Full Flavour Behaviour!

Ten years online
posted Friday June 29th @ 11:13pm

Ten years online

Exactly ten years ago today, I wrote the first entry on this blog. Then I wrote it again because the admin script failed to save it properly, which may explain both its brevity and slightly irritated tone. This failure was hardly surprising, really, as I written it myself and, having stayed up until two in the morning the night before writing Python code, I was fast running out of time before I had to catch a train back to Brighton. I'd written my finals barely a week before, had a ticket booked to South Africa and was, to the maximum extent permissible by law, a smug little bastard of the highest order. My entire adult life lay before me, filled with as yet unknown fates such as being awarded a Desmond (2:2) at my university graduation ceremony, due to take place just as I was getting my passport stamped at the Swaziland border. I'd had my fill of studying, of being told what to do and how to do it, and I was hopping on a one-way ticket to wild foreign adventureland. Well, almost.

Writing your own blog engine, in a hurry and overnight, might seem like overkill. Today it certainly would be. But in the summer of 2002 things were very different online. Wordpress was still a year away. Geocities was still very much an active presence, Amazon only sold books and Facebook was called 6degrees and the prevailing opinion of socialising online was summed up by a friend of mine: "just another way to farm email addresses for spam". None of the blog options available - diaryland, blogspot etc - gave enough customisation options for me to get the look I wanted and, well, I fancied a challenge. My only previous server-side script had been the 'favourite page' vote counting engine on Bumrape Island and I fancied getting my teeth into something serious.

It was far from perfect. I didn't know anything about databases, so it just wrote and read text files, delimited with improbable sequences of stars and hashes, and Google wasn't as good as it is now (mainly because the web wasn't as good as it is now) so I couldn't look up easily how to handle a file upload. This meant that, while text entries had a slick form input page I had to upload images with an FTP client and then simply assign them to a title via a drop-down list. I made my first major database structure error by listing photos and text entries separately. This was a needless distinction, the ghost of which you can still see in the "undated" section where text entries are followed by the photos regardless of the order in which they were entered - only the text entries had a 'date' field. In fact, it didn't store the time in this field, rather it was just another text input which meant a lot of the time I just wrote jokey, nonspecific babble there and most specific dates have been lost forever. But it worked, just, and it gave me an opportunity to keep in touch with people back home. By "people back home" of course what I mean is "my Mum". No matter how much I talked it up I am fully convinced that only she, and the occasional curious girlfriend, has ever read a word. Well, with one major exception but we'll get to that.

Without dates the lists of entries would soon have become unweildy and hard to browse so I introduced "chapters" - literally, files in the database folder - which would break up the narrative but of course without date information they were completely arbitrary too. You may notice that the first chapter has only a handful of entries but, as the chapter list itself grew, so inversely developed my inclination to add more of them and each chapter swells larger than the last. I struggled a lot with this and when, after a year or so, I got a new job and taught myself PHP, I started to experiment with new navigation structures. In particular, it began to bother me that it was so hard to notice when something new had been posted. One had to visit the site, open the most recent chapter and then read down the list to see if something was there one didn't recognise if I'd bothered to post anything which, of course, I usually hadn't. I wrote a new homepage which showed, rather than the spartan pair of links and my shining face, the titles of the most recent entries in both sections, allowing casual visitors to know at a glance whether the blog was even less worthy of their time than usual.

New homepage layout
NB the '2003' at the bottom - it wasn't self updating yet, tut-tut.

I garnished it with links to friends' websites and portfolios, with domain names that I'd bought and, naturally a weather pixie. Syndicated dynamic avatars were as common currency in the 00's as animated GIFs in the late 90's and they were the smartphone widgets of their day, don't judge.

With regard to the content, what is immediately apparent to me, reading back over the Swaziland entries, is how obfuscated the truth is. I tastefully left out the mundane depravity of soft drug use and dull drunken antics for the benefit of my readership (ahem) but, as with all censorship, it became increasingly difficult to decide to put anything in that wasn't about breakfast. In particular, the precarious nature of my accommodation arrangements - at one point involving actually squatting in an uninabited house - goes almost without remark despite being a source of considerable concern to me at the time. Of course the ridiculous part is that the matters of most interest to me now, as much as ten years on, are the descriptions of what at the time was punishingly mundane. I now live in London and the detail of semirural African living has become like a kind of escapist fiction. I alluded to this in the screenshot above, captured from slightly after I returned to the UK in late 2003, when a friend who'd visited me sent me digital copies of her photos. I didn't have a single photo of my day to day life until she gave me them. Lesson learned: record the daily routine as well as the unusual.

I used the homepage to advertise cool new projects, such as the WorthClock, and occasional insights or tidbits of information which I thought would be interesting. At one point I even created a little chat page where friends could send me short, semi public messages which didn't deserve an entire email. If you think about it, this demonstrates prior art on the facebook status update and public wall concepts a good year before Zuck had even signed to write connectU.

facebook prototype

In this particular example you see me getting caught with my pants down, mocking my Aunt for emailing me about it being 05/05/05 while a mere two months earlier I'd posted breathlessly about a similarly idiotic date sequence. So I invented short-memory social-networking self-humiliation too. Get off my lawn, etc.

Of course this new homepage was only part of the story. Once you'd arrived at an entry you then had to find your way "back" to an index which, potentially, you hadn't seen before and then, once you'd exhausted that, a bewildering list of chapters which made no sense to you at all. Even if you were familiar with the site structure it was a chore flipping back and forth between entries and the index to browse from one to the next. I re-engineered the page rendering engine into a PHP script and, while I was at it, put 'previous' and 'next' links up at the top. If you were at the last entry of a chapter, it would automatically and seamlessly add in the first entry of the subsequent chapter as the 'next' page which solved at a stroke both the navigation complexity and the chapter population issue. But, as discussed before, all of this was very secondary to two major problems: not ony were my entries censored, hypocritical and of limited interest even to myself, nobody was reading them in the first place. All of that changed in January 2007, when an entry that was originally advertised like this:

Honey Nut Insanity

suddenly got advertised like this:

Honey Nut Insanity

I actually heard about this by sms from a friend while driving to work and, realising it was (relatively) big news, nearly pranged my new Saab into a tree checking it out on my phone. This one link had generated comfortably ten times the traffic I'd seen in total over five years in about six hours. The url was reblogged, reddited, posted on fark.com ("worst greenlight this year" was my favourite quote) and generally did the rounds, inflating my ego to the size of a planet before I realised (a) even if I was a genius comedy writer, the piece was nearly three years old and I probably wasn't as funny any more and (b) despite all my efforts not a single person had been tempted to click any other link on the site. Undeterred, I wrote more vitriolic bullshit and started submitting all sorts of nonsense to boingboing at a furious rate, with occasional success when things were relevant to recently discussed issues on the site. Mostly, however, I was just quoted briefly or an image of mine rehosted on their site; I never again hit the traffic jackpot and "Honey Nut Insanity" remains the most-read and most-commented entry by over 99% to this day.

2007, in turn, saw a little foreshadowing of future success:

Spineless Classics Launch

A fun little poster I'd made for my Mum as a Christmas present in 2003 had grown into a "range" of about six designs and in the autumn of '07 I posted them online. I mostly wrote the site as an excuse to try out a purely keyword-cloud driven navigation concept which I'd had in my head for years (though technically elegant it was horrible to use, I don't suggest you try it) and it made next to no money until I invested into it in 2010. But technically it's a five year-old business, and here's the proof!

My first job upon arriving back in the UK was far beyond my technical abilities and I was extremely lucky that I managed to learn enough to keep my job before I lost it. One of the things I learned (quickly) was mysql, an open source database which I quickly realised was a vastly more intelligent way of organising data than my homebrew textfile nonsense. Seven years ago next week, in 2005, I upgraded this blog to mysql. Yes, it ran for over three years on the original text files, mainly because I hate to replicate my work and will always stick with existing, proven processes until they are so arcane as to be embarrassing. Don't knock it; the Times of Swaziland continued to run their daily updated website on a text-file database system I had written for them until late 2008! However, this enabled me to add some great new features - such as text search - which would have taken hundreds of hours for me to figure out on my own. The main difference that people browsing the site (probably still just my Mum) would notice was that I could post pictures and text together in the same entry (gasp!). The other big difference was that I could start to organise the entries by date rather than chapter. This didn't happen right away though. Some time that year, I forget when, I finally shifted to the familiar blog format you know today, showing the most recent item as the homepage and listing by date on the left. I didn't have dates for the first four years so they stayed as-is but the overlapping period defaulted to the date-organised format and there are actually four missing chapters that were silently retired when I made the change. They were called "Four Minutes" - a reference to the building feeling that I should quit my job at Motor World, "My New Camera" - the sudden flurry of higher-quality SLR photos in May '06, "Top Down" - my convertible car phase - and "Windsor" which started when I moved back to SL4 in the Summer of '07.

Interestingly, it took me a while to kill off the chapters completely, as the admin script still required entries to be assigned to a chapter even though the browsing engine ignored them. "Windsor" ended up, technically speaking, with 168 entries. What precipitated the updating of the admin script? Nothing. I never did it. Instead, I suddenly realised that I had pretty much stopped writing on the blog and had begun to use it primarily as a way of showing off stupid pictures. Of course I'd always done a little of this but, much as the first version of the admin had been over-complicated in requiring separate FTP to upload images, it seemed very Heath Robinson to take photos on my camera, download them, crop them and reupload in the website admin. I wanted things to be faster and more effortless and I wanted the site to update without my even going online. Sadly, Instagram didn't exist in 2009 but what did exist was a "Blog This" option in my Sony K800i cellphone. Intrigued, I tried it out and found that, basically, it could post slightly trimmed-down images directly to a blogspot account. Once set up, this worked perfectly and the 2009 East Hendred Beer Festival was blogged minute by minute direct from my cellphone.

This solved the problem, for a while, and my reader breathed easier knowing she wouldn't have to sift through all the stupid photos that I saw fit to upload in order to read the pearls of occasional but worthy wisdom I posted in between. However, the pearls never came and the blog began to stagnate, which was a shame given all the work I'd put into it over the years. So I hit on a plan. The blogspot account was public, which meant that it was accessible to anyone even if they weren't logged in. It was also machine-generated, meaning each entry had a very simple format which could be easily scraped and cloned. After several attempts I finally wrote a script which could detect new entries and import them into the database. I set it to run every 15 minutes and went for lunch. When I came back from lunch, I found the eight most recent entries were in there four times each - the script was simply importing the front page over and again! I quickly amended it to check the timestamps to make sure there was no duplication.

I'm the subject of much ridicule among my friends for keeping the K800i all these years but when I tell them my battery goes at least four days and that I was bored of Instagram before it was even invented they usually shut up and edge away with nervous looks on their faces. When I finally obtained a Galaxy S2 for business reasons I was worried I'd have to reimplement the import from some other blogging service but luckily blogspot supports email-to-blog, so I can just email photos from anybody's phone and they magically appear on this very site within 15 minutes at most. Marvellous. One interesting point: the time stamp on any entry that says "by mobile" at the top (this means it was scraped from blogspot) is actually the date in the image's EXIF data for when it was taken. You can mouse over to see when it was uploaded to blogspot. This does not work, for some reason, with photos from the Samsung; as far as I can tell blogspot strips the EXIF but I have no idea why, or how to stop it.

When I mentioned the ten year anniversary to a friend, she looked wistful. "It must be lovely to have all that history just online" she mused. And I suppose she's right; it's been fun looking back through my time since leaving university particularly (entirely by chance) as today is also my little sister's graduation day from her own studies. At times it's been cathartic, a place to post poetry and talk over significant events in my life. At times it has been dishonest, but just as often it's taken risks, many of which haven't paid off. I once announced I had a girlfriend, after what turned out to be just a random bonk with a girl I knew, but, when she let me down gently, saw no reason to delete the original post. I once effectively called my superior incompetent, which my folks told me was a bad move, but felt so strongly about the righteousness of the broader subject matter that I left it up. (Of course it's easy to be brave when nobody reads it.) It's a big window into my life and if you take the time to read it, you can learn a lot about me that you probaby don't want to know. When people tell me how facebook is a terrible information and privacy leak and makes it too easy for stalkers to find you and know everything about you I just smile and nod and think, yep, been doing that for a while now on my own thanks. It's largely, especially recently, been a bit stupid and flippant but that's okay too. I think I'll enjoy this phase in another ten years as much as I enjoy the mundanity of re-reading what I ate for breakfast back in 2002. Because if there's one piece of advice I would give to my sister, in the unlikely event that she would actually listen to it, it's that nostalgia never goes out of fashion and if you can have some fun recording your life enough to indulge it later, you're doing yourself a favour.

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