On Syndication and Rolling Your Own

Tantek and Jeffrey have both written quite nicely about handmade sites and aggregation, respectively. I’d like to address some of Tantek’s points first; since I am writing content management system (by his definition), I found his ideas particularly relevant.

First he lists a number of hand rollers, presumably as examples of the kind of “pushing the envelope” that he posits is easier without the burden of a content management system (even one that is designed specifically for the purpose of blogging). Let’s take a look at the list:

  • Jeffrey Zeldman — The epitome of doing it by hand. He has a URL scheme that doesn’t change, a novel multi-level permalink system, and damn fine structure. No complaints here.
  • Derek Powazek — Derek’s site, at least in its current iteration, is powered by Movable Type. Disqualified. πŸ˜‰ {Fray} would have been a much better example, but even that is moving to a database-driven backend. (The Storyblog there is also MT powered.)
  • Eric Meyer — Again, no complaints. In a perfect world he could lose the class on his permalink, style it through contextual selectors, and add rel="bookmark" but that’s a nitpick and I know it. Kudos to Eric.
  • Brittney Gilbert — This looks hand done. Update: Tantek was right, a little to harsh here. Sorry! My intention was to say that, looking just at the code, this site does not push the markup and style envelope the way the other sites listed do. Does that make it bad? No. Read on.
  • Simon JesseyNice. Added to bookmarks.
  • David Baron — Not a whole lot going on here, looks like there are only a few posts per month. It seems very Tantek-influenced and well done, but with the frequency of his updates, I doubt that making his pages by hand is that much of a burden. Which brings us to my next point…

For the moment let’s look at hand-coding specifically in the realm of blogging, in its most general sense. In my view, for something to be a blog it really only needs permalinks and entries arranged in reverse chronological order. Feedback mechanisms– trackback, pingback, plain vanilla comments, a nice way to browse the archives, a search— are nice, but aren’t really required. Blogging (or whatever you’d like to call it) by hand requires discipline, and honestly few outside of the Çeliks and Zeldmans have what it takes to create a document for all time. Things like permalinks and archives are a pain to do manually; I know, I’ve tried.

There are some good reasons for doing a blog by hand, but I don’t think Tantek explicitly states the most important one. Lack of support from your host is not a good reason; there are too many options out there, from free and up. Along that same vein, cost should not be a barrier, as some of the very best systems out there are free (as in beer). Difficulty setting up shouldn’t be a problem either, as there are a number of people (including myself) who are familiar with a number of blogging systems and wouldn’t mind you setting up any one of them. Tantek comes closest when he likens what he does to a craft, implying that hand-coding his website is not merely a means but an end. Whatever you do should put as little as possible between yourself and whatever it is you love about creating your little corner of the independent web. This above all other things is the driving force behind WordPress, where my chief inspiration is myself, a lazy philosophy major. Tantek is happy writing the code for his page, just as I get a buzz typing in a box and having everything else happen automagically.

The question then becomes what makes Tantek happy about coding his site, not suppositions about the relative merits of hand coding something that could be easily automated. So what makes Tantek happy? I don’t know, but I can relate a story that might shed some light on it. At SxSW I had the pleasure of spending some time with Tantek and I got to see him update his site several times. (Watching people blog is fascinating in and of itself, because I’m convinced that everyone does it just a little differently.) Anyway when he met someone new Tantek would whip out his Powerbook and add that person to a list of people he had met so far at the conference. It was surprisingly fast, he could do it offline, and overall I got the feeling I was peeking behind the curtain of his web presence and seeing a well-oiled machine at work, the happy cogs of OS 9, his editor (BBEdit?), a Wifi card, and a simple FTP program all spinning away in what could only be described as a highly evolved process. It rocked my world; a process so radically different from my own, yet if we had raced, it would have been close.

I’m sure Zeldman is the same way. I’m sure of very few things in life, but I know that he wouldn’t still be doing what he’s doing if he didn’t enjoy it. So I guess in some sense, I’m a blogging hedonist. Do what makes you happy.

Just to clarify, I’m referring to coding by hand specifically for blogging, which I think is a tad daft, and not general hand-coding web pages, which I practice because there is no tool out there to my liking. If there were a perfect tool I still might not use it, but I’d definitely give it a try. However, in any hand-coding situation, you still shouldn’t make things any harder on yourself than need be. Noel Jackson uses Texturize with PHP’s output buffer to add typographic niceties on the fly to pages he hand codes. I’ve started doing this myself and it saves a tremendous amount of time, and it’s terribly simple to use. With two lines of PHP I was able to update a 450-page site, something that would have taken hours to do manually. (Not to mention us poor PC folk don’t have access to Dean Allen’s scrumptious Preflight Cruncher.) I’ve written similar tools for acronyms, line breaks, and pretty much any other mundane task that can be easily codified.

Moving on…

I agree wholeheartedly with Jeffrey on the potential for aggregation to steal the soul of a site. Recently on my syndication page I included a quote:

Q: If you offered an RSS feed, I could read your stuff without visiting your site.

A: If you stored your groceries on the sidewalk, we could eat your food without sitting across the table from you.

That’s classic Zeldman, complete with the famous Playboy-inspired editorial “we” that we so dearly wish we could pull off too. That was then, and he’s obviously trying to be more diplomatic this time around, yet the thrust is the same. I have debated removing my feeds several times, but ultimately my ego won out. There are several people who simply wouldn’t read this site if it wasn’t available in a syndicated format, and my desire for readership—to be able to look at my stats and know I’m not speaking into a void—is greater than whatever it is inside me that wants my writing to be appreciated in the context of my site. Christine says she comments more since she started using an aggregator. Besides, I try to remind my RSS readers several times a week that they’re missing out on something. It’s “Nice. But not the same.” I haven’t seen any unbiased studies that compare the effects of RSS on readership and such, and on a personal level it’s hard because RSS stats tend to be inflated due to the automated nature of their updating.

I think a laissez-faire attitude will eventually prevail. I can primp and preen my design all I want, but when it comes down to the basics all my code is merely a suggestion, and the interpretation of that is at the whim of whatever user-agent is knocking at the door. I question whether or not RSS is the best format for this sort of thing, but it seems to be quite good at what it does. RSS boils away the fluff and leaves just the meat, but what sort of meal is that?

16 thoughts on “On Syndication and Rolling Your Own

  1. I’m like Tantek. I absolutely love hand coding my weblog – in fact I hand code everything. I tried using Dreamweaver MX to make web documents once and it felt awful – a bit like using cruise control which is a no-no if you like driving.

    I have an RSS feed too, but I only put a very brief summary of what I’m saying. Readers have to go to my blog to get the full story. What you said about Permalinks being a pain to hand code is absolutely true. EVERY time I make a blog entry I have to make 2 versions (although this is just a copy/paste exercise), AND add it to my rolling archive page, AND add an entry to my RSS feed. I have created a system where every entry has a permanent, easy-to-find home. Only the RSS feed is volatile, with only a roll of the last 10 entries.

    By the way, Matt. It is nice to see someone else who uses XHTML 1.1. I started using it mostly to annoy Ian Hickson πŸ˜€

  2. RSS boils away the fluff and leaves just the meat, but what sort of meal is that?

    that’s meat for picky people. πŸ™‚

    just kidding. it’s for people who read and go… people who want to get to the nitty gritty of a blog and not be bothered by the bells and whistles. i don’t blogread via RSS feeds. i haven’t bothered learning how to set it up yet. i rely on updates primarily thru BlogRolling but not all the time as i have a lot of blogs on my list that don’t ping weblogs.com. and i like the pretty colors. newsreaders strip that away, too.

    great words, Matt. i have to read it again tonight.

    lazy philosophy major? i would have never guessed!

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  4. RSS feeds help me stay on top of things during the week. I take the time on the weekends to leisurely surf, read, look at the pretty sites. I know I’m missingou t on some things, but if I didn’t use Newzcrawler I would miss out on reading a lot of blogs that I can read now. Speed reading, and I don’t have to wait for slow zonk boards to load! πŸ˜‰

  5. RSS feeds are good for browsing the blogs. I personally keep an rss feefback available on my site because i was getting many 404s related to common rssfile names for almost all folders on my site.

  6. With re: Brittney Gilbert, I don’t mean to be a nitpicker but I don’t understand why you retracted when Mr Celik decided to pout. Her page gives a list of validation errors a mile long; you’d think that a hand-coder would pay a little more attention to that, even at a public blogging tool. It just seems a little out-of-place compared to the rest of the list.

    All of my weblogs are combinations of homegrown scripting in perl (or the blogger tool) and templates, plus validating hand-crafted XHTML for the daily entries. Styled with CSS, of course. There are no RSS feeds for my sites – nobody that sophisticated reads my weblogs on a regular basis, hehe.

  7. I fully agree, do what makes you happy. At the same time, I don’t agree with trying to control the reader’s experience by forcing them to visit your site to read the full entry. RSS has different usefulness for different people. Let the reader decide how they want to use it.

  8. So many comments! where to start?

    Simon, that’s really admirable work. I used to code entirely by hand, but the past year or so time constraints have brought me to a less hand-driven environment, even though the search started with looking for a better Homesite. I find Dreamweaver MX is the best out there for taking care of some of the tedious stuff and not messing with my code. I live in code view about 95% of the time, but I’ll drop out to make a link (putting links on existing text is a pain), wrap a tag, paste from Word (it cleans up a lot of gunk), or one of a few other niceties. I never design in it though, I always design in Topstyle. I’m also partial to the site management features, particularly the ability to upload a file whenever I save. The weakness is I haven’t found a way to allow it to connect securely (with SFTP or SSH) although it claims to support it. Someday. XHTML 1.1 is me being a rebel.

    Kathy, thanks for the kind words. We should have done lunch again this week, but it’s just been too busy. I’m dropping economics as my major and switching next semester to all philosophy and political science courses. Later I’ll probably end up in political science, simply because the philosophy department at the school is under-staffed and over-burdened.

    Christine, keep up your anti-Zonk quest.

    Abhi, now that even the venerable Zeldman has acquiesced, I don’t think that’s any hope for the anti-RSS troops.

    Micah, she is out of place in the list, but I did not intend for my language to be so harsh. The last thing the world needs is any more distress, and so consider my edit to be my personal way of increasing world peace. The message is still the same, it’s just said differently.

    Joshua, I think that’s fully within the discretion of the site owner. It might help if you start to think of RSS as a privilege and not a right. Especially in a situation where content leaves the writer’s hands completely, they should be able to offer as much or as little as they are comfortable with.

  9. Matt: No offense whatsoever was taken, by the way. I wondered myself why you edited the text–that wasn’t necessary but I am grateful for your intent.

    See here for a more thorough response.

    And Micah: I hardly think Tantek was pouting.

  10. I don’t believe RSS is a right, but I do believe I have the right to view your website in my browser/reader of choice. Most Creative Commons Licenses permit “others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work. In return, licensees must give the original author credit.”

    In Syndirella, the RSS reader that I use, I can create custom web feeds using the tags at the beginning and end of weblog entries, thereby circumventing the browser completely. Do I have the right to do under the aforementioned CC license?

  11. I wrote a blogging tool for MACCAWS (http://www.maccaws.org/) from scratch, and I think it handles permalinks and RSS feeds perfectly.

    We handcode html into the form, then the RSS feeds and citation and domain lists are updated automatically.

    The permalinks are handled in a very simple way, and you can select to view by year, month, day or post. It uses url rewriting to ensure we have good permalinks

    We just need a bit more content :o)

    Live news:

    Archived news:

    Cheers – Dunstan

  12. Dunstan, I really like how you offer multiple level of permalinks on every post. Something like this will probably make its way into the default template of WordPress.

  13. Joshua brings up yet another reason why I don’t – and may never – have a CC license anywhere on my site. I am going to have to do further research and then spend time writing a well investigated and thoughtful post about it. (I find those to be met with much better reception then when I’m ranting off the top of my head…)

  14. Handrolling gives me a sense of freedom. And it is no pain at all. Create an entry in a text editor and paste it to the main blog page and the appropriate archives page. How difficult is that?
    This way the permalinks are like #2003-04-28 rather than some #346mt43.

    For my rss feed, I don’t do it by hand. I have an ASP code go read the blog page and pull out entry titles, text and permalink and deliver it back to the user agent in valid RSS format whenever it is requested. So it always provides the latest feed.

    Cheer up! the worst is yet to come…

  15. Thanks for your comments Matt (http://photomatt.net/p626#comment-842), since I last posted I’ve rebuilt the code that powered Maccaws, and produced my own blog: http://www.1976design.com/blog/

    To go along with that I’ve got an xml feed: http://www.1976design.com/blog/syndicate/

    While this xml page is built by a script, the contents are written especially for that purpose – it’s not just the first X number of words from the post with ‘…’ at the end, it’s a seperate field in the DB.

    I’m much happier producing this kind of hand-rolled content, since it’s treating the feed as a seperate entity, not some bastard offspring of the main site.

    The traditional way rather hopes that the title and the first X number of words sum the post up for the user, otherwise they won’t know what’s going on in the post.

    Just a thought.

    Cheerio – Dunstan

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