Post Formats are Dead. Long live Post Formats.

WordPress 3.1 birthed Post Formats in early 2011 as a way of introducing Tumblr-like functionality. More than three years later, this functionality is hardly used and underestimated, collecting dust.

Post formats are slowly dying, and that’s okay -Krogsgard

I hope that the way we currently view Post Formats dies. I hope that it crumbles into a pile of ashes. I hope that Post Formats rises from those ashes like a Phoenix.

We’re past the point of throwing a coat of paint on Post Formats and watching it turn into a magical success. We need to take care of the rust underneath and come to terms with what has held Post Formats from reaching its full potential before we can move forward.

From where I and many others stand, there are two specific issues to be addressed. First, positioning it as Tumblr-like functionality, and second, not allowing Post Formats to be extendable.

They felt like an attempt to mimic what Tumblr was doing so well. – Krogsgard

We’re selling Post Formats short if that’s all we think of them.

We’re selling Post Formats short

From the Codex page for Post Formats, the suggested usage section says:

An image post… would typically just contain a single image… An audio/video post would be the same but with audio/video added in.

From the start, Post Formats has been shoved into the corner, applicable only to a super-niche audience. Positioning it as Tumblr-like functionality has done nothing but limit the creativity of those with the ability to implement Post Formats in themes. Aside from giving fairly rigid definitions of how an author should use a given format, for theme developers, we have a struck-in-stone definition of what those formats are and how many we can have (there are 9 formats, plus “standard”).

There’s one thing I seldom see on sites I consume content from: Tumblr-style posts. I don’t go to The New York Times and click on an article only to find that the whole thing was just a picture, or go to TechCrunch to read the latest quote they wanted to share.

I’ll tell you what I do see though: I see content where the most important piece is a video. I see articles that center around a quote or an image. I see posts that contain really cool audio. All of these posts have something that make them unique and special.

Not all posts are created equal

The internet would be dull if every post was a cookie-cutter copy of every other post. Thankfully, they’re not. Authors and editors take great amounts of time to craft beautiful content and capture our attention. When I look at home pages and category pages though, what I see is usually quite different, dull and monotonous: a featured image, a title and an excerpt. All of the uniqueness that exists is hidden from readers when they initially see that post snippet on a homepage.

Something sounds a little bit funny there, now doesn’t it? If an article is based around a video, shouldn’t the reader be given a taste of that before clicking into the full article? If a post contains a gallery, would it make sense to display beautiful images to readers instead of a 180 character excerpt? Shouldn’t they be shown what makes a post important so they want to interact with it, to consume it, to enjoy it, to share it? With the editorial teams I’ve worked with, an excerpt wouldn’t do justice for any of the above.

This is where Post Formats come in. What if we redefined what it meant to use, or even be, a Post Format to begin with? What if a post with a ‘Video’ format was a post where the most important aspect was a video, rather than being a post that solely consists of a video? What if a post with a ‘Gallery’ format was a post that contains a gallery rather than a post that is a gallery?

Ready to hear something great? This requires absolutely zero changes to WordPress core; everything we need to implement this exists. All that is required is to break free of the idea that using Post Formats is equivalent to treating your WordPress site like a Tumblr. This also means that, should we wish to use Post Formats in a Tumblr-like way, nothing has changed and we’re free to go about our micro-blogging ways.

From wishful thinking to implementation, the following shows the dramatic difference of displaying content based on format.
[twocol_one]Default Twenty Fourteen Theme[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]Twenty Fourteen Child Theme[/twocol_one_last]
[twocol_one]Twenty_Fourteen_Default___Just_another_Tom_Harrigan_Sites_site[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]Twenty_Fourteen_Post_Styles_Child_Theme___Just_another_Tom_Harrigan_Sites_site[/twocol_one_last]
[twocol_one]Twenty_Fourteen_Default___Just_another_Tom_Harrigan_Sites_site 2[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]Twenty_Fourteen_Post_Styles_Child_Theme___Just_another_Tom_Harrigan_Sites_site 2[/twocol_one_last]

[twocol_one]Twenty_Fourteen_Default___Just_another_Tom_Harrigan_Sites_site 3[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]Twenty_Fourteen_Post_Styles_Child_Theme___Just_another_Tom_Harrigan_Sites_site 3[/twocol_one_last]

[twocol_one]Twenty_Fourteen_Default___Just_another_Tom_Harrigan_Sites_site 4[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]Twenty_Fourteen_Post_Styles_Child_Theme___Just_another_Tom_Harrigan_Sites_site 4[/twocol_one_last]
[twocol_one]Demo Twenty Fourteen Theme[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]Demo Twenty Fourteen Child Theme[/twocol_one_last]

You can check out the differences live from the demo links above. Clicking into the single posts shows that the content is the same in both versions, but on the right side we’re displaying what’s most important on the front page.

Not Extendable

The second issue holding Post Formats back is a lack of extendability. Editorial teams I’ve worked with have come up with 101 ways they’d like to display content; for example, a format for displaying a lists of links. Needless to say, that doesn’t jive with the 9 formats that are given to us. WordPress is about freedom of content, so we should be free to display that content any way we choose.

Limiting the number of formats was a decision made to allow for the standardization of how we treat and display Post Formats, allowing for portability between themes. It’s now over 3 years later and that hasn’t happened. The use case for Post Formats as Tumblr-like functionality is too narrow; it’s not attractive to a wide enough audience, therefore developers aren’t willing to spend the time building out themes supporting Post Formats.

Those who do want what Post Formats can provide are often turned off by the lack of extendability. Breaking Post Formats out of the Tumblr mindset is easy enough; now comes the hard part.

What are our options if we want custom formats?

If you want a custom post format, then chances are you shouldn’t be using post formats. –Nacin

Nacin is saying that we should roll our own solution. Post Formats is just a glorified taxonomy at heart, along with a few bells and whistles like providing classes so we can add custom styling to posts.

Recently, I was working with a large editorial team that expressed the need to display content in many different ways. Since Post Formats didn’t provide the freedom to do that, I created “Post Styles”. This plugin is everything that Post Formats is, with the addition of a filter hook so that you can add your own custom “formats” as needed. The Post Styles plugin is available on .org.

Someday, hopefully we’ll get extendability into WordPress core, but until then, using a plugin is the best option.

Tomorrow Comes Today

At the end of the day, whether we’re consultants dealing directly with clients, developers delivering complex products to companies large and small, or commercial WordPress companies creating themes for the masses, there’s something unique and powerful we can give our customers by putting a bit of care into their content and how it’s displayed.

This isn’t about agreeing on a standard UI in the admin, as attempted in 3.7. It’s not about adding bloat to post types and our databases with additional custom fields.This is about utilizing the existing content of our post types and delivering it to users in the best way possible. This is about having functionality that people want, understand and can use.

We can get by with what core already gives us: 9 formats to rule them all. By thinking slightly outside the box, we can unleash the power that already exists in our post content. If just “getting by” doesn’t suite you, endless possibilities open up for our content by utilizing a plugin like Post Styles. The boring days of title, featured image, excerpt will soon be behind us. Let’s shine the light on our content.

[button link=”https://github.com/tomharrigan/twenty-fourteen-post-styles-child” color=”blue”]Download Twenty Fourteen Child Theme[/button]

[button link=”https://wordpress.org/plugins/mcninja-post-styles/” color=”green”]Download Post Styles Plugin[/button]