Thoughts on blogging, and blogrolls

I’ve read a lot lately about the web, personal websites, blogging, and the indieweb movement.

I keep meaning to properly underline one particular article or post I’ve read that has inspired me to finally sit down and write, and failing because there have been a lot and they’ve all kind of blurred into one movement in my brain. That’s the problem with ‘studying a subject’ and not ‘keeping references’ I guess.

(I’m going to try to semi-regularly post lists of links to ‘stuff I’ve starred on Pocket or sent to my Kindle’ as this is probably the best filter for links I’ve enjoyed reading or that have inspired me in some way.)

One such post I can point at this time to is Roy Tang‘s Thoughts on Blogging, 2020 edition, which I really enjoyed. I’ve actually been slowly making my way through a number of Roy’s posts – on the subject of blogging, blogging platforms, and so on – for a while now. Hi, Roy!

The post above chimed with me because I go back on forth on what I’m doing when I’m blogging. My blog has, at times, been:

  • a diary or journal;
  • an unrelated series of essays or write-ups on specific subjects or trips;
  • a linkblog;
  • a collection of weeknotes.

And possibly others.

Every few years I find that I want to tidy up old blog posts, and the ones that are often quickest to get culled are either too brief, too personal, poorly formatted, or linkblog entries.

The latter are just… Not what I’m interested in doing. I often feel the urge to post links to stuff, but increasingly I think that’s what Twitter might be better for. Plus Twitter kind of decays gracefully where as a blogpost which is nothing more than a link to a thing with little to no contextual information is a bit weird to have archived as an active page in a blog. think, anyway.

Similarly, as a result of occasionally moving host or CMS, I always end up with a number of broken posts, often those with images embedded. Best case, the images just go a bit wonky, or the formatting of some styles changes significantly from the original design. But worst case I end up seeing a long list of image placeholders where the original images are either no longer loading from the CMS correctly, or the external host has changed the URL or altogether removed them.

The posts that seem to hang around, however, tend to be more standalone essay-type posts. Plus a few trip write-ups where the image formatting hasn’t been completely b0rked – or I’ve felt compelled enough to unb0rk it.

Anyway, Roy and others have written recently on the subject of blogging, and it’s enjoyable to read, and possibly feel as though there’s a small renaissance happening around blogs and RSS and so forth. (Possibly this is just an echo chamber of ever-decreasing circles, but hey).

Like Roy (and Phil, and others), I have found myself adding a number of new blogs to my RSS feeds recently.

This new ‘discovery’ of other blogs has come about purely because people who I enjoy reading have posted links to people they enjoy reading. Sometimes these are occasional ‘new blogs to follow’ type posts (Hi, Kicks!), and other times these new discoveries are thanks to a reprisal of that old-school blogging stalwart, the blogroll.

A blogroll is basically just a list of links to other websites and blogs on a person’s website. No more, no less. It’s different to a webring, which I have also seen a sort of revival of recently, but every implementation I’ve seen of it between now and about 2002 just seems way too hacky and buggy and unpredictable and please just give me a list of URLs.

I don’t have a blogroll on this website yet, but I’m in the process of compiling one. Like others, it’ll basically be a list exported from my RSS feed reader, but I won’t be using JSON or any sort of automation. I don’t know how to do all that. But I do know how to copy and paste. So I’ll do that instead.

Roy’s mention of his own blogroll also mentioned another blogger by the name of Jan-Lukas Else. Jan-Lukas’ blog has already crept into my feed reader’s ‘newish’ folder, and I like the sorts of things he writes about. Hi, Jan-Lukas!

One thing that caught my eye when browsing his website, though, was a neat little banner which goes some way to solving some of the issues of archived/historic blog posts I mentioned above:

banner-9292133-6809606

It’s a simple solution and I’ve seen it used on news websites that aim to help readers who may have visited a link to what ostensibly looks like a ‘news’ story which (thanks to the less and less ephemeral nature of some big websites like the BBC and the Guardian) might be a decade old or more.

I was, therefore, even more amused to see that – amidst me starting to think about my own beginnings with websites and ‘blogging’ eighteen years ago, that Jan-Lukas – who makes such good use of the banner above – is just twenty years old himself.

Pushing around text blocks

I’ve been following along while Frank Chimero redesigns his website in the open. He writes well, and the process of redesigning a website – no matter how simple – is interesting to me.

In a recent post, he wrote (emphasis mine):

I’ve designed for many years, but again and again, I have to relearn where to draw the line. I will strap myself to my desk and push around text blocks until I drive myself crazy. I will waste hours.

And suddenly a dim lightbulb at the back of my mind flickered into life. He’s talking about redesigning a website, but he’s pushing around text blocks? Unless I’m mistaken, I guess he’s talking about prototyping in something like Photoshop.

Of course! It’s all coming back to me now. I remember learning about this method in the web design unit I took in my degree. You figure out how you want your page to look using graphical tools, and then you write and edit the code to make it look that way.

But that’s just not how I’ve ever tinkered with web design.

Let me be honest here: the closest I’ve come to redesigning a website in recent years is picking the least worst WordPress template from a gallery of hundreds. I do occasionally use my c.2002 HTML skillz to tweak a layout or check how something is being presented – the vagaries of my work website’s CMS mean I often have to code HTML tables by hand which is quite a mental workout. But I don’t think I’ve coded a webpage from scratch since about 2013.

Anyway.

What I’m trying to say is, when I have done that, I’ve tended to just create some dummy copy, then tweak the HTML and CSS until it looks roughly how I want it to look. And that tends to mean that every line break or pixel shift is sticking to an invisible grid of defaults – I’m just adding a number to this bit or moving that bit over or down a bit. So my lumps of content just kind of slot into place according to how the code is interpreted by the browser.

This is compounded by the fact (or, indeed, exacerbates the fact) that my knowledge of HTML and CSS is just enough to get by. So I don’t know how to make complex layouts for webpages; I’m just sticking to the web design of the web when I learnt it in 2001/2002 – and that in turn is probably the web design of many years before as it trickled down to mere mortals like me.

But I like this way of working – I guess it’s almost like using a Word processor to style text. It makes me feel like I have control, but I’m only making moderate changes and letting the code/browser slot it into place. It inevitably means the page ends up looking very simple and conforming to some sort of grid – and that’s fine. It appeals to my quest for order. And that’s probably the fundamental difference with how I approach what I would very generously call ‘design’. I’m not being creative and making something from scratch. I certainly wouldn’t be able to use Photoshop to rough out a new design. I’m taking something existing and just moving it around into different slots.

That’s what web design is, to me.

Anyway. This is all to be read alongside a giant flashing banner which reads “Paul hasn’t sat down to design a webpage from scratch since about 2013, so… y’know…”. But with the recent promotion of the personal website and homepage by the likes of Kicks Condor and Matthias Ott, I’m thinking about this stuff a bit more, and crucially I’m browsing and finding myself inspired by scores of other people’s personal websites. Websites made by the kind of people for whom spending a weekend indoors tweaking their layout is time well spent. I love that. And I miss doing the same.

So I’ll probably continue tossing up between WordPress layouts for the time being. But I know that some time soon I will find the temptation too great, and I’ll sit myself down with some digestives and a pot of coffee, and I’ll try and bash out a set of webpages from scratch.

In fact, one box I’d like to tick that I’ve never tried before is handcoding an RSS feed. I’ve read a few tutorials. I get the idea. It doesn’t look difficult at all. I’ve just never actually done it. So that’s on the list. A few different webpages connected by an index page, and some content worthy of presenting in a blog format, tied together with an RSS feed for those of us who still dabble in such things.

Watch this space.