It is difficult not to fall in love (insofar as such emotions have been called love) with Posterous, the fast-growing mini-blogging service, especially in comparison to its bigger competitor Tumblr. In contrast to the insider ethos that Tumblr (ironically, currently the larger service) actively embraces, Posterous eschews the superficially hip for the genuinely productive, when it comes to features.
At a time when conventional wis[h]dom holds that email is dead, Posterous acknowledges the continuing relevance, I dare say centrality, of email (both in terms of usage and usability, especially when it comes to non-technical users; the people whom social networking services should be most sensitive to) by providing not just posting capabilities via email, but also post redistribution via email to subscribers — not to forget commenting via email. Heck, you can create a new blog by just emailing firstname.lastname@example.org… no signup required! And that is just the tip of the iceberg of “Posterine” user-friendliness.
Posterous is clever about recognising links within your post and converting them to links to sites or embedded video (YouTube, Vimeo, others), or picking up attached photos (sent via email) and building a neat photo gallery out of them. It is particularly well suited for family/group blogs, with support for multiple contributors, the aforementioned post distribution and commenting through email, and password protection.
Want to autopost or forward your posts to Twitter? Facebook? Your other blog? Posterous can do that. And it can do that with clever capabilities for power users (e.g: you can add tags to posts, choose to forward posts on an individual basis by post or by service, add Twitter hashtags). Want to live photoblog your precious child’s visit to the zoo for the entertainment of other family members? There’s an app for that. It’s called PicPosterous (for the iPhone) and it’s as intuitive to use as Posterous is.
And demonstrating that Posterous is no light-weight, pros are rewarded with features like URL shortening, Twitter media hosting, custom domain names, theming and Google Analytics support.
Trouble in Paradise
The problem with Posterous is, in reality, the problem of inhabiting that nebulous space between a short message system like Twitter and a full-blown blogging platform like WordPress or a CMS like Drupal. Twitter makes it easy for its users and itself by imposing severe limits on what is possible (short text messages, literally no markup or presentation) which appear as a feature (simplicity). WordPress, especially when used in conjunction with the plethora of plugins available, offers to solve almost any problem the user can imagine, sacrificing ease of use, to some extent, in the process.
What is Posterous to do? If it adds too many features (a.k.a bloat) it might alienate those who found the simple (and email based) interface friendly. Not enough features might, on the other hand, sour “power” users to the service. Thus far, the fellows at Posterous have cleverly trod this fine line by offering advanced features without introducing many new UI elements (want to add tags? add them using a specific syntax to the subject of your email). Whether they will succeed at this balancing act remains to be evaluated keeping in mind some of the missing capabilities and annoyances listed below (after all the title of this post says “a critical look”):
Autoposting and multiple blogs
One attractive feature that Posterous offers is the ability to have more than one blog against your Posterous account. That’s nice, and based on the idea that you may want to compartmentalise your various personae. The problem is that when you setup autopost, a mechanism that ties your Posterous account to your other accounts (Twitter, Facebook, etc), there is currently no mechanism to create this relationship on a per Posterous blog basis, so that I can autopost my personal Posterous site to my personal Twitter and my tech Posterous site to my tech Twitter account.
There are some tricks you can play, if you post via email, to alleviate this problem, but those are limited by the overloaded syntax of the email address formats parsed by Posterous. The details are too intricate to cover in this post, but visit the Posterous help page, the Advanced Autopost section, for a peek into these treacherous grounds.
Another nit with autoposting is that Posterous tags are converted to WordPress categories, not tags. A cursory look at the WordPress XML-RPC interface suggests that this is not a WordPress limitation, but more investigation is needed before I can blame this one on Posterous.
Group Blogging and Email Distribution
As noted and extolled, Posterous works splendidly for group blogs, in particular family blogs where some family members may be more comfortable with email than with newer technologies. With its ability to send and accept posts and comments through email, Posterous makes life easier for such users.
But there is a catch. There are two ways in which someone might receive a post (or comment) via email. One, he or she is a contributor to the site. When a new post is added to the site a notification is sent to all contributors, but the catch is that this happens only for emailed contributions, not for ones created using the web interface or bookmarklet. Subscribers to a Posterous site, however, are thankfully distributed all posts made to the site, in a daily digest format. That is great (despite the delayed gratification!), but there are down sides here as well. For one thing, each recipient will need to create a Posterous account merely to be able to subscribe to the group blog site. Not only is this wasteful, but it takes “easy” out of the list of Posterous’s advantages. Second, the digest notification has, what I consider, a fatal flaw, which merits its own separate section, below.
Email Digest and Indigestion
Though you can receive a daily (or weekly) email digest of Posterous sites you subscribe to, in many if not most cases, you probably do not want to hear from all of them. And Posterous does not offer the granularity of selecting which sites among your subscriptions you wish to have emailed to you. And if, like me, you subscribe to a few voluminous sites with heavy photo content (which you are content to view using just a web browser or RSS reader), your email digest is made literally unreadable by the flood of posts from these few sites.
The chaps at Posterous might respond (somewhat legitimately) that if I plan to consume content using RSS, then why not just drop the Posterous subscription to these sites, and instead subscribe to each one by its individual RSS feed. That is a decent workaround, but surely selective email subscription is not so hard to implement that these workaround are necessary? Perhaps it’s a philosophical thing!
Some smaller nits
- In the photo albums generated by Posterous, when a photograph is selected, photo navigation is possible only through the keyboard (arrow keys). Most Lightbox style galleries (which Posterous’s album mimics somewhat) provide right and left arrow buttons for this purpose.
- Posting via web offers no previews.
- The popup section brought up by the bookmarklet at times obscures the web page being commented on, making it difficult to read or copy/paste relevant text.
- PicPosterous is limited by iPhone capabilities: it is not possible select multiple photos when using PicPosterous to create an album from existing pictures in iPhone albums.
- Posterous sports a highly useful interface to import posts from an abandoned (or soon to be abandoned) blog. Given the coding effort to support this feature, it would have been of added value if the code had been extended to support continuous import (such as provided by Tumblr). There are legitimate cases where such functionality would be valuable.
The complaints with Posterous are small, and the value of the service far outweighs them. Posterous is a great idea and (equally importantly) a great implementation. And it is developed by a team that is not just passionate and dedicated to the application but also responsive and sensitive to its user community. All of which bodes well for their future.