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Constantly evaluating my website properties…

October 27, 2013, 2:29 PM

You may not realize it, but I am constantly evaluating my various online properties.  After all, technology changes, systems change, interests change, quality standards evolve, plus I’m always coming up with new ideas.  My goal is to always have things looking fresh and exciting.  When sites start to look stale or otherwise dated, it reflects kind of poorly on me.  That’s one reason why the splash photo changes monthly, and the photo feature changes weekly.  It’s all about keeping things fresh.  You know that if you’re going to Schumin Web, there’s a good possibility that it’s going to look different the next time that you see it.

Of course, things don’t always look as fresh and new as I’d like.  Sometimes things do become stale.  Schumin Web carried the same design, more or less, for nearly eight years before getting a full redesign in September 2012.  What looked fresh and exciting in October 2004 looked dated by 2012, and many things were shoehorned into that design over the years, with some being integrated more successfully than others.  Even the current “Modern Blue” design got a refresh, updating holdovers from the earlier design, and making a more consistent appearance.

But now, I’m looking at my subsidiary sites, i.e. what you find in the “Major Areas” section.  I’ve always had subsidiary sites, going back to shortly after the website began in 1996, when I spun out a links page into its own website.  Such subsidiary sites have come and gone over the years.  The spun-out links page is long gone.  A jokes site came and went, spun out from a page on the main website before being closed down.  I had a game show fansite, which was a completely new creation and not a spinoff from Schumin Web, and then was later handed off to another webmaster (who has since closed it down).  I had a site about ocean liners for a while, before handing that off to another webmaster (who has since closed it).  Then of course, my old discussion forum site, The Schumin Web Community, is alive and well as The Fire Panel.

These days, I have three subsidiary sites: College Life, the Today’s Special site, and The Schumin Web Transit Center.  Of those three, College Life is in probably the best condition.  That site was a spinoff of Schumin Web, as you might expect, as it took a section of the site called “College Life” and encapsulated it.  Basically, what was once a section of the main site was turned into a subsidiary after I graduated college.  After I graduated college, after all, there would be no further updates to the section.  Thus rather than have a relic on the main site, I repositioned it.  I gave it its own theme (the background is actual bricks from Potomac Hall), and made it standalone.  It’s designed to be something of a time capsule, and something of an online yearbook, since let’s admit it – The Bluestone is not representative of anyone’s college experience, but rather the sanitized version of JMU.  Thus it has always been maintained with a mind towards preservation.  I can’t write like I did in college anymore (I’m a much better writer now!), and so the writing is considered irreplaceable.  Likewise, the quality standards are different because of that, as much of that material wouldn’t pass muster by my current quality standards.  But it’s been maintained over the years – just not so much to affect its outward appearance.  It was converted to WordPress in November 2012.  Unlike the main site, which took a year to convert to WordPress (mostly due to the work that went into raising the quality standards), College Life only took a week to do.  And owing to its small size, all of the old URLs could be mapped to the new ones, so no links were broken when the cutover to the new site was completed.  Thus despite looking like an older website, it’s very modern underneath.

The other two websites, the Today’s Special site and Transit Center, have had more recent attention.  But those sites are both very old sites as far as their architecture goes.  Neither site uses a content management system, though much of Transit Center is powered by a database that I designed myself.  The Today’s Special site, on the other hand, is completely static.  And these days, after becoming accustomed to updating the main site using WordPress, going into Dreamweaver and making changes to those two sites through that (and then transferring the changes to the production site via FTP) is a pain.  I want to upgrade them, but determining what that upgrade should be has been a bit problematic.

In the case of the Today’s Special site, you may recall that I’ve discussed a “Today’s Special wiki” in the past (like here, here, and here), but you haven’t heard anything about it in a while.  Basically, I had been dealing with a two big problems related to that conversion.  First, I was struggling with the idea of converting part of my site to a wiki.  I didn’t want do be in the business of managing users and settling editing disputes amongst users, nor did I want to deal with vandalism and other stuff that comes with a wiki format.  But that could be easily addressed by locking out other users, i.e. use MediaWiki as a CMS rather than a wiki.  But the other problem is a bit bigger.  Put simply, as a site administrator, I hate MediaWiki.  MediaWiki is not a very friendly system from an administration standpoint.  It has no administration backend like other content management systems have, and requires a lot of file system and command line work to do maintenance and updates.  And many of the things that make the MediaWiki engine work well on sites like Wikipedia and Wikia with big dedicated server farms don’t translate well to smaller websites like mine that run on shared hosting.  Additionally, many of the things that make Wikipedia work so well and look so nice do not come with MediaWiki out of the box, but rather, you must add them yourself (and good luck with that!).  Likewise, theme creation in MediaWiki is not so friendly.  The best I could do, even after reading up, fooling around, and building, was a mangled version of a standard MediaWiki theme – and I didn’t want my site to look like Wikipedia.  And lastly, I had one too many instances where I broke it completely and had to backtrack to bring it back up.  So I felt really uncomfortable building out a site on a framework that I didn’t understand very well myself, and where I felt didn’t have the support that I needed to create a top-notch website.

So for the Today’s Special site, I had a change in strategy.  When it came to that site, I’m still planning to build it out into a serious knowledge base about the show, but it won’t be a wiki.  It’s going to be built on WordPress, which is more in line with my current skill set, and there will be no collaborative element to the main content, since I don’t want to manage a wiki.  I am, however, thinking about putting comments on all of the pages, but I can make a final call on that down the road.  So I’m building on much of what I came up with during the “wiki” phase of things, but putting it into a system that will work better overall.  After all, fansites are so 1990s, and it’s time to move beyond that.  I can provide a better quality product, and make it something that everyone can appreciate.  And I’m most looking forward to finally redesigning the site in a way that looks modern and exciting.

Now Transit Center is a bit trickier issue.  It was last given a substantial rebuild in 2008, and the design dates back to its introduction in 2004.  The problem there is that much of the material doesn’t meet my current quality standards.  I’m currently doing a large upload of material to Flickr, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that I’ve uploaded very little material to Flickr that I used in Transit Center.  Thus I conclude that the quality is just not there.  Additionally, the site has been surpassed by other sites as far as content quality and information go.  Another thing that makes Transit Center problematic is that its format made it unsuitable for the Identifying Metro Rail Cars page – thus why that page was made part of the main site, not Transit Center.  My current inclination for Transit Center is to discontinue the existing site, with an eye towards bringing a transit component back in the future should the right concept come along.

What do you think of these plans?  Leave a comment below, and let me know what you think!

Categories: Schumin Web meta