A few technical words about Upsideclown, and some thoughts about audiences and the web

10.07, Thursday 17 Aug 2017

I also write stories over at Upsideclown, which is both a website and a small writing group. Well I should be careful about the present tense: I wrote there between 2000 and 2003, and I shortly will again. We recently resumed after a 14 year hiatus.

First time round we published twice a week. There are a ton of stories! We had a party for our readers! We self-published a book! Which back then was hard. I had to do layout in Quark and install a special printer driver that would send pages to a printing firm in Tennessee which could do short-run binding. Taking payments online to sell books was, well, I think we ended up mostly doing cash.

This time round it’s lower-key: we’re publishing once every two weeks. It’s the same group of seven, so each of us comes round every three months and some. I’m enjoying seeing how our writing has changed and also how it hasn’t.

Upsideclown is old-fashioned I suppose. I started it as an excuse to keep in touch with friends from uni. It’s me, plus Dan, George, Jamie, James, Neil, and Vic. And it’s mostly about that plus of sprinkling of some useful pressure to keep my hand in writing fiction. It’s not the central purpose but it’s always nice to have readers so I do a little light promotion too. (Subscribe to the newsletter!)

It feels transgressive to have a website in 2017. Something about having a domain name and about coding HTML which is against the grain now. It’s something big companies do, not small groups. We’re supposed to put our content on Facebook or Medium, or keep our publishing to an email newsletter. But a website?

Technical details

Resuming 17 years after starting gives you a glimpse of the long now of the web.

There are pages I made - the first stories - that I haven’t touched in almost two decades and they still work. Web-world that’s pretty rare. They’ve outlasted most places that encourage you to host their content with them, and even the popularity curve of many programming languages and web frameworks. Database technologies have come and gone.

And then there’s my own attention and ability… I no longer program for a living as I did when Upsideclown started. I keep in touch and still make the odd thing, but I’ve forgotten a ton. So I have a philosophy around choosing what tech to use when I’m building this stuff: will I be able to fix it, half drunk, ten years after I’ve lost all the tooling.

On the design side I’m pleased that when the design changed, I made sure the old stories kept the old design when the newer ones picked up the new one. Design changes meaning. A story would mean something else if I retroactively put it in a classy frame, or a punk frame, or added highlights.

So it’s all about longevity and data. I rewrote everything for the reboot and here’s how it works now:

New Upsideclown stories are stored in Markdown because it’s a simple format and, in another decade, when I’ve forgotten everything I know, I’ll be able to tell what I meant just by looking at it. Here’s Neil’s recent story as published. Here it is in the Markdown “source” format. No databases, it’s all files.

Rendering is in PHP. Old school I know, but it’s a language which has stood the test of time, and I can go from a standing start (seriously I hadn’t coded with it for ten years) to a functional and decent looking site in a leisurely weekend. So if I need to rewrite I know I can. I’m not planning to: unless some burning desire strikes, not until 2034 at the earliest. It’s served with Apache, no app engine. I figure web servers will be around for the duration.

(I have the same approach with my blog: posts are text files and go back to February 2000. The publishing engine I’ve rewritten a few times.)

The reason the stories aren’t kept in HTML is so I can publish out to other formats: there’s an RSS version that is picked up by Mailchimp so readers can subscribe to the newsletter. The archive is dynamically generated.

I’m looking at whether to also generate Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, perhaps plug into Apple News too.

People don’t visit or link to websites like they used to.

You gotta fish where the fish are.

But you also want to be able to look back on what you’ve created once you’ve retired. So it’s a balance.

How web publishing has changed

I knew that publishing to the web was out of fashion. What I hadn’t realised was how much the tools had eroded. Or rather, two things: if you want to know how many people have read your stories, and where they came from, then (a) the analytics tools haven’t kept up with how and where people read; and, (b) the analytics tools are made for big companies optimising the flow of audiences down funnels to achieve particular goals. Not for small, independent publishers.

Here’s an example. There’s no simple online tool that lets me add up how many people have read a particular story on Upsideclown via the website, the RSS feed, and the email newsletter. Why not? If I add syndication to Facebook, Google, and Apple, I’m even more at sea.

This isn’t because I want to optimise an audience; this isn’t because I want to sell ads. This is because it’s nice to know that 17 people read the website and 21 people opened the newsletter, and 36 people read the same story on Facebook, and 6 in an RSS reader – and gosh that’s like the whole top level of a double decker bus, all those people read my story! When companies deal with millions and billions, I think perhaps they forget how the intimate feels. How sometimes it’s not about a thousand retweets but instead about an audience of readers who come back. With whom you have a relationship. Who appreciate you, and you appreciate them. Yes it’s a pleasure to write, and yes I will do it without needing to get 1,000 likes on each and every story, but also let’s not forget that it’s more pleasant with company.

These likes, faves, and claps are cold. No wonder we need so many of them to feel sated. Instead I’d like to look at the depth and duration of meaningful relationships, and to share that with my fellow authors. I know analytics feels like a dirty word in this context, tarred as it is with A/B testing and e-commerce flows, but there’s a joy to be had in being on stage and seeing the faces of your audience — rapt. The erosion of tools for modern online publishing has, bizarrely, made the intimate audience invisible. What can we count so that we’re over the moon when there’s twenty of it? And simultaneously I’d like to make it easy for readers to read wherever they are, whether that’s the web, Facebook, email, or whatever. I can handle that last bit but Google Analytics doesn’t help me with the former. Nor does Medium.

Not without budging on my desire to make pages which I can still read in 2034, anyway. It seems to me that, sometime in the last 17 years, the web forgot the simple pleasure of making, and appreciating what’s made, together.

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