Burn the Notebooks?

There’s 17 years of content, bits from all from different generations of the site. I see no good reason to take it offline (but maybe I will have to if it gets in the way of what I want to do in future).

This site has had a lot of different content containers compared to most personal websites, but the notebooks and list pages have always felt stale to me. They’ve never been well executed in general. No real thought has gone into findability, how different items of content relate to one another, or what makes an appealing teaser link.

The original compromise was moving the old content from 2004–2008 and 2009–2010 into individual notebooks rather than creating a separate archive section. This turns out to have not worked particularly well, with confusion in URL hierarchy and content organisation between notes vs notebooks and a lack of clarity around when to start new notebooks instead of adding to an existing notebook.

It seems like a key part of getting this under control is knowing when I want to write something specific and having the clarity of purpose and direction to create something that adds value to the network.

One of the difficulties is that I generally don’t know at the time which bits of writing are going to be valuable in future. A lot of things I’ve done that turned out to be the most lasting and useful and got positive feedback from people were not the things I would have expected or predicted. So I must make sure to leave a lot more space for discovery and invention. That has always been the purpose of keeping these notes.

Blogs versus Blikis

Blogging as a lasting form (or design pattern?) on the web emerged as a result of the collective behaviour of writers and technical decisions made by the authors of CMS software in the early 2000s (we could trace the history of Moveable Type, Bloxom, and eventually Wordpress in order to plot this trajectory more precisely). For all the frenzied hype of the early days (which in my view, took off mostly when journalists and political nerds—people who generally who didn’t give a flying fuck about web design—discovered the medium), there has never been much deeper critical discussion or design analysis about what this means in terms of organising websites.

Blikis on the other hand, have never recieved much attention from writers or developers of software. You can maybe think of this as a road not taken for web publishing as a whole, taking influence from wikis but generally being edited by one person (or a small group) rather than being editable by readers, hybridising the traditional page based content model of the web and the serialised/periodical format of blogging.

There can be varying and overlapping approaches to presentation and URL structure, but at a high level, the key difference from an information and publishing perspective is about what happens after a piece of writing goes live on the web.

A blog is a stream of serialised writing, organised by timestamp. Writers make the decision to let each piece stand alone in time (probably an implicit decision most of the time as it doesn‘t seem like many people have even considered this is an option or choice rather than a fixed structure of the web).

Blikis on the other hand (or related page-based or wiki-structured websites) make the topic of the page itself as the anchor point of organisation rather than the timestamp. Pages persist over time and can be continuously updated and edited with information being enriched, restructured or culled to keep up to date with changing knowledge and cultural developments.

It’s beyond the scope of this design process to speculate on how all this relates to the ‘death of blogging’ and the decline of RSS but there does seem to be a correlation between this decline and social media platforms changing from timeline-ordered feeds to algorithmically-generated feeds.

Changing my mind

I originally envisaged the notebooks as a way of blurring the boundaries between the blog and bliki formats, so that I could use a single publishing backend to support the different things I wanted to do on the site—both archiving the old posts (which were written explicitly in the blogging mode) and the new work I was doing around design patterns for narrative systems and procedural generation (which I envisaged as a bliki I could update and improve over time).

In practice it didn’t work out that way. The Reading Notes were the only section of the site that really did work as a bliki (from a writing perspective). Despite my best intentions, everything else ended up more or less as a blog with entries suspended in time. Where I set out to create a mini encyclopedia of the things I was learning and tech I was developing, it ended up being more a dumping ground for various project postmortems.

At this point, I can see that the underlying decision I’m going back and forward on isn’t just about how to structure collection types/content containers going forward. It’s really a question of what to do with everything written in the past 10 years—whether to send it all to the archive icebox or resurrect and re-edit the most relevant entries.

There seems to be several ways to support this:

  • Flatten everything into a single blog archive/collection of journal entries (/notes/burn-the-notebooks/ rather than /notes/redesign/burn-the-notebooks/)
  • Snapshot archived notes with legacy CSS and template assets, and leave URLs indefinitely (restructure/cull everything else)
  • Turn everything on the site into separate collections in top level directories (eg: /redesign/ rather than /notes/redesign/; /reading/ rather than /notes/reading/)

Possible criteria for making this decision:

  • What communicates best to the audience
  • Simplicity and clarity of implementation
  • Aesthetics that don’t annoy me

At first, I was determined not to split things up into multiple websites, with the justification that managing multiple publishing pipelines, sets of templates, domain names, content hierarchies, is going to lead to more problems than it solves.

But what if I can set things up so the extra complexity is a one time hit, rather than an ongoing source of friction? This would also improve things for readers as they wouldn’t have to sort through varying and disparate themes and topics of little relevance to them to find the things of value to them.

It’s not so much the design choices—blog or bliki, notes or pages—as how clear and coherent the writing is on a surface level, so that people can go straight to what’s relevant rather than have to confront some artiface of publishing and programming and aesthetics getting in the way.

This suggests maybe I need to put a lot more effort into thinking about which particular drafts I want to prepare for maetl.net, rather than assuming everything will be blasted onto here.

This would potentially make it much easier to manage moving content onto multiple other websites, so I can keep that option open. I won’t burn the notebooks just yet.