The home of Sweaty Spice, the 'other' Spice Girl

About a week ago, I went to update my three properties that are self hosted on Ghost, and I learnt that version 5 had been released.

Of course, I remember when version 4 came out, adding the membership newsletter features, and the chaos (I ended up buying new themes rather than awaiting my older themes being updated, a wise decision in hindsight) that ensued.

I made the conscious decision to upgrade my properties this long weekend, and to spend whatever time was required to get everything "right".

The Upgrade Process

Since I am a hobbyist, I rolled the dice and just executed the ghost update command. It all seemed to work, but before actually updating the running version, the ghost application actually does a check of whether the theme works.

Naturally, all three themes were hosed. No surprises there. What was surprising and welcomed was that the theme audit pointed out the offending bits (it appears that the methods for laying out the membership tiers, and the values changes how the global variables were passed.)

One of my themes released an update (Nurui) that supported the new version, so I grabbed a copy.

The second theme I was using was an older one for a tiled user interface, and alas, it hasn't been updated in - ahem - a couple of years. I decided that it was time to start fresh, and found a theme I liked. Inros was the one I opted for.

On this blog, I updated the Nurui theme, and expected the typical experience of using Ghost themes. Which brings me to ...

Surprise, Ghost is maturing!

Having been around in the Ghost ecosystem since the pre-1.0 days (I think I first installed a self hosted version of 0.6) running a Ghost blog was a bit of bootstrapping.

Sure, there always were themes, but the themes were a series of files of a templating 'language' called "Handlebars". Those, plus some CSS (cascading style sheets) could make your site like any way you wanted it to.

But they were rough. Want to add Disqus commenting? You edited .hbs files. Want to change things up in the sidebar? Edit a .hbs file. Want to change a color? Edit a CSS source file (early on, Ghost used compiled CSS files for speed) and recompile it.

In short, to implement one of the groovy templates from Themeforest, you needed to roll up your sleeves and get dirty with a text editor.

And, when you are barely knowledgeable enough to be dangerous, you did a lot of small tweaks, with re-uploading of the theme to check it out.

It is why once I got a theme working right, or right enough, I just didn't mess with it.

Wordpress, on the other hand, is the Fisher Price of self hosted blogs. Every imaginable tweak you might want to do to the look and feel is either accessible in the dashboard of the theme, or added via a vast array of plugins that bring new and interesting functionality and behaviors. Want a tag cloud? There's a plugin for that. A social feed? Plugin. A rich contact form? Plugin.

Now Ghost throughout the evolution of versions from pre-1.0 to the new 5.0 has improved. In the late 4.0 era, they started to add more configurability in the Design settings area. Nowhere near as complete as Wordpress, but it is very functional. And since they are competing with Substack for the independent publisher market, their aids provide a level of customizability that Substack lacks. In fact, Substack purposely limits the ability of their authors to tailor the experience, preferring to keep to the 'Stack vibe.


Thus, expecting the usual tweak, zip, upload, test, groan, edit, tweak, zip, upload, test cycle to consume hours this weekend, I was surprised that about 90% of what I needed to do didn't require me to touch a Handlebars template file.

That is fucking awesome.

Literally, I was up and functional (needed to tweek some pages) in minutes. YAWN.

The odds and sods

Ghost still has mediocre analytics. With the advent of the membership model, they do track opens (as long as you configure Mailgun properly) so that is cool. But no read count of articles, no traffic pattern analysis. You can use Google Analytics for that, but since I am not really leveraging it anymore (ripped it out of all my properties) I am blind. Of course, if I get 5 or 10 visits after each post, I am stoked.

The new handling of dark vs. light mode is pretty cool. You can set it in the back end, rather than using some hokey meta-tag to switch. And you can now properly have a dark and light mode version of a logo image. Big improvement.

It is designed to have paid membership tiers, and it feels a bit wonky to not have any membership tiers. Some odd behaviors that I will likely need to dive into the template files to address.

If you write proper Markdown, you can just paste it in from your favorite editor and magic occurs to format it in a post. This is how I write, so it works well for me.

The themes are not as plentiful as for Wordpress, and version 5 compatible themes are pretty rare at the moment (launch + 1 week) but the situation is improving.

Final Thoughts

I am pleasantly surprised at how easy this update went. I only needed to purchase one new theme (yay) and I didn't need to tweak a single .hbs file.

Ghost has come a long way since the pre-1.0 era, and it is now much more usable for us who know enough to be dangerous, but aren't developers.

In writing this, it occurs to me that a future post on the evolution of Ghost as I recall it would be a good tale to tell.

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