December 31, 2016 | PROFESSIONAL

Stuck outside of Facebook with the WordPress blues again

Why reinvent the wheel for the hundredth time and build a blogging engine from scratch? A discussion in three parts.

Introducing Spect, Part 1

My history of creating websites, 1997 to 2016

I first started to learn a few HTML tags sometime about 20 years ago. Netscape 3 was the hot browser, and I and some friends picked up web design basics, probably by browsing a Yahoo! directory to find some tutorials. My memory is hazy as I think back to those early days of the Web, but I remember them with a lot of affection. I was definitely using GeoCities before it began including advertising in May of 1997. Sometimes I think the internet has never been as good since. One of my main contributions to this era was a page about hating ska and cigars. These seemed like pressing concerns in 1997 and still pretty important today.

Early on, I didn’t have the money to ever consider making “real” websites that weren’t hosted by a company like GeoCities (which famously got bought by Yahoo in 1999 and shut down in 2009), but by the early 2000s I began experimenting semi-seriously with web design and graphic design as a hobby. I threw together some pretty awesome sites to host music I was recording, song lyrics, and proto-blog content. Much of this was still hosted on GeoCities sites (I tried some other free web hosts of that era but nothing seemed better). All of this stuff was before places like MySpace or YouTube even existed for sharing your own music.

The Orcas website on GeoCities circa 2004
The Orcas website on GeoCities circa 2004

Eventually I became interested in the emerging blogging scene and learned how to register a domain and install WordPress. I began using WordPress in its early days, circa 2005, and there were parts of it I never was entirely able to wrap my head around. I was more interested in web design stuff — these were heady days for the fledgling semantic web, CSS2-based design and the Mozilla/Firefox insurgency against Internet Explorer. WordPress was somewhat compatible with all of this stuff, but it was a slog. I wasn’t a programmer, but early WordPress took a lot of tinkering and commenting out PHP lines in the plugins to make it do what I wanted it to. It was often easier to just handcode a few pages and dump them onto a domain (or a GeoCities site!) rather than deal with WP. Nonetheless, I spent time putting together a unique theme full of <div> tags and art nouveau.

Screenshot of from around 2006
My WordPress theme in action, 2006

Besides complexity, the other main problem with WP was that it was so focused on blogging. Even though the term “web log” sounds like you are creating a personal diary a la LiveJournal, blogging in practice was full of functionality like commenting systems and pingbacks (ugh) that were spam-prone and tedious. I like the concept of commenting, and I got nice comments in my blogging days, but dealing with comments meant you had to be an administrator as well as a blogger. I would way rather spend time figuring out how to float some <div>s than moderate comments.

WordPress improved over time, but was always more complicated than what I really wanted. It shifted from being a blogging platform to a Swiss army knife CMS for a million different applications. This was intriguing, but exhausting. And by the later ’00s, the internet was dramatically changing under the intertwining impact of social media and mobile devices. Like most everyone else, I got sucked into Facebook and lost my will to live blog independently. My WordPress sites stagnated and faced escalating security issues; even though I had issues with Facebook from the start, its ease of use and massive user base made it simpler to just go with the flow and move most of my thoughts and discussions over there.

I was never too happy with Facebook, and from time to time I poked around other corners of the internet to see if there were any good alternatives to using WordPress for an indie website. Tumblr is a pretty good solution for many purposes, but like social media in general, it is overly focused on reposting other people’s content and not a great place to sit down and write 12-paragraph essays. I got on a beta list for the blogging platform Ghost and was underwhelmed when it was rolled out. I tested out a bunch of other CMSs and blogging platforms and spent a while putting together a site using something called AnchorCMS which is kind of like a WordPress-lite. Nothing ever satisfied me. When I wanted to post something unique and off-kilter, like an irregular series of holiday mixes, I just rolled my own code, sometimes updating my dated knowledge of web design techniques to give these pages a makeover. Nothing really gave me the freedom I wanted to throw together a website that included some blog-like elements, some Tumblr-style posts, but also static pages, professional portfolios, weird projects, and goofy experiments. I also wanted a space to archive my old WordPress installations and consolidate my online presence.

The basic problem here is that nobody will ever read a website that is so idiosyncratic and designed primarily as a piece of self-expression. Just the concept, in 2016, seems absurd and self-indulgent. It wouldn’t be SEO-optimal. It wouldn’t go viral very easily. It would not make an iota of profit for anyone. So in order to have something like that, I came to realize I would have to do it myself. Luckily, I started acquiring the tools to make it a reality.

NEXT: Writing Code to Make a Website To Blog About Code!