So I’m at work modernizing websites again…

6 minute read

December 11, 2012, 1:07 AM

So I’m at it again, working to modernize a Schumin Web property.  You may recall (and it’s pretty hard to miss) that Schumin Web proper was converted to WordPress over the course of a year in 2011-2012.  Then College Life was converted to WordPress last month in a process that took about a week and a half to do.  That leaves the Today’s Special site and Transit Center left to be upgraded.

The current project is to convert the Today’s Special site to a content platform of some sort.  However, unlike Schumin Web proper and College Life, this one isn’t going to be where the site is ported to a content platform but looks the same to the user in the end as it did before.  This is going to be a big project for different reasons.  I am finally going to take the Today’s Special site and bring it into the 21st century.  Here’s a little secret for you: I have been unhappy with that site’s design and structure for a little over five years now.  The site last received a major redesign/overhaul in 2005 (while I was out of commission due to some minor surgery), and that mainly improved the writing and the layout, while keeping the general structure the same.  When I converted the site to PHP with the move to Dreamhost in 2007, I had wanted to do a big overhaul on it, but ultimately ended up converting it more or less the same as it was before, owing to time constraints and also my own capabilities at that time.

Now, my long-dreamed-of overhaul is coming.  I have the time, and I now have the technical knowledge and the maturity to bring my vision to reality.  The Today’s Special site is going to become a wiki.  It’s going to move away from fansite and more towards being a knowledge base – the source for all things Today’s Special.  Using Homestar Runner Wiki and Muppet Wiki as inspiration, my plan is to greatly expand the depth and breadth of coverage of the Today’s Special site, and be as extensive as I can get it.  And with the wiki format, this can and should be a collaborative effort.  I want other fans to join in.  I hope that Today’s Special alumni will contribute.  I hope that TVOntario joins in, too.  I think everyone with an interest in the show has something to contribute, even if it’s just correcting a typo, or removing a stray comma.

To accomplish this, the site will be powered by MediaWiki, which is the platform that runs Wikipedia.  I chose MediaWiki over other wiki platforms mainly for a lessened learning curve.  Having spent more than seven years editing Wikipedia, I am quite familiar with MediaWiki.  And I’ve found that MediaWiki is pretty easy to get up and running for your own installation.  It doesn’t require much work to get the basic system up and running.

But getting the wiki system up and running is fairly easy.  The hard part is going to be in actually creating the knowledge base about Today’s Special.

Also, and somewhat surprisingly, another hard part has been designing a proper theme for the site.  I have found that MediaWiki is a bit difficult to design for.  With WordPress, it was pretty easy to design a custom theme.  MediaWiki has been harder to crack in that regard.  I’ve run into enough problems in building a theme that I ended up settling in the short term.  Thus the current plan is for a future Today’s Special wiki to look more or less like this:

Screenshot of Today's Special Wiki test site

This theme is, at its heart, the MonoBook theme that comes with MediaWiki.  The theme is modified to make it fit Today’s Special‘s color scheme, loosely based on the Children’s Department set as it appeared in the 1985 episodes.  However, I fear that if I concentrate on building a full theme now, it will drag the whole project (sound familiar?) due to needing to build up some familiarity with MediaWiki’s theming, and also needing to come up with a suitable design.  So I’m content for the site to look like a lot of MediaWiki sites in the short term, as long as a permanent theme is forthcoming.  That’s what I did with Schumin Web proper.  You may recall that when I launched the WordPress-powered site, it looked nearly identical to what it replaced.  Then the planned redesign happened three months later.  I’m not that enthused about using MonoBook as the theme, because I think that it represents a step back in design evolution from where my sites are generally going.  Compare MonoBook to Modern Blue, which is the theme on Schumin Web proper (i.e. what you’re looking at right now).  Big difference in styling.  I want a future Today’s Special wiki to resemble Modern Blue more than it does MonoBook.  But that will come in time.

And the funny thing about my going all gung-ho about a Today’s Special wiki is that I’m more or less through dealing with Wikipedia.  I’m tired of all of the infighting over there.  If I’m going to do something in my spare time, it had better be enjoyable.  When I’m finding myself getting angry based on what some people on there do and how they behave, it stops being enjoyable.  And when something that I’m doing for free in my spare time stops being fun and enjoyable, it’s time to find a new pastime.  I’m to that point with Wikipedia.  I’ve read articles over the years (like this one) where they say that Wikipedia will fail for reasons related to various external factors like vandals, spammers, and the like, but I’m more of the opinion that Wikipedia will never be destroyed on account of external factors.  I believe that Wikipedia will ultimately destroy itself from within over time by driving off good users.  I’ve been an editor on Wikipedia for seven years.  I’ve been an administrator for five.  Over time, you have a tendency to collect enemies, even when working with the best of intentions.  This one got into an argument with me about a photo.  This one didn’t like a discussion close.  This one is amazed that I saw right through his lies about copyright infringements.  And people held a lot of petty grudges.  I remember when I was up to become an administrator, one person advocated against my becoming an administrator over a minor argument that we had gotten into years prior.  Nice guy.  Me, I never held any grudges against people.  I tried to avoid interacting with certain people, but I didn’t hold grudges, and assumed good faith as we were encouraged to do whenever I could.

Plus it’s also true on Wikipedia as it is on other places: people behave amazingly badly on the Internet.  I don’t know if sitting at one’s computer by one’s self makes one feel like they have carte blanche to be a jerk, but I’d bet most people wouldn’t dare act in person the way they do online.  After all, when people are within someone else’s striking distance, they tend to behave much better than they might otherwise.  I like to think that I behave in about the same way online as I do in real life – that is to say, I treat others with respect in any venue (though I do reserve the right to occasionally go off on someone, both online and in real life).  Only difference is that I can refine my thoughts a little further online vs. in real life, because once words come out of my mouth in real life, they’re gone forever.  I can at least edit it a little before it goes out online.  And unlike many people, I use my real name online.  I am Ben Schumin in real life, and I’m Ben Schumin on the Internet.  I don’t know if that makes me uncreative for not coming up with a handle, or if it means I’m extra authentic for just being myself.  I like to think the latter.

Of course, my experience with Wikipedia means I know what can happen on a wiki, though I don’t know how much of Wikipedia’s culture is universal wiki behavior vs. Wikipedia-specific.  The Today’s Special wiki will be on a much narrower range of topics due to its being about a single body of work, but we’ll see, I suppose.  Hopefully it’s a more collegial atmosphere than on Wikipedia, but it also won’t hurt that I will be the benevolent dictator on the Today’s Special wiki (owing to the fact that it’s my website and all), and thus I will have a bit more sway over things there than on Wikipedia.

And then in building a new wiki, I want to have a lot of things done before I formally go live.  Even though the design will be less-than-stellar at first, I don’t want the content to suffer during a transition.  Thus I plan on having a good, solid base for the site to launch with.  That will involve creating many articles and putting a categorization scheme in place, plus putting a lot of “project” framework in behind the articles to help define parts of the site.

So all in all, this should be a fun challenge.  But I think I’m up to it.