Blogs are supposed to be about writing. Real, authentic, personal, heartfelt writing. The very word blog comes from the words web and log, a log of your thoughts on the web. But by and large, blogs have gotten complicated. 15 million widgets, word clouds, flashing ads, and more drive most people to just use social networks and forget the mess and confusion of blogging.
If installing WordPress on your hosting account or tweaking a Tumblr account to your liking sounds like more trouble than it’s worth just to publish your thoughts on the web, then get ready for a breath of fresh air. How about just saving plain text files with Markdown formatting to a folder in Dropbox, and having them published directly online? That’s what Calepin offers.
Plain Text Publishing, Powered by Dropbox
If you think about it, there’s one type of file you can almost guarantee will always be readable on almost any computing platform imaginable: plain text files. Plain text with various markup thrown in is the basis behind HTML, CSS, picture metadata, the XML settings files used in so many apps, and more. We’ve grown used to writing documents in Word, saving notes in propritary apps, and blogging with complex CMS systems, though, that plain text files on their own don’t seem so important.
Throw in a syncing service, though, and plain text can be very useful. That’s the idea behind Simplenote and dozens of other mobile notes and writing apps. For the most part, just text is enough to save any idea you need, and with some markup formatting, you can make full essays, blog posts, and more without anything more than a text editor.
Calepin takes this idea to the extreme, turning plain text files with Markdown formatting in a Dropbox synced folder into a no-hassle blog. It’s easy enough, anyone can do it. It’s a refreshing change from more complex blogging systems that seem more bent on adding widgets and social networking features rather than making the very best environment for writing.
Setting up your Calepin-powered blog couldn’t be easier. Just enter a username you want, which will be your unique site address (ala username.calepin.co), and click Sign up. And don’t worry: if you want to change your name, you can always do that in the future, and your original links will redirect to the new address. Then, just authenticate and allow the app in Dropbox. You’ll notice a new Dropbox/Apps/Calepin folder on your computer moments later, with a sample Markdown formatted post inside.
Back at Calepin’s site, you can add a title for your site that will be printed on the top of your pages and will show in the browser tab when your site is open. You can additionally add a Disqus account to allow comments on your posts, and a Twitter account to have your avatar and a Follow button if you want. If you want to keep things absolutely minimalist, though, feel free to leave them out. The last step is to hit Publish, but you might want to get a blog post written up first.
Now, it’s time to write
Writing your blog post is the easy part, and the hard part. The easy part is getting it written. Just write anything you want with your favorite plain text editor, including the date of the post and the title in the format seen in the screenshot below or on Calepin’s site. Then, just write your full post as you would normally, adding Markdown formatting when you want. Markdown is simple to use, but if you’re not used to writing with Markdown, check out John Gruber’s Markdown documentation for more info.
Now, all you need to do is save your file in your Dropbox/Apps/Calepin folder, and it’s ready to be published as soon as Dropbox syncs the file. This makes it incredibly easy to publish posts from anywhere: your favorite desktop text editor, or a mobile app that syncs with Dropbox. Just make sure you save your file with a .md extension and utf-8 formatting (default on OS X or Linux, but you may need to specify that in Windows), and even if it’s plain text without any extra Markdown formatting, it’ll be posted when you publish your site.
Congratulations, the hard part is finished. The hardest part of writing should be thinking about the words and thoughts you’re putting down, not how to get them published, and Calepin lets you focus just on your text. As soon as you’ve got your post (or posts, if you’re über-ambitious) saved in Dropbox, just head back to Calepin.co and hit Publish. This time, it’ll publish your first new post, but later, when you’ve written tons of posts, Calepin will continue to check older files for changes and make sure everything’s updated. That way, you can write new posts or edit new ones, right from your computer.
On your Calepin site, you’ll see a list of all of your posts on the front page. Then, your individual posts will be on their own pages, using the original file name you used for the file, except now with a HTML extension. You can’t tweak the design, but if you’re looking for a minimilist blog design that emphasizes text, this is already almost perfect, similar to Instapaper’s view. Any included images or other media will be shown just as you expected. And, if you included your Twitter or Disqus accounts, you’ll see your icon and comment fields, respectively.
If you’ve been looking for a dead-simple way to blog without worrying about settings or themes or anything else, this may be the perfect solution for you. It’s a great option for Markdown geeks, but it’s an equally great option for any user, really. It doesn’t require a geeky setup: just a Dropbox account, 2 minute setup, and Markdown (or honestly, plain text) files. That’s it.
Going forward, I’d love to see support for custom domains, and perhaps a self-hosted version that would be almost just as simple to setup on your own servers. Beyond that, though, I rather like the lack of options. It forces you to focus on writing, and with a blog, that’s what’s most important.