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Wolfville, Nova Scotia
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From Complex to Simple: Lessons from 13 Years of Blogging

Chris Campbell

It started with text, it's always text. Words are important, words are the building blocks of my blog and the closer I am to them, the better.

Memory is fallible and by writing it helps to paint a more comprehensive picture of what is going on at a certain time. In preparing for my session at BlogJam 2015 I realized this as I used my own blog posts to piece together my history of blogging over two decades with this blog running for a lucky 13 years. Anything that you do for a long time starts to become routine and with my blog it's gone from a more hand-crafted, close-to-the-metal how-do-you-set-up-mySQL blog to the site now that lets the fine folks at Squarespace handle everything in the background. I have my own set of quirky routines for writing, but my writing toolkit is more complicated than it needs to be. Now I just have to drop the text into the system and I'll have a blog post.

Context is all. – Margaret Atwood, > The Handmaid's Tale

Being geeky and putting the elements together to share writing was the way you had to be back in the 90s when I started using the web and blogging. The first blog that I had (now lost) was on an Antarctic research web site around 1994. They had extra space on their server and if you emailed them they'd let you set up a web page. You would edit the HTML save it. The first blog post I wrote was a rant about the film "Disclosure". This blog started in 2002 after I registered the domain, paid for some server space, and started thinking about how to have my own site.

bitdepth.org in 2002

bitdepth.org in 2002

In the beginning I did a lot of coding. The first version of my blog used a system from Rael Dornfest called Blosxom (pronounced "blog-some") that used a Perl script to transform text files and folders into a web site. Within the text files you'd use HTML for links or any other formatting, so it was a bit geeky. But it worked great and was fast and easy to use.

What you say should be separate from how you present it. That's why I use text editors for writing and worry about how it will look later. With a text file you don't have to worry about it being out of date. It's easy to take it and transform it and rework it and edit it. Text is powerful.

 

Tell me the story of us.

Again?

Yes.

Frances Ha, written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach

A lot of times I rehearse what I want to write. I roll it around and hone it in my mind. I keep repeating and rearranging things. It's like doing multiple takes. It's like performance. After you do it a lot you stop thinking about it. This is what I've rolled around in my heard and rehearsed as the lessons learned after 13 years of blogging here.

Write every day

"The only space I need to write is enough room for my laptop, and the perfect time to write is always now, especially if it’s only five minutes. Inspiration is not somewhere else. It’s right here." – Emily Drevets – Sit Down, Shut Up, Write, Don't Stop

Write whether you want to or not. Get your fingers moving and assemble those words. They don't have to be good, you just need to write. Practice, practice, practice. Filling the page or the screen is the important thing. Writing is work and it's probably not fun, but the only way to get better at anything is to do it a lot. Waiting for inspiration is just fancy procrastination.

I am a happy user of 750 Words which gives me a morning prompt to write every day with a challenge to write every day. Sometimes it's just journaling, but it can be a review of a film to post on Letterboxd, the beginning of a blog post, or the outline of a presentation. After getting things written at 750 Words I'll copy and paste it to Byword for editing (using Marked 2 to check the spelling, grammar, reading level, and links) and then add it to my blog.

Take notes

"The first thing you do when you take a piece of paper is always put the date on it, the month, the day, and where it is. Because every idea that you put on paper is useful to you. By putting the date on it as a habit, when you look for what you wrote down in your notes, you will be desperate to know that it happened in April in 1972 and it was in Paris and already it begins to be useful. One of the most important tools that a filmmaker has are his/her notes." – Francis Ford Coppola

It's hard to remember everything. Keeping track of what you've seen and heard is important. A notebook can record things in an old-timey way. For work I have a Moleskine notebook and for non-work stuff I've got another one. I've been using keyboards and screens to record things so much over the past few decades that my handwriting isn't as good as it used to be (I won an award for best writing in grade 3, but now I probably wouldn't be in the top 10).

The things I love to capture are great sentences, so when I am watching a film (which happens a lot during a film festival) I will write down a great line to remember later (which is a challenge in the dark). On my iPhone I use an app called Drafts which lets me quickly capture anything. Then usually send it to an app called 1Writer that synchronizes all my notes so I can look at them anywhere. On my MacBook Pro I use an app called nvALT that allows me to quickly write and find notes. That's where I usually create little snippets of text that I am thinking of. Ideally I'd transcribe my notebooks into digital text, but that doesn't always happen.

I use Pinboard for bookmarking things that I'm reading and it's tied in with Instapaper, so everything I save to read later is also saved as a bookmark. Pinboard also archives my tweets and every link posted in a tweet and saves a copy of every bookmarked web page, so if a site disappears there is a version saved that I can look at. This leaves a trail of what I've read, so I can go back and find out something that was interesting to me.

Another thing that can help a lot is to use quantified self devices and apps. I am currently tracking my music and films and food so I can look that up. I also use an app called Reporter that randomly asks me for updates during the day and I record where I am, what I'm doing, what I've eaten, and who I'm with. The other place where I keep track of things is with the Day One diary app. I add pictures and run a script that creates an entry that assembles information I've recorded about a day into an entry.

Take pictures

Pictures are great to help you remember things, and they're also great to go with blog posts. Nobody else has the pictures you take, so it's great to be able to have a library of them to choose from. With a phone you also record the date and time and location so that can help you remember other details. I've been using Flickr for years with my photos and now everything goes there automatically, so it's a great backup (and iCloud Photos has been working great for me too). As I write this I have over 17,000 photos which is a great library of images to choose from when I create a blog post.

Have a place of your own

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"—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" Virginia Woolf, October 1928

Get your own domain. It's cheap and unique and you can take it wherever you go and change systems without things disappearing from the web. Most blogging systems allow you to use your own domain and being able to move as your needs change is important. Companies change and services end, sometimes without warning.

bitdepth.org in 2011

bitdepth.org in 2011

You need to hold on to your stuff. Having a backup of what you've written is important as services go away. Hopefully things won't change quickly or fail dramatically, but if you don't have a copy of your stuff, you are taking a big chance. I wrote a lot on the 43 Things web site and one day the site shut down. Luckily I was able to export everything out of the site (hundreds of entries) but a sister site, All Consuming, had gone down earlier and I couldn't recover a lot of that. I cross-posted a lot of my film reviews to Blogger, so with that and Archive.org's Wayback Machine I was able to recover what I've written. But with other sites like Vox) I lost many posts that I made.

For five years I used Blosxom on a server that I configured myself. For the next five years I used a self-hosted WordPress installation that I also configured and tweaked. Importing everything worked with some images not working and I manually went through and added categories and tags to the posts (it took several months of casual updating). Then I decided to stop configuring the server and plugins and moved over to Squarespace. The import was easy and now I focus more on the writing and rarely on the configuration.

Tools ≠ Talent – The Audio Anarchist Manifesto

With Wordpress and Medium and Squarespace you can export your blog. That is a good thing to do as it gives you a backup in case something goes away. This is important if you have things written on a server that you don't own (or even if you do since hard drives all fail eventually). As I write this I have about 750 blog posts here and knowing that I have them backed up and can move somewhere else is a good feeling (but I'm content with Squarespace).

Share your excitement and wonder

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The most important lesson is to share what you love. If you are enthusiastic about something and share that excitement it translates to your blog posts. Finding out about new adventures or food or places or films or tools is why I love reading blogs. If it is interesting to you, it is probably interesting to someone else. Hopefully that's what you get from this and what you give to others when you write and share.

Tilde.club

Chris Campbell

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The blank page is a challenge and the blinking cursor is full of possibility, but it can be hard to get started. The key is to just go.

It's good to look back every now and then to remember where you have been. If you're hiking up a mountain pausing and looking back gives perspective on the path taken and shows you where you are. The longer that you've been online, the more fragmented that path becomes and many things fall away without noticing them. Maybe that's a good thing. Holding on to too many things can weigh you down, but forgetting too much isn't good either.

The first interactive hypertext jumping around online that I did was using Telnet, then Gopher), and later, HyTelnet. All text-based and simple. I had a notebook where I wrote down addresses of servers and usernames and passwords for systems. The personal part of computing was in that notebook for me as I just needed to go to any terminal to connect to any other computer anywhere in the world. Sometimes I miss the smallness and niceness of that world.

I'm grateful to Paul Ford for setting up tilde club, a tiny little Unix server with some space to make web pages and connect with other nerdy nostalgic people. It's good to have a people like him trying things out. I found out about it from Christina Warren tweeting about it and then got in right away as bitdepth. There are only a few hundred people there and it's all lo-fi and nostalgic for me. You connect to the site to edit your pages through ssh and it's all command-line driven, so it's getting me back into the terminal. Now the terminal isn't only where I go to fix things, but I can make stuff there too. That's nice.

The early days of computers remind me of the early days of my working with film. Back in the early 1980s I was in the last computer science class at the University of New Brunswick that used punched cards to program. It was with an IBM mainframe (System/360 or 370) and we used the big, heavy card punching machines to punch out the holes to write. Then I used the fanfold printer terminals, monochrome terminals (blue and green and the lovely amber ones) and then more colour came in.

Around the same time, I started editing 16mm film. Splicing it together by hand with tape. It's tactile and there is a lot work by necessity that needs to happen in your head as you can't see things right away. Just like working with the command line or punched cards. When you are working in that way you need to be more present and there isn't a lot of multitasking going on. Would I want to go back to working in that way? No. But it's good to go back to see where you have been and where traditions and ways of doing things have come from.

So now I look at the blank screen of the terminal and fire up Vim and edit the page. Remembering the commands from long ago and the html that still works. Resisting the impulse to copy and paste lines and line and lines in. Back in the old days I made all my pages in BBEdit which is still around. I use BBEdit's little brother TextWrangler still for more serious text editing, but most writing now happens elsewhere. The key is to resist the impulse to be too meta and talk about what I am talking about. Just take a breath and let it flow. Share and be in the moment.

The first web page that I made and shared on the internet was on server space that someone shared from an Antarctic research station. I don't remember the name of the server or the people who shared it. The pages are long gone as far as I know, but it was space on the web where I wrote. There was some writing about films and it was over 20 years ago since I was using the Mosaic) web browser to view the web. So now I'm back on a Unix server (which is a tiny virtualized instance, but it's the thought that counts) thinking about what to write and that is a wonderful thing.

8 Years of Twitter

Chris Campbell

Thanks to the wonderful analytical service ThinkUp, this morning I realized that I joined Twitter as @bitdepth and started sharing little updates 8 years ago today. It's a long time in Internet years and Twitter has become the main thing that I do online. The blog here has been around longer, but I don't blog every day, but tweeting is something that happens at least once a day. Using the service has become part of my life and it's how I find out what is happening with news and with many friends. While Facebook is still around and is the main source of news and networking for many, I've honed and tuned my Twitter stream to the point where it is all mine and I love it.

In the old days I had only met one or two people that I followed in real life. The world of Twitter for me was virtual and I hadn't thought that I'd ever meet many people who were on the service. One of the early rules I had was to not follow more than 99 people. The only way that to follow someone new was to unfollow someone. But things have changed now and I follow a lot more people and there are many people that I follow that I know in real life. Friends even.

The most amazing thing is how seamless and invisible the whole thing has become. It's one of the first things I do in the morning and the pulse is there all day while checking in to find out what is happening in the world and with the people I follow. They're my friends and there is no need to qualify whether they are "real" or "virtual" any more than someone who you talk with on the phone is at a varying level of reality. Twitter is a medium, a way to connect with people, and I love it.

The early days were cell phone-based and the phones were simpler and it was more expensive. At first the only way to start using Twitter was with a cell phone. You would sign up through SMS. Twitter was mainly mobile. Then the web site allowed you to do more and the first clients came out and in January of 2007, Twitterrific came out for the Mac and that became how I used Twitter and stayed with the Iconfactory's client ever since. Craig Hockenberry of Iconfactory even coined the word "tweet" for the updates on Twitter. When I finally got an iPhone (a 4 was the first model that I had), the iPhone Twitterrific client became my choice for most of what I tweet.

Every morning I send out a tweet usually about the oatmeal that I so often have. When I watch films I let people know what I am watching. There are also small messages between people who are having good days, bad days, or just having fun. Connecting and sharing is what is the strength of social networks and the friends that we have. I'm so glad that there is a way that makes it easier and has allowed me to expand the circle of my friends and to stay connected with them.

Preserving the Past

Chris Campbell

As we share more of ourselves online on various sites, it's important to think about preserving it. Unless you have things backed up on your own, it's not permanent. These things become significant when a site closes down. The good ones will let you export your data, but sometimes sites just go away. With the upcoming closing of 43 Things it made me look back through what I had written and some of those entries started me looking back at other sites and finding things that I had forgotten.

Luckily with the blogging systems I've used, moving from one to another has kept most of my writing. I started with Blosxom, then moved to Typo), then Wordpress, and then to Squarespace. The earlier versions were self-hosted and now I'm happy to concentrate on the writing. While I have all the entries (and I think that I have a backup of the static version of the site somewhere), not all the links in the entries work and the images don't show up. While the Internet Archive Wayback Machine has the entries, the images are not saved. Someday I've got to get that fixed up a bit.

With the disappearance of Textdrive where I had my sites hosted for years, it made me lose the Bad Metaphor site that hosted the podcast that my son and I had produced a few years ago. The podcasts are all thankfully preserved in the Internet Archive and I have the original files too. But it's scary when things disappear. I'd moved this blog over to Squarespace earlier, but kept the archive there and didn't get a warning of the site going away until my son noticed that the site was down. My plan now is to set up the archive of the podcast in a section on this site.

The possibility of losing things makes you think about the value of them and it made me start to look through other things that I had written in the past. I love trying out new things and sites, so every now and then that is where my online energy will go. When the Vox blogging service) was introduced by Six Apart I liked it and started blogging there with shorter and more frequent things (like an early version of Tumblr now that I think about it). When I was writing about past Sappyfests, I realized that I didn't have blog entries here, but there were some scattered on other sites. Now with those sites gone, the question is how to share what was there. I'm thinking of retroactively posting them here with the original dates from the post. They'll become part of the archive.

The good thing is that it should be relatively easy to do this, but it makes me want to make sure that it is all backed up. If a site doesn't let you export your content, you should be careful. We rely on the kindness of others when we don't take responsibility for what we create. Most of the time it is ok, but when that breaks down we're left with nothing. So now I've got a routine where I'll export my content from sites where I can (Pinboard, Squarespace, Twitter, Medium) and think about whether I should post to sites where I can't get my archive or set up things like IFTTT to archive stuff somewhere.

So every now and then I'll check to make sure that things get backed up. Then maybe do a bit of curating and highlighting of things from the past. This blog has been around since May of 2002, so there is a lot here and looking through what I've written also gives a glimpse into the sites and services that have changed or disappeared over the past decade. We can learn from the past and it's good to save it and look back every now and then.

I Was Doing 43 Things

Chris Campbell

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I’m trying out 43 Things and it’s very addictive. It’s a great way to keep track of and share things that you want to do. What adds to the stickiness of the whole thing is that you’re sharing your list. Making a goal public is a way to increase the pressure (and support) to get things done. It’s helped me already as I’m starting to blog more. One thing that will be interesting to see is how much I continue to use it and if I spend more time looking at other people’s goals which can take away from completing my goals. But if spending time on 43 Things helps other people meet their goals, then it’s time that I’ve spent very well.
— January 2, 2005 post on 43 Things

Signal vs. Noise blog post.

Almost ten years ago I discovered a site called 43 Things (from Jason Fried's Signal vs. Noise post) that drew me in and shaped my idea of what an online community could be. "What do you want to do with your life?" was the question with a box to enter something. It was simple and powerful, using solid web design and tools in a way that prompted you to explore and share with other people. I joined up on December 31, 2004 and it broadened my world, expanded my connections, and formed positive routines that continue to this day.

But now it's closing down, so I've downloaded all my content from the site and it will be going away. It was one of my all-time favourite sites because of the people. For many it seems to have been the same experience with me as a way to engage more with other people online and I've stayed in touch with many of them as the web evolved and the community dispersed. There were two amazing things going on with 43 Things with the first being the people and the second how they used the technology.

Early Robot Co-op blog post.

One of the great things about being part of something at the beginning is the rules are simpler and people are trying out all sorts of different ways of doing stuff. 43 Things was built by a group of folks calling themselves The Robot Co-op which is intriguing. They were using the brand-new Ruby on Rails framework for the site which had a newer look and all sorts of cutting-edge features like bringing in data from other sites, sophisticated RSS feeds, and tags. This was possible because of the extensive use of APIs on many sites which made working together and sharing on the back end relatively easy. The newer and cutting-edge sites of the time were using similar features and new stuff was added all the time.

It was personal and new releases of 43 Things were named after My Little Pony characters and you got a sense of the love and attention to detail that was part of the whole experience. One time something wasn't working so I sent an email to support and Buster emailed back and said that he was trying something and it broke that feature, but he was fixing it. I'd never received a personal support email like that before and it made me realize on a deep level that there were people in a place that made this thing. That was part of the magic and it's what I continue to look for on other sites. I want a sense of the people who are making things and it's great when they have opinions about how a site should be.

I wore my 43 Things t-shirt today and when I was getting coffee I was asked, “what are the other 42 things that you’re doing”. It was kind of neat. While 43 Things is public, there is a level of anonymity that is connected with the sharing. I’m glad that I’m sharing the 43 Things vibe with the world outside of my keyboard and screen.
— July 25, 2005 post on 43 Things

There was a secret store on the site. There was no link to it, but it was implied. If you added /store to the site address it would take you there and you could order a t-shirt there. I did that and wore it proudly. The design of the site encouraged you to explore and connect and find things in different ways. Starting in the same year as Facebook, it was a different approach in how you interacted with other people and it's probably one of the reasons that I joined Facebook later than many other people.

I think that I can cross “Try out 43 Things” off my list of (not quite) 43 things now. I’ve used it a bunch as right now I’m up to 15 things so I think that I’m going to use it for a while. Now I have to use 43 things more to meet my goals (but that’s an implicit goal of the whole thing, isn’t it?).
— January 1, 2005 post on 43 Things

What distinguished 43 Things and many of the other great sites of the time is that there was a solid sense of community and how to nourish that. Responsibility given to the community to manage how it all worked and how the interaction happened. A key aspect of the site was in creating a sense of safety. You didn't have to reveal your real location or identity and that is important and powerful. Nurturing the right environment is what makes it possible to be honest and not fear judgment and it creates a supportive and powerful community.

Gratitude goal.

The goal that made the biggest difference for me and one of the most popular goals on the site was listing five things that you are grateful for each day. I did that for years (with over 1000 entries written) and having that positive mindset made a huge difference. Looking back through some of the entries I made on that goal formed a snapshot of positive aspects of my day. It's amazing to see the little things captured there. It's a journal that I am glad that I kept and that positive morning mindset is something that continues on today with morning tweets that I share where the goal is always to be positive. It makes a difference and creates a little ripple of positivity that spreads out through the world.

It was a regular routine for years and when I started participating less in the site and doing more writing on Twitter and 750 Words they started fulfilling the same function. There were interesting people doing interesting things on 43 Things and as they grew they started companion sites with the same ideas behind them with 43 Places (for travel), 43 People (for people), and they took over All Consuming (for films and music and books). So many of the ideas were ahead of their time with location checkins predating Foursquare as one small example. You could also cross-post to other sites and I connected with Blogger which is where there is an archive of many of my posts from All Consuming.

The social networking was powerful as it connected you with people doing things so finding people with similar interests seemed almost magical. It encouraged activity and the members of the community were supportive. Growing out of the gratitude goal, it got me started doing yoga and it also was where smaller, more ephemeral updates appeared. Looking through my archive is fascinating as I see so many little details about my life in this online diary. I need to keep preserving what I write as it gives great insight into who you are and what you are doing.

I completed the May Challenge at 750Words.com and made it to the Wall of Awesomeness. Getting into the daily writing routine was a lot of fun and I think that it helps to put things into context. I still love writing here on 43 Things, but having a private space is nice too as it provides a different space for reflection that can be more personal. It’s part of my routine now. I also took the June challenge, but missed a day quite early! But I did complete it for May and it’s going to be something I do for a while.
— June 13, 2010

My 750 Words goal on 43 Things.

As the site grew and the other sites were added, things like All Consuming, Twitter, and 750 Words became where I wrote. They predated Last.fm, Goodreads, and Letterboxd for tracking that stuff. It's great to look back at the archive to see how much I was writing about what I was listening to, reading, and watching. I'm so happy that the Internet Archive preserves much of this as I didn't notice that the site had closed earlier in the year. It's good to revisit and highlight what you have done before. The past can help you remember who you are and 43 Things was a great community to share and connect with other people.

It's sad to see it go, but things change and evolve and one thing leads to another. I'm so glad that I found the site and for everyone who made it, helped it grow, and shaped the online world to make it friendlier and more powerful.