Today, I had to pay a customs charge on a t-shirt order from Threadless.1 This article is not moaning about that customs charge. Sure, I don’t expect to be hit with one when I select the “Standard Plus with Prepaid Customs” shipping option, but that’s not my real issue.2
No, my real issue is: why the hell does brokerage company Customs Clearance Ltd do everything possible to make themselves look like a scam site, even though they aren’t?
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Despite howls of protest – at least among the hardcore users – Twitter is obsessed with trying to give us non-chronological timelines. And not just with its show “best” tweets first feature – at least that can be turned off. No, we’re talking about the dreaded ‘In Case You Missed It’, cluttering up our timelines something rotten. Which you can helpfully request to be shown less often… but can’t switch off entirely.
Maybe it wouldn’t matter so much if those tweets you missed were actually worth catching. But in my experience, they so rarely are. Still, as an extremely unscientific test, I asked people to send me examples of my own tweets which Twitter somehow thought they needed to see again. With thanks to Mike Scott, Paul Buckle, Richard Goodwin, and David Swallow, here’s what delights from my feed Twitter thought needed a second chance.
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As I’m working on the upcoming redesign of this place, I’m trying to reassess every single decision I ever made when originally creating Dirty Feed. Everything from the category structure, through to comments, and even the URL structure of the site.
Whilst thinking of that latter point, I’ve been considering this post from Matt Gemmell:
“Can we talk, briefly, about the URLs on your blog?
If you’re like most people, your permalinks (the permanent links to individual posts) probably look like this:
We’re all familiar with those URLs. The date of the post is explicit, so you need never wonder when it was written, or how recent it is.
Here’s the thing, though: they’re horrible.”
Oh dear. I am a naughty boy.
In fact, I end up disagreeing with the vast majority of his piece1 – but let’s skip right to his main point, as I think it’s the most interesting.
“But there’s another reason, and it’s more compelling than any of the above. Date-encumbered URLs dilute your article’s standing.
Here’s what each style says to me:
macro-gurber.co/2014/02/14/about-smartwatches: This is what Macro thought about smartwatches on Valentine’s Day last year. Which raises some other questions, admittedly.
macro-gurber.co/about-smartwatches: This is Macro’s definitive goddamned opinion on smartwatches.
That’s the distinction. Have a think about it for a moment. The latter, shorter style is what you want.”
My problem with this: I am never going to have a definitive goddamned opinion on anything. And frankly, I worry about anyone who thinks that they have one. We should all be open to changing our minds. The latter, shorter style here very much is not what I want.
To take an example, let’s take a look at what the URL for this article would be, if I followed Matt’s advice:
www.dirtyfeed.org is going to be the place I use for my random nonsense for many years to come, whatever that random nonsense happens to be. If I live 50 more years, I think I’m more likely to be using this domain than not. So, the above URL indicates: “What I think about permalinks, forever.” And I may have very different opinions on permalinks in 50 years.2 I may not, of course, but how can you tell? I can’t see into the future to tell what I’ll think of this article in 50 years time.
Instead, the current URL format makes more sense to me:
This article is what I had to say about permalinks, in January 2017. Perhaps there’s an argument for simplifying things a bit, removing the “01”, and just indicating it’s how I felt about permalinks in 2017. (Unlike Matt’s original example, I already don’t include the day, which I agree is pointless.) But the crucial thing is: it doesn’t indicate that it’s my definitive goddamn opinion on permalinks, and that’s entirely intentional.
It very much isn’t.
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.
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.
Just over a year ago, I wrote about a TV review site called Mouthbox. The short version of that piece: I noticed a rather odd practice where the same reviews were simply being republished with a new date, rather than new reviews being written. Not the journalistic scandal of the century, it must be said, but it amused me at the time.
Over the past year I’ve given the site an occasional visit, and noted that no more reviews have been posted. (Or, indeed, re-dated.) Still, a blog not updating for a year is hardly worth a follow-up article. However, recently something has changed on the site. No, I’m afraid it’s not a brand new TV review. Instead, rather awkwardly, a link to “Panto Scripts” has been added to the top navbar – so awkwardly, in fact, that the navbar splits onto two lines now when the site is viewed at full width. If we trust The Wayback Machine, the link was added between February and March of this year.
So, let’s take a look at what this new link is actually about.
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My late-night web browsing covers a wide variety of esoteric topics. Sometimes I find myself looking at the in-depth technical specs of the Evel Knievel pinball machine. Or amazing barely-released Xenomania tracks. Or early versions of toys which ended up becoming Transformers. You get the picture.
The other day, I found myself in a spiral of links about Favrd – an old Twitter favourites aggregator run by Dean Allen1 which was shut down in 2009. At the time, Jeffrey Zeldman wrote this poignant piece about how web communities end. And everywhere round the internet, there was the plaintive cry – from Andy Baio, John Gruber, and Zeldman himself: if only Dean had kept the archives of the site online.
Pleasingly, however, we’re not left in the dark as to his motives. Dean answered these criticisms in the comments section of Zeldman’s blog. Hang on, I’ve got it here, it’s linked to on Daring Fireball… oh, wait, it’s gone?! Yes, Jeffrey Zeldman got rid of all comments on zeldman.com a couple of months back.
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