Sunday, 10 March 2013

A long day of self-congratulatory code

Did that just happen? Yes, it appears that I not only decided this week to completely redesign my website by hand, but left until the last minute putting together a proper set of audio and video showreels and, due to these delays, left it until the 11th hour to apply to perform poetry at Glastonbury Festival’s “Poetry and Words” stage this year.

(Delicious though the frisson of delay and frankly autostimulatory antics of dicking about with HTML and CSS to make me look good may be, yes, I have actually submitted my application. I only sabotaged my sleep.)

A decent web-presence is pretty important - more important than it used to be to independent performers who need to stand out, especially as the baseline for a “normal” amount of web presence has shifted so much in the last 5 years. And with many people using Wordpress and Moonfruit to make pretty sites for themselves with little-to-no knowledge of the underlying code and engineering of a site, it’s also easier than ever. As a promoter and host, when I have an artist I’m going to be marketing, the very easiest thing is for me to go to their website, grab the best-looking (or most conveniently-proportioned) picture of them, a swift bit of bio-blah and chuck it into an event ticket site, flyer, Facebook event, etc. And then a quick click on their YouTube or Soundcloud presence and I can use that to whet the appetite of the audience. For me the best performer sites have been both easy to navigate and pleasant on the eye, and have contained all these elements in one central place while giving me a good idea of the character of the performer through little things like colour choices and layout. I wanted something like that for me.

It always comes as a shock to me when I ask a performer “And do you have a website we can direct people to?” and they shrug a “not really...” I’m expecting at least a WriteOutLoud profile page or free blog; Twitter and Facebook are less useful unless they have a well-structured fan page on the latter, but still something. I find myself wondering how they market themselves...

I guess that, for many people (and I’m thinking primarily here of Londoners), they’re not looking to travel much to perform - they’re looking to rock up to local open mics and impress, then get booked for feature slots. This is a good way of making it work for you, but what do you do if there isn’t much for you to rock up to where you live and no promoters with funding to see you if you did? And what do you do if - like me - most of the open mic nights on in your vicinity are run by you? Yep - virtual networking: make those intangible connections (much as our ancestors did by carrying out correspondences - sometimes for decades - with people they’d never met but with whom they shared interests, by the way - this is not a new phenomenon), publishing your best work (seriously - not a new thing, just a new technology), being cheeky and getting in touch with people you’ve never met, telling them about the good opinions of people you’ve both met who think you’re both ace, and doing people favours remotely.

I’ve spent the last week gathering quotes from people I trust whom I think that festival-makers will trust and asking them to say (nice) things about me. I’ve been poring through old pictures, video footage and audio recordings of me and splicing it (somewhat timorously, I have to confess, considering I have a lot more material at my disposal than I’ve used) into portfolios that might show me in my best light, critically examining photos, videos, and audio for ones that made me look and sound good. If you thought the website-building was Onanistic, you’ve no idea the horrific mingling of shame and pleasure all that’s brought me.

I love hosting. There’s nothing quite like bringing an audience along with you to cheer and clap for someone else - someone who may be terrified, or just uncertain. It’s amazing and I hope I never stop doing it. But I love performing too, as me, and for that I need to have gigs to perform for, and for that I need to sell myself, despite all the nice-girls-don’t-do-that memes in my head.

So, returning to the new-look website itself, why did I hand-crank the site when Wordpress is so pretty and easy to use? Good question, and one I’d seriously debated. I’ve been coding my own site for a long time now (in fact, for over ten years, now I come to think of it, especially if we count the Word-made sites!) so turning to blogging as a baseline for a whole site seemed a little... retrograde. And while Wordpress, Moonfruit, and Google Sites make things pretty, they’re also deeply limited, even if you pay for the more l33t versions, and can be very difficult to edit (Google, this means you).

So pride and stubbornness get us to the point where I’ve decided that Wordpress isn’t good enough, but my skills aren’t up to Da Pritty. What next? I ask performance-focused web professionals, and it turned out that if I want a pretty site I can subsequently edit myself it would cost a bunch (worth it, long-term) but also take a few weeks.

I didn’t have a few weeks, I had a few days, and the old site just wasn’t going to cut it. Which is why Thursday saw me starting to train myself belatedly in CSS language, and Friday saw me cannibalising other people’s sites to get an idea of how it works out for simple examples, and yesterday saw me bodge all that together in a new site. Going through the process was intriguing from the point of view of what I do as a day job - I’m a technical project manager, mostly for online applications. For this project I had to be client, sponsor, project manager, designer, developer, and tester. I drew it all out on bits of paper, set myself timelines, and wrote out a list of (seemingly endless) tasks. Like a good developer, I ramped up the thoroughness of the testing as the system became more complex, and I used templates and libraries where I could (where I understood them - CSS is stupidly hard for what it is and for who I think I am). I didn't do commenting or draw up any documentation, but luckily the handover process is pretty minimal, so I reckon I’ll get away with it...

Like every technical project in the history of ever, it went out late, incomplete, and with at least one defect. I’m inclined to blame the designer, though the tester missed a blinder. We had minimal scope creep and came in under budget while the product was fit for purpose in the right time-frame. So a win on points. And experience.

Hopefully my future blog posts won’t be this long, but I just wanted to document the thought processes and a little of the physical processes. There’s plenty more to do on the site, and I may well get a professional in at some point, but for now it’ll do, and for now I have something to wave at people from across the country.

Big thanks to all the people who’ve given me quotes to use. If you don’t see yours on there yet it’s because everything else became more urgent, and it will go up. I recommend this process of asking nice people for nice comments to anyone as a morale booster - it’s been like getting the nicest leaving card EVAR and I don’t even have to go anywhere! :)

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