Right now, I’m buried balls deep in the upcoming redesign of Dirty Feed. That, plus the beginning of the new year, has sparked ideas for a few more inward-looking pieces here, which won’t be to everyone’s taste. I’ll be back with some of my more usual stuff later in the month.
* * *
I used to customise.
My computer, I mean. When I used to use RISC OS back in the 90s, I’d spend ages tweaking everything until it was just right. I’d spend hours obsessing over the settings in applications; I even used a program called !MenuBar to set up an entirely custom menu at the top of the screen, for easy access to all the programs and files I needed. This involved manually hacking a configuration file. That was how I spent my evenings, and jolly good fun it was too.
These days, I don’t bother. I make a point of having a nice desktop background, and I do take care to arrange folders in a vaguely neat fashion. But my taste for tweaking the OS and applications has mostly disappeared. With my iPhone and iPad, it’s even worse – my homescreens are in a bit of a mess, and apart from some sensible placing of most-used apps, I haven’t got round to sorting them yet. The years of tweaking my setups to within an inch of their lives have long gone.
…except that’s not entirely true.
Sure, I’ve stopped tweaking in terms of my own personal desktop. But that’s been replaced with a new form of tweaking. I absolutely cannot stand the vast majority of blog themes on the net; none of them look or work quite how I want them to, so I always end up hand-crafting my own. The current version of Dirty Feed was completely designed from scratch, as I just couldn’t find a theme I liked. So is the next version, for that matter, which is even more complicated as I’m implementing a responsive design. In fact, I’ve never used a pre-existing template for any website I’ve designed.
Hopefully most of them work well enough – there’s always things which could be better, but I’m happy with most of what I’ve done. And every single one of them are a reflection of the old me that I thought had disappeared completely… and then realised hadn’t. It’d just shifted elsewhere. It might be a different thing I’m tweaking1, but it’s exactly the same urge2.
It’s odd how the internet has taken aspects of my personality I used to project internally, and projects them externally instead. I used to care about something only I was staring at. Now I care about the part of me other people will be staring at. That’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing. It just… is.
* * *
On the topic of the current design of Dirty Feed, I want to talk a little about the ethos behind it. This design isn’t going to be around for much longer, and having served me well since June 2011 – bloody hell, over five years – it’s worth giving it a little bit of a send-off.
And the major thing to note about it is: how stripped down the design is, even compared to a lot of other simple sites out there. Too stripped down, in fact: I launched with the bare minimum possible, and always meant to add features once I’d decided I definitely wanted them. In the end, I never got round to doing so. By the time I really did get round to thinking about the site design again, I realised it needed a proper responsive design built from scratch, not just smearing cosmetic products on livestock.
Which means: I’ve run a blog for the past five years with no kind of normal navigation whatsoever, no about or contact pages, no tags, and no easy way of navigating by date without URL hacking. Ridiculous? Perhaps, and it’s definitely meant good articles have remained buried away in the archives, rather than having a better chance to be discovered again. On the other hand… it’s kinda been fun to see what the absolute bare minimum you can get away with for a site design. Sure, I’ve decided I now want all those features missing above with the upcoming relaunch, and a few more to boot – but it’s nice to discover that you actually want some of that stuff on its own terms, rather than just Because That’s What’s Done.
In the meantime, despite its faults, I think the site has benefited from its ultra-clean design, rather than being clogged with too much shit. I’m still proud of how well the footer works – cramming a lot of otherwise missing features into a very small space. The typography is the best I’ve ever managed for any site. And I’ll happily take a site which stripped down a tad too much, than something too far the other way. Hopefully the new design will have the best of both approaches.
Still. Five years without any kind of navigation. That must be some kind of record.
This is a revised and expanded version of something I posted on Tumblr back in June 2013.
As I work on the upcoming redesign for Dirty Feed, my thoughts idly turn to the old blog I used to run on ofla.info, back in the mid-2000s. Let’s take a brief look, shall we? I’m sure there’s some great stuff on there.
5th April 2004, “óflå.info Launches!”:
“Make sure you explore all corners of the site; I wouldn’t want you to miss any of the fascinating treats on offer.”
Sadly, all is gone by 18th July 2004. In its place, “Site under renovation”:
Never mind. On 9th August 2004, “For Fucks Sake”:
“I’ve had this domain nearly two years, and the only thing I’ve got out of it is a decent e-mail address and some hangers on.
Let’s try and do something useful with it, eh?”
Excellent… oh, wait, deleted by September 2004.
Don’t worry! On 26th October 2004, we get, erm, ““óflå.info” “launches””:
“Ah, it’s not as good as this one. But it’ll do. Let me know if there’s any problems with the design of the site – I know it’s a bit SHIT here and there.
Stuff to come: ill-informed rants on web design, revoltingly geeky TV stuff (The Sitcom Boom Mike Apperances List, anyone?), and various other shite. And news on the progression of the content management system I’m writing. Current status: Learning Perl, page 1.”
This one actually lasted right up until the end of 2005. Then suddenly, on the 3rd January 2006, all is wiped clean. In its place, we get “Errr… óflå.info, erm, “launches””:
“Hello! It’s yet another relaunch of my personal site! Hoo-fucking-ray. Forgive the odd rough edge; I’ll be smoothing it all out in the next few days.
So why? Well, I did get bored of the old design – but it also reflects a change of DIRECTION. All my web/media guff is going on Noise To Signal (due a relaunch in the next couple of weeks, hence the lack of life around there at the moment).
The old content will be stuck back on here at some point (and some of it also incorprated into NTS); till then, use the Wayback Machine. I apologise for breaking all my links in the meantime; the only consolation is that there was nothing worth much on here.
So, what’s going to go on here, then? Well, my personal blog probably – I think it’s a waste of time personally, which is why I didn’t update for ages before, but so many people have requested I carry on with it that it would be rude not to. It also functions as a nice gateway to all the other sites I’m involved with. Beyond that, there are a few things I have planned – but, learning from past experience, I won’t be announcing those until I have something to show for it. I’ll try and update round here most days, though.
Oh: wank shit cunt.”
Surely, this is it? Surely? Nope. Not only was all the old stuff never put back online, but this entire version of the blog was all gone by June.
Since then, my writing has been rather more consistent. Once my personal blog disappeared from ofla.info for good, I wrote for years over on group site Noise to Signal. And once that closed at the end of 2009, I started writing here on Dirty Feed. Sure, this place was originally called Transistorised for some stupid reason, but from 2010 onwards all my writing is intact, and in the same place.
Still, there’s something to be learnt from the above. The reason I kept launching and relaunching back then was simple: some idiotic quest for perfection. “No, no, that article/design/word isn’t exactly perfect – best wipe clean and start again.” Idiotic is definitely the word… but that part of me still pops up every so often. It’s good to have a look back and remember the road perfectionism can take you if you’re not careful. Hey, write something shit? Or does something just not read that brilliantly with a year or two’s hindsight? Never mind, let it stand as a historical piece, and write something better next time. If you want everything you’ve written online to be perfect, never publish anything at all.
The single best thing for me about Dirty Feed is that I finally stuck at something. No wasting time, no constant relaunches. Just a body of work which built up, year after year, and now stands as something I’m proud of – not deleted off the web, never to be seen again unless someone bothers to throw themselves into the Wayback Machine. I see some people constantly launching new sites for the same old thing today, and I’m glad I finally managed to learn that lesson all those years ago.
If there’s one thing which can be said about Dirty Feed this year, it’s this: a lack of perfection is absolutely guaranteed.
Eileen Webb, “Productivity in Terrible Times”:
“When your heart is worried for your Muslim friends, and deep in your bones you’re terrified about losing access to healthcare, it’s very hard to respond graciously to an email inquiring about the latest microsite analytics numbers. “THE WORLD IS BURNING. I will have those content model updates ready by Thursday. Sincerely, and with abject terror, Eileen.”
It is not tenable to quit my job and hie off to Planned Parenthood HQ and wait for them to make use of my superior content organizing skills. It is not a good idea for you to resign from stable work that supports your family and community because you’re no longer satisfied by SQL queries. The Trevor Project needs your donation more than they need a JS developer proficient in easing animation.”
“I don’t know about you, but I have been struggling mightily with this very thing. I’ve always had difficulty believing that the work I do here is in some way important to the world and since the election, that feeling has blossomed into a profound guilt-ridden anxiety monster. I mean, who in the actual fuck cares about the new Blade Runner movie or how stamps are designed (or Jesus, the blurry ham) when our government is poised for a turn towards corruption and authoritarianism?
I have come up with some reasons why my work here does matter, at least to me, but I’m not sure they’re good ones. In the meantime, I’m pressing on because my family and I rely on my efforts here and because I hope that in some small way my work, as Webb writes, “is capable of enabling righteous acts”.”
I have a good reason. Whatever shit is going on in the world, it does not make everything else unimportant. Life doesn’t work like that. At best that’s a route to giving yourself mental health issues, and at worst it leads to extremism itself.
To take Jason’s three examples. “The new Blade Runner movie” is related to a film which is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential films ever made. The horrific politics and actual human suffering happening in the world at the moment doesn’t stop that from being interesting and important. “How stamps are designed” can only be dismissed if we’re going to think art isn’t important any more – and I don’t want to be associated with anyone who thinks that.
And the blurry ham? Take a look at it. Yes, that’s a fun optical illusion. But let’s state what optical illusions are really about: how we all perceive the world. If anything, that’s even more important now than it was six months ago. That blurry ham is not about ham.
We can all dismiss and belittle our own work, for various reasons. Maybe we’re frustrated by state of the world and wish we could do more. In my case, it’s that I don’t want to be seen as arrogant. Let’s take an example of something I wrote recently over on Ganymede & Titan, about edits made to pre-watershed showings of Red Dwarf XI. It’s hardly the most important article in the world. A few changes made to a couple of episodes of a sitcom, big deal. I put aside hours of my time to rewatch the whole series and write that?
But worries about arrogance or not, the fundamental issues considered in that article are bigger than that. That piece is talking about broadcast standards in television. It’s talking about who has the right to make changes to a television programme. It’s talking about how you can remove material from a programme and still keep the meaning of a scene. And finally, it’s talking about the very nature of comedy, and how the taboo subjects affect it. In its own way, that piece of writing is as political as anything I’ll ever write, and there’s not a mention of Trump or Brexit in sight.
Just because there are absolutely atrocious things happening, and that some people are suffering hugely because of it, that doesn’t mean other things aren’t important. Because if we never think anything else is important aside from people’s suffering, we invalidate 99% of human endeavour. Nobody needs me to list a catalogue of atrocities… and beside it, list all the other important things which were happening in the world at the exact same time.
We should all care about the terrible things going on. We should all make sure we’re doing something to make the world better. But never feel guilty talking about your silly things.
Because they’re not really that silly, you know.
I don’t ask for any money for writing Dirty Feed. I don’t have a Patreon. I haven’t run any kind of Kickstarter. I don’t have a tip jar. I don’t have Amazon referrals, or an Amazon wish list. Call it keeping the site pure, or call it not wanting to have any kind of obligations around here. Either way, if you’ve enjoyed anything on here over the past 12 months, you’ve enjoyed it for free.
This year, I’ve written quite a lot about the history of the web. (And I’m currently in the middle of a new piece to publish at the start of next year.) Those pieces include:
Not forgetting this piece I wrote over on Ganymede & Titan, about Red Dwarf fandom mid-2004.
Some of these articles might not be your favourite things I’ve written this year. I generally get a lot more positive feedback for stuff I write about the telly, and my internet archeology pieces go rather unnoticed. But that’s fine. I write Dirty Feed for myself as much as for anyone else, and the important thing for me is to have a mix of different kinds of stuff here. (Though, of course, there are plenty of parallels with the kind of internet archeology above, and the kind of thing I do with old sitcoms.)
Still, the important thing about all the above articles: they all relied on the Wayback Machine in order to research the web of the past. And perhaps it’s easy to get blasé about its existence, now it’s been around for so long. But if you step back and just think about it: typing in a URL, and being able to visit (most) websites at (nearly) any point in their existence, is absolutely damn incredible. And is vital to maintaining a record of the history of the web. My silly articles are nothing compared to how important the Wayback Machine is for everyone – and, indeed, the Internet Archive as a whole.
So, here’s my request. The Internet Archive is currently fundraising, and is well short of their goal. If you’ve enjoyed anything I’ve written over here over the past year, and can comfortably afford it – and that latter part is crucial – please consider giving them a small donation. It would mean a lot to me, and is the most relevant support you could give this site.
Thank you. Serious message ends. I’ll be back tomorrow with a round-up of all my nonsense over here from the past year. I didn’t half write some shite.
Is there anything more boring than some tedious article pontificating about Twitter? I suspect not, but seeing as in the past I have written this piece here, that piece there, and indeed this other piece over there, I clearly haven’t got the memo yet.
With that in mind, I’ll make this short. Three weeks into my break from Twitter, how am I feeling?
- I am generally happier and less stressed. I thought maybe just being upset/irritated/angered by loads of stuff was simply how I’d feel reading things everywhere online these days. But no, it’s the misery being delivered in concentrated form in my Twitter timeline that I can’t deal with.
- On the other hand, I genuinely do feel like I’m missing out on fun stuff. Every time I poke my head in, I see something fun or a great article which I would otherwise have missed. I’m also missing important things I want to know about; a steady diet of misery was making me sad, but it’s not like I want to avoid certain topics entirely.
- Nearly every single day I have something short I really want to say, but now have nowhere to say it. I mean, maybe the world doesn’t need to hear about my criticisms of the later Nice Family sketches in Absolutely, but I’m sure there are at least a few people who would be interested.1
Maybe all the above seems massively obvious, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if I am currently eliciting a few eye-rolls. But confirmation that it really was mainly Twitter which was causing me problems is a slight surprise. I thought maybe I’d just find other parts of the net to be just as frustrating these days. Nope. Twitter is both immensely useful and fun… and also an absolute pain in the arse.
The answer: a suitable client, and a hell of a lot of extensive muting, I think. There are people I really want to hear from on some topics… and need to avoid other things they post entirely for the sake of my own sanity. At least my little break provided me with confirmation of that, rather than just guessing.
Over the last few months, I’ve been doing a little bit of internet archaeology. Whether it’s pointing out dodgy updates to sites about murder, tracing what happened to Twitter favourites aggregator Favrd, figuring out what the deal is with an extremely weird abandoned website, or looking at good archivists and bad archivists, all of these investigations relied on one thing: the Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive, taking us back in time to examine websites at a different point in their existence. Or in some cases, to websites which have disappeared entirely. (Don’t forget my plea to think about giving the Internet Archive a donation.)
Today I want to use the Wayback Machine to talk about a couple of sites which meant a lot to me, but which are no longer online in their original form. One is more serious, and the other is a ridiculous amount of fun. Both of them, in one way or another, changed the way I think about things.
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The Music You Want (JAM Creative Productions, 1979)
Yesterday, on a small corner of the internet, something flickered back into life.
A jingle package, in fact. A jingle package made by JAM Creative Productions in 1979, for legendary radio station WABC. Called “The Music You Want”, it would be some of the last jingles JAM made for WABC which emphasised the station as somewhere to go for music.1 (Three years later, WABC would transition to a talk format.)
These jingles were previously unavailable on JAM’s website. Sure, the famous Top 40 packages were there, like LogoSet (1976) and Positron (1977). And all WABC’s talk radio packages were there, from Talk To Us (1982) right through to Top News (2005). But a little slice of that history was missing. And now it isn’t. Brought out of limbo into the digital age. So we can all enjoy some damn fine jingles, which even plenty of jingle obsessives have never heard before.
This pleases me.
* * *
A Brief Message (Khoi Vinh and Liz Danzico, 2007-08)
The website A Brief Message had a rather, yes, brief existence. Launched in 2007, it was billed as the following:
“A Brief Message features design opinions expressed in short form. Somewhere between critiques and manifestos, between wordy and skimpy, Brief Messages are viewpoints on design in the real world. They’re pithy, provocative and short – 200 words or less.”
To be honest, it was never the writing side of A Brief Message which I particularly liked. What caught my attention was the site design itself; one of the very earliest examples I came across of a site breaking out of pre-existing templates, and making each post look different. Moreover, each post had a specially commissioned piece of artwork, which is still a rare thing to find today, let alone back then. It’s a site I’ve always remembered, as something which came along and made me realise that web developers can paint themselves into artificial corners: every post can look different if you want it to. It fundamentally made me think of web design differently.2
The site is no longer online. Well, not properly, anyway. As usual, most of it is preserved online via the Wayback Machine. But the actual URL is dead as a Pyrenean ibex.
In fact, the site had a bit of an odd end full stop, really. Launched in September 2007, the site stopped updating in March 2008: an active life of just half a year. That’s a very short amount of time for a project which had so much promise, and had two such talented people running it; you have to wonder what happened. And then the archives fell offline for good at the end of 2012.
And man, that sucks. I have no problem at all with the site not updating; it was a shame when the project was so promising, but there could be any number of reasons for that happening. But to not inform your readership about the future of the site, and then letting it just fall offline entirely is a dreadful way for a project to end, and is just rude as much as anything. Communicate with your audience. Let them know what is happening. And keep those archives online, especially when you’ve made something important and influential, as A Brief Message undoubtedly was. If a work remains online, it is never truly dead.
A Brief Message had much that could inspire people even today. If it wasn’t for the Wayback Machine, that work would be inaccessible entirely. Even as it is, that copy of the site isn’t quite complete, and far fewer people will read it. It’s all such a waste.
This displeases me.
* * *
Without a word, somewhere on the internet, someone drags out something from the past, and makes it live again. Elsewhere, without a word, great things die in the most ignoble way possible.
Be the person who makes things live, not lets things die.
Today marks three months since Nico Hines last tweeted. You remember Nico Hines, don’t you?
“An American news website has taken down, after sustained criticism, a “deplorable” piece that allegedly outed gay Olympic athletes.
The Daily Beast, an American news and entertainment website, published an “exposé” on Thursday about the ease with which dates with Olympic athletes could be arranged on Grindr, the gay hook-up app, in Rio de Janeiro.
The piece, originally titled “I Got Three Grindr Dates in an Hour in the Olympic Village”, quickly drew criticism of reporter Nico Hines for voyeurism and potentially putting closeted athletes at risk.
In one case, Hines gave the height, weight, nationality and language of an athlete from a country where discrimination and violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community is widespread.
That Hines – who identifies himself as The Daily Beast’s London correspondent and a former writer for The Times on Twitter – is a heterosexual and married father of one, was seen to compound the tastelessness of the article.”
— The Guardian, 12th August 2016
Actually, I don’t wish to bang on about Nico Hines’ Twitter account. His lack of apology speaks for itself. I would, however, like to point out that he has clearly snuck into his account since this debacle, as he liked this tweet about an article posted in October. The fact he didn’t take this opportunity to even post an apology tweet deserves a thorough pointing at and laughing.
Still, what I really want to talk about is The Daily Beast‘s apology for the article. Yes, they did actually apologise, despite what some people would tell you. The problem is, the apology isn’t actually a very good one. And it’s not like the perfect guide for writing apologies online hasn’t been written. Derek Powazek’s “How To Apologize Online” would have told them everything they needed to know. I highly recommend you read that piece. I’ll wait.
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Brent Simmons, on leaving Twitter:
“Twitter was always a 51-49 thing for me — barely worth it. The company has not dealt with harassment.”
“It has treated its third-party developers shabbily.”
“And, at best, it was just quips and outrages — a diet of candy.”
This is where I start to struggle. Because my feed isn’t just quips and outrages. It contains both, of course, but it’s also full of a hell of a lot of other things.
It’s full of people suggesting I read articles I never would have seen otherwise. It’s full of television archeology… and television history as it happens. It’s full of films I have to see, right now, straight away. It’s full of news on important preservation projects. And luckily for me, it’s full of some very lovely people indeed.
Perhaps more importantly? Twitter has made me a better person. I used to be the kind of person who said they weren’t really a feminist, but was for “equality for everybody”. I look back on that and absolutely fucking cringe. Well-meaning, not evil, but fundamentally missing the entire point. I had absolutely no idea the absolute fucking shit most women go through on a daily basis. But from listening on Twitter… well, I know more than I used to, put it like that.
The point is: what your timeline consists of is under your control.1 If you want more than quips and outrages in your timeline, unfollow the people who provide them, and follow people who post stuff you find interesting instead. This is the fundamental basic rule of using Twitter. Most of what I linked to above would bore the arse off most people. But that’s OK. So much of human life is on Twitter. Go find some of it.
“And then it was part of the system that helped elect a fascist President. This tipped it over for me: it’s no longer worth my participation. The shitheads can have it.”
Of course, it is part of the system which helped elect a fascist President. It also – despite the horrific abuse problems – helps gives a voice to those who need it, and a way for people to listen. It’s a personal judgement call as to whether it’s worth it. I think you can justify either position. Some days I have my doubts as to whether I want to stay, for many different reasons, and I’m in pretty much the most privileged position it’s possible to have.
But to condemn Twitter for containing “just quips and outrages” merely indicates you’re terrible at using the service. Follow interesting people.
“We are open for business.”
— David Hencke, Exaro ‘Head of News’, 18th July 2016
“We are absolutely devastated. We were going ahead with plans and had only just put up a story the previous day, with a lot more in the pipeline, and suddenly we are told it’s closed just like that.”
— David Hencke, Exaro ‘Head of News’, 21st July 2016
This article is not the story of Exaro – the investigative news site set up in 2011 to, in their own words, “hold power to account”. That story heavily involves Exaro’s investigations of paedophilia and child abuse, and that’s a topic on which I have precisely no insight on whatsoever – either the investigations themselves, Exaro’s conduct during them, or the official police investigations. There are many people who are far more qualified to discuss those matters. I mean literally qualified, with actual qualifications. There is nothing I could ever add to those discussions.
Still, what I want to talk about is something which does impact on the aftermath of those investigations. Whether you think Exaro’s conduct was exemplary, reprehensible, or some complex line between the two, the fact now remains: aside from the usual rescue from the Wayback Machine, there is no primary evidence of those investigations left online. It has all disappeared.
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