Getting Past the Ego

A particularly lucid comment left by eletherious on my post “So you wanna start a blog?” has me thinking of a suitable response:

However, what you do not answer is why would someone blog rather than create a web site? Both requre the same focus and discipline over focus and content. It would seem that a web site provides more content and design flexibility whereas a blog is more one dimensional – literary / literal?

In the nearly fourteen years I’ve been producing both static and dynamic websites (oh, that makes me feel so old), this is a question with which I’ve grappled time and again. In fact, in the early days of blogs, when they were driven almost exclusively as vanity projects, I was one among many who resisted the creation of any product that stood simply as a monumount to one’s ego, perferring instead to produce a non-blog site that might showcase my writing, my artwork, my web design skills, and so on.

Do you see a difference between the two, as fundamentally ego-driven projects? In retrospect, I can’t. But I think this is due to a certain levelling of the stigma attached to both types of sites, and especially blogs. They aren’t simply vanity projects any longer, but also vital sources of ideas and information, and –ironically– a personal “static” website is more likely to be viewed with an air of hoity-toitiness (to use a technical term). After all, many static sites beg us to come back often and check for updates. Why should we? They rarely make those updates easy to find. Are we expected to troll through every page looking for something new every week? Isn’t that presumptuous, in a way? What could bring us back so regularly?

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“So you wanna start a blog?”

Since it’s now possible for newcomers to the blogging world to set up a Blogger or WordPress.com account in mere minutes without the slightest idea about what one is doing or why, it seems like 98% of the blogs on the Web boast but a half-dozen erratic posts before going dormant forever. Of those that are left, most offer only simple “my link for the day” posts, which of course are fine for friends or people of very similar interests, but not so much for the world at large.

Now that I’m in the process of starting a new blog (on Sherlock Holmes), I figured it was about time to write down and share a few of my wildly-scrawled ideas concerning how exactly I go about such a thing (or, how I occasionally help others in a consulting capacity to do the same).

Like most other things, I conceive of a blog as a project, to be given due consideration, planning and effort. As such, I brainstorm, write notes, prepare a vision, gather resources, construct initial timelines, experiment with form, evaluate delivery options, and so on, before I even think of doing that magic little incantation which causes the blog to appear. I’m not going to get into all of these here. What follows are rough notes, not a course. But first and foremost to keep in mind is the approach: a lacklustre preparation usually leads to a lacklustre site. On the other hand, all the preparatory time in the world won’t mean squat if you don’t have the discipline or wherewithal (or –*ahem*– ego) to keep it up.

A clear vision is the primary thing to keep in mind. Vision leads to purpose, purpose leads to motivation, motivation leads to regular posts, regular posts lead to regular readers. So what’s this thing of yours going to be? Is it going to be a site to explore or exploit a niche interest of yours? Is it going to help develop commercial opportunities? Is it a playground to learn new technologies or methods? Is it to provide feedback for a project or cause you’re involved with? Or is it an ego thing, where you’re going to post idle thoughts as you feel like it? If the latter, pay attention: remember the 98% of dormant blogs? Almost all of them fall into this category. Repeat after me: “I want this blog to ….” Fill in the blank. If you don’t have a coherent point or two, then you lack a vision with focus.

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AMMT Mark II

WordPressYou might have noticed a few fresh changes to a million monkeys typing. It all comes as a result of upgrading to WordPress 2.0. For a while now, I’ve been hesitant to install the latest patches and upgrades to WP 1.5.x (yes, I know, I’ve been a naughty boy), since my theme was so heavily customised — it was an all-in-one file I originally made for WP 1.0, and quite a mess after being hauled reluctantly through several versions. This weekend, I decided to strap on the bungee cord, close my eyes, and jump. The actual database work and installation was seamless and smooth, but I didn’t see much point in pushing an antiquated theme that couldn’t take advantage of all the latest generation of WP goodness. Thus, with great trepidation, I grabbed a pre-existing theme with a superficial resemblance to the layout of AMMT —Blix by Sebastian Schmieg– and started creating my style sheets again from scratch.

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Nvu 1.0 Released

Not long ago, I had to teach a workshop on “how to make a website.” The class was to take place in a computer lab with older, unstable machines, and the 15 or so participants ranged from teenagers with a good grasp of web development basics to retirees who barely knew how to handle a mouse. I was given three hours to deliver the workshop, not including a 20 minute intermission. Needless to say, this was going to be a challenge.

NvuThankfully, it turned out to be far easier than I thought, thanks to the excellent WYSIWYG web development application called Nvu (then still at version 0.8). After using the HTML view to learn a few of the basic codes, we switched to WYSIWYG view and they began to use it like a word processor. We shifted back and forth so they could see how authoring in one view affected the other. By time the three hours were up, almost everybody in the workshop had published their own website, and the attendees were rather psyched up about the fact that they managed to create their own little homesteads in cyberspace.

Nvu occupies the gap left by applications like Dreamweaver, GoLive and FrontPage becoming much more complicated for professional usage: there is a genuine need for a simple but potentially powerful program to create web pages without dealing with difficult learning curves, shelling out hundreds of dollars, or moving too fast and too far beyond the paradigms of a word processor. That isn’t to say that professionals won’t find it handy: I’ve used it a number of times myself for “quick-and-dirty” webpages. It’s also great for keeping a commonplace book that can be accessed from multiple locations via a web server. Although the beta versions were stable enough to use for my purposes, the fact that it’s officially released as a version 1.0 means I can start recommending it to others without fear of beta quirks.

The software is yet another powerful application in the Mozilla family, along with Firefox, Thunderbird, Sunbird (still in early development) and the Mozilla Suite (in fact, it’s the successor to the Mozilla Composer still included in the Suite). It’s available for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X, and it’s free to download from Nvu. If you’re a beginner with an itch to start producing your own web pages, or even a professional looking for a cross-platform way to create pages and modify existing sites with a minimum of fuss (or expense), then Nvu could prove invaluable. It costs nothing to give it a whirl, and you may even save a fair amount of money and time in the long run.

(By the way, as with any new tool, make sure you back up your existing files before you start experimenting.)