now and then.
  • Study Café Album on Spotify has been my go-to album every time I want to focus. If that fails, the real café ambient noise from Coffitivity does the job.
  • I have started writing frequently now. The simpler writing workflow with WordPress is helping.
  • Need to get the backup solution for posts (probably in WordPress) addressed.
  • Focus on deciding on the format, the frequency and the tone of the newsletter.
  • Where would my blog go next? Or will it stay here? It would most probably not be WordPress
  • I want a better writing interface. Or maybe not? Why do I want to create something perfect myself?
  • Need to get to the improvements planned for Wall.
  • Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write.
  • I need to finish the couple of books I had started reading in the last month
  • Implement a micropub client. Get anything working. Without UI. Dropped the idea
  • Getting used to the new normal.
  • Write about and share details about Wall. Feedback and issues.
  • Get IndieLogin working – just been too long now
  • Get distracted with the side projects, again. IndieWeb’s done.
  • Start reading and writing again
  • Stop procrastinating items from must-do list
  • Fix issue with webmentions from Brid.gy
  • Send webmentions to target on replies/likes
  • Support for updates in blotpub
  • Decision on upcoming nearby travel
  • Handle crossposting to Twitter and Mastodon for longer posts
  • Style webmentions section to my liking. It is too bloated in the current form
  • Start \now page to be updated regularly
  • Consolidate all my online content onto a single place (most probably blot)
  • Move old content from Hugo to archive (a Hugo site)
  • Change stuff around

If you maintain a /now page like I do, what do you write in there? What’s a good enough update? I keep swinging between very text-heavy and too terse – I haven’t found the right balance yet.

The first “promise” Ghost 4.0 makes is “Turn your audience into a business.”. The first “feature” that it calls out is the dashboard “with detailed stats on audience engagement and business growth”. The answer to my question is clearly not for a blogger like me.