In this comment I’ll look at some questions no one seems to discuss anymore. Why we do stuff online.
- Why do I have a website at all?
- Why did I choose WordPress as a platform?
- Why haven’t I monetised the site with Google advertising?
- What on earth moved me to create a Frankenwordpress monster instead of using a vanilla theme?
Actually, that last question has its own comment … about the technicalities behind customising a WordPress theme.
So, why do I have a site? Back in the 1990s I started to really enjoy mucking about with HTML and CSS. Not the lurid stuff with flashing, blinking text, scrolling marquees, animated gifs and really ugly backgrounds. Well, maybe a little bit. But more to work out what was possible than to achieve anything in particular.
I wasn’t a developer. I was just a curious amateur playing with a suddenly wide open new territory in communications media. At that time I was working as a public affairs advisor, thinking about how this new online territory could be used for transmitting targeted messages. I had no idea even then that the internet would actually be the vehicle for an avalanche of excrement of such magnitude it almost drowns out or taints everything of value.
The internet still gives us access to interesting, informative content.
More importantly, in an increasingly cartel controlled news media landscape, it replaces some of the functions of the fourth estate: it offers a platform for reportage from people not beholden to corporations, and it is the soap box in speakers corner of days-gone-by allowing the dissemination of individual opinions beyond the artificial boundaries that used to belong exclusively to those who controlled mass distribution networks.
Apart from writing for a living in the 1980s and ‘90s, I have always written for fun too; essays on a wide range of topics, and comment on current affairs. Stuff that wasn’t quite what mainstream media outlets were looking to publish. But stuff I think is worth saying all the same. Maybe exactly because the mainstream media doesn’t publish anything like it anymore. Maybe because what media cartels prefer is mostly pap and the outright lies that have the blessing of commercial interests.
The hipster refrain about all the world’s knowledge being online is, unfortunately, just a juvenile fantasy. Most of the academic and professional knowledge is locked up behind paywalls. That’s why I think professionals and academics owe it to their communities to liberate some of that content by posting it online and conducting informed debates precisely about those issues private interests and politicians want to see silenced.
In 2013 I started to post some of my essays on Google Plus. It was early days for what now looks like a dead duck social media foray by the giant search corporation. In those days, though, there was a small group of people who really did debate and argue about important things. One of them was Jim Munro, the founder of ShopSafe and the Ozbizweb Group of IT service companies. Like me, he’s pretty passionate about Australian egalitarianism and the ‘fair go’ that still characterises a fair proportion of the country’s population despite the best efforts of corporations and political leaders to make an American corporate colony of the country.
One day Jim asked me why I didn’t have a blog to post my essays on. That started me thinking. One of the big failings of Google Plus has been finding what you wrote again days, weeks, and months later. Unless it’s your own post, the comments you leave in someone else’s thread are almost impossible to find over time. Ironic for a venture by the world’s biggest search company. And if people delete their Google plus profiles, entire threads of conversations and debate disappear too. So I thought I would do something different: a content management system that would make searching really simple.
I spent the better part of the 2013-14 Christmas break evaluating what was available without an up-front cost and a chance at a viable exit strategy if the platform were to disappear, the way so many have over time.
I was almost sold on Joomla, an open source content management system, but at the time it didn’t have the kind of templates and user community that would have made customising the core build easy for a hobbyist with limited resources. Enter Jim Munro again. He said he hosted a whole bunch of WordPress sites and persuaded me that it was easy to customise and use. In the end he even offered me some technical advice and support to make my first WordPress site fly.
It was quite a steep learning curve. I’m no PHP code monkey, and the WordPress community, while online in depth, is full of know-it-alls who prefer to ask questions like: ‘why would you want to do that’ rather than ‘here’s how I’d try it’. It seems even with a customisable platform, the largest part of the user group prefers to stick close to a one-size-fits-all formula. Problem is I always push systems to their limits. And break stuff in the process. I think maybe it’s something about fixing it again that helps me to really understand how software works.
The Word Press core is pretty clever really. Almost all the customisation you could think of is possible by altering the cascading style sheet (CSS). Oh, allright! If you have your own ideas about how things should be, you do have to play with the PHP code a bit, but once you read the WordPress Codex (knowledge base) basics it isn’t quite as scary or opaque as it first appears.
Messing with the PHP is still something to do sparingly. If you fiddle too much with the framework, changing the look and feel later becomes pretty difficult. And that’s the underlying architectural decision: manipulate the look and feel without affecting the content by using the CSS. That way you can make quite dramatic changes to the way your site looks that will – literally – cascade through your content.
That becomes pretty important when you have years of content and hundreds of posts that you don’t want to tweak individually to suit a new design.
Still. I managed to stuff it up big-time. I didn’t learn that lesson until my second build. Because I like to mess with things, I suspect that even in this latest build there are posts where I inserted my own CSS in individual posts that is now out of whack with the overall site design.
So be it. A big part of the purpose is for me to experiment, not to produce some static, finished product. In that regard I think some credit is due, too, to my colleagues M Sinclair Stevens and the late Dieter Mueller, who between them persuaded, ridiculed, and bullied me to recognise some of the obvious failings of my graphic and user design.
More important to me is that I’ve not yet figured out how to make a commenting system work without drowning in spam. So this time I’ll try again with solutions that just didn’t work three years ago, two years ago, even 18 months ago. Hopefully the architecture, process models, and the technology itself have matured over the years I have stayed away from them. I guess I’ll find out.
People have asked me why I didn’t stick Google Ads all over the place to make a little money from my comments and essays.
The answer is more complicated than it might seem.
As a former journalist I formed the view in the 1990s that informed debate is vital for the health of a political system, and the mainstream media were doing everything possible to subvert informed debate, from ignoring real news stories in favour of trivia, to eliminating voices that inconvenience commercial interests. If I commercialised my own commentary, I could see that it would be playing exactly to that strategy: writing to lure clicks, not to say what I thought worth saying. Chasing SEO rather than spending time thinking and writing. The recipe for crap content and snakeoil sales.
Besides, writing under commercial deadline pressures always produces something less than, and different to, any comment, post, or story that has an opportunity to breathe and percolate.
The personal brand thingie
Nevertheless, I like to eat and pay my way. Which is getting harder. And vehicles like Seek or LinkedIn are designed by people who seem not to understand that a person is not a commodity, packaged as something with a single purpose and a finite repertoire of skills and experience.
Sites like Seek and LinkedIn are based on the premise that every person is just a an interchangeable commodity. A one-trick pony in a mesa of one-trick ponies. Not much thought went into the build of sites like that, and professionals like me are treated more or less as an after-thought to broken business models seeking to cheat employers out of money for nothing.
I was discussing this separately with colleagues in Austin and Brisbane, and between them they changed my mind about my long-held aversion to the hipster concept of ‘personal brand’ marketing.
It’s not like I’ll suddenly start using Facebook; the Zuckerberg business model is just too unpredictable and one-sided to strike me as useful.
But a little self-promotion on my own site is probably overdue.
I’m still feel a little bit pretentious about self-promotion, but what I have written about myself at least has the merit of being more accurate than is possible with the Silicon Valley one-size-fits-all model.
To do that I used the WordPress ‘page’ feature, meaning there is a slightly different template applied to some static pages that are not part of the ‘loop’ of posts for which WordPress is best known.
So there it is. Whatever flaws there are in my site build were fun to create, and part of an ongoing learning curve about online content, WordPress, and the underlying CSS. It’s not quite a hobby any more, but not quite a commercial venture yet. That doesn’t mean I think it’s worthless. Maybe priceless. If only to me.
Who knows, as online technology becomes more accessible, I may yet pioneer a build with some other system at some stage, just for kicks.