Sunday, April 19, 2015

Dr. Stayput or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blogger

Many of the folks who I communicate with asked where I disappeared to from the end of January through the beginning of March with regard to A Historian Finding My Way, and you, my readers deserve a rational explanation. This post will explain what happened and where I'm intending to head in the future.

What Happened?

First, life happened. As much as I enjoy blogging and think that it serves a valuable purpose to share my academic perspectives, the reality is that creating content is a very easy thing to bump off of the schedule in favor of more pressing items. Included among these were an extended illness, automobile breakdowns, the craziness of drafting proposals, and keeping up with my studies. That being said, another, more academically substantive challenge interceded.

I had an academic existential crisis about AHFMW.
Pulling My Hair Out.
Something along these lines.
One of the courses that I have been taking involves Digital Public History and Digital Humanities. One of the primary discussions this course covers is to turn a critical eye towards how historians employ technology to convey their message and scholarship. As a part of these discussions, we explored various platforms for presenting work including Omeka, WordPress, Google Maps, and Zotero. As a result of seeing this amazing technology and all it could do, I began to strongly question whether Blogger was the appropriate venue to meet my objectives including demonstrating my ability to create a viable personal website.

I began to test other platforms including Omeka and WordPress to see if they could improve deficiencies I found in Blogger. Below, I've reviewed these sites, along with my initial concerns regarding blogger, and my eventual return to loving my home base.



My Background with Blogger and Its Strengths

Blogger has been my base of operations since I re-started blogging in March of last year (2014) when I found out I was going to graduate school. I had a blogger through high school as a way of letting off steam about what I experienced through art, poetry, and some essay writing. I chose Blogger because it has several strengths:
  • It's FREE- always a perk for broke college students; even if you do move up to a custom domain it is relatively cheap
  • It's simple to use- if you're not wanting to do a whole lot more than write and post, it doesn't get much easier
  • There are nice looking pre-built layouts
  • It links up to Microsoft Word for writing
  • It has one of the largest user bases in blogging, so troubleshooting is only a search away

Blogger Does Have Flaws

  • Blogger doesn't have an easy to build method for adding a static homepage (it's to operate blogs rather than full fledged sites)
  • Occasionally, random highlights or other formatting issues occur
  • Some people consider Blogger to be an antiquated system
  • Blogger is not particularly easy to integrate multimedia into
  • It is very difficult to add some components most take for granted nowadays (i.e. it took about six hours of trial and error to add a LinkedIn button in the correct place).


What is Zotero and What Does It Do Well?

Zotero is a system that was built to accommodate sharing bibliographies and resources among scholars.
  • Zotero is recognized for its academic credibility
  • Zotero has thousands of registered users who can see publicly available lists of books, articles, and other documents.
  • Zotero is easy to use and has plug-ins for Chrome, Firefox, and even a desktop version

What Are the Drawbacks?

  • Zotero is built as a bibliographic database tool, not a platform for hosting content
  • Zotero lacks any mechanism for posting articles or discussions


What is Omeka?

Omeka is a content platform, built by the same center as Zotero, which hosts multimedia and object based materials.
  • Omeka has a wide academic following
  • Omeka excels at handling a wide variety of materials
  • Omeka is fairly simple to operate
  • Omeka has homepages
  • Omeka has a clean design with multiple templates and bolt-ons
  • Omeka has the capacity to integrate citation and geo-location data

Why Didn't It Work?

  • Omeka is fundamentally structured for building digital archival collections, and while I could finesse the system to host blog posts, it isn't designed to.
  • Omeka's multimedia hosting is more than I need for the few items I include.
  • Omeka lacks automatic updates


What's a Weebly?

Weebly is a platform suited to building free websites for businesses, non-profits, and blogs. 
  • Weebly has beautiful templates for building websites
  • Weebly has free subdomains and the ability to purchase independent domain names
  • Weebly offers integration for sales and other applications
  • Weebly has integration of multimedia and templates for creating different sections of a site
  • Weebly has a great system for tracking usage (important for making improvements)
  • Weebly has automatic updates

Sounds Nice, Why Doesn't It Work?

  • Weebly lacks import functionality which is important for migrating a blog. To move everything, I would have to transfer content post by post, a time consuming process that introduces a lot of margin for error.
  • Weebly's model charges fees for access to the more advanced editing features of the website, including an automated "Build with Weebly" logo which is very unprofessional looking.
  • Weebly's advanced features and domain names get expensive very quickly because they are based on a monthly fee structure in addition to the actual domain costs.
  • I've seen some amazing things from students working on National History Day projects built in Weebly, but also there are problems with the mechanics of creating custom tools to use on Weebly sites (i.e. interactive timelines).


Facebook has risen to the level of having a hand in most things web nowadays, so why not just build a Facebook page for a blog? Namely because I didn't feel that it allowed me to actually showcase any digital skills other than creating text. Also, it doesn't seem particularly professional (I see Facebook used by individuals as something to keep separate from your work). is another social networking platform, but is specifically built to handle the interests of researchers wishing to disseminate their research in a publicly available forum. While it does have academic credibility, very little of my work with A Historian Finding My Way is my traditional scholastic work. Instead of an avenue for posting my papers, this blog is my way to generalize the lessons and ideas I discover as I grow as a historian. While I do make corrections, edits, and revisions, these posts often aren't intended as finished scholarly publications. To understand the difference, stop by the Santayana Edition's website and look at the polished version of my previous posts. This difference allows me to address topics that I haven't developed the professional credentials to comment on in a scholarly publication, or that those publications choose not to discuss. Also, I try to be a little more myself and down to earth with A Historian Finding My Way than is allowed in formal academic writing.


Drupal is the platform many large and security concerned websites use, for example Drupal does fantastic things and has the highest level of security out of most mainstream hosts. That being said, Drupal is too much platform for the task at hand. My site doesn't have as much traffic or concern of being a point of attack when compared to the huge sites that Drupal caters to. Also, Drupal does not offer updates to their system that don't require a complete rebuild.


I've Heard of That. What is It?

WordPress is by far the most popular content hosting platform outside of social media, making up almost 1/4 of all sites on the web. It has many advantages that make it so popular.
  • WordPress has thousands of bolt-on components and templates for customizing your site in limitless ways.
  • WordPress has both commercial and academic site building components which can be used for creating your site. See historian Elizabeth Covart's excellent discussion of the difference here.
  • WordPress has been adapted by countless academics to build their own websites and for supplementing (or replacing entirely) academic systems such as Blackboard and Canvas. 
  • WordPress has a built in import function for migrating content (posts, pages, and pictures) from another site.
  • WordPress has built in sharing to multimedia platforms.

This Sounds Like A Winner, Right?

I was very close to transitioning to WordPress, but several items hung me up (I used, so please keep that in mind).
  • WordPress is template-constrictive, meaning that the templates WordPress operates on (though beautiful) offer minimal room for modification. I found this overly restrictive.
  • WordPress doesn't allow you into the backend (HTML, CSS, and other code) without facing a $90/year pay wall. Being a broke college student, this almost completely killed WordPress for me.
  • The template I liked couldn't be changed for additional pages (i.e. I couldn't have a header on one page and a no header on another). As a result, the pages looked clunky and didn't reflect the cleanliness I wanted to achieve.

So Why Did You Go Back to Blogger?

One large intervening fact led to my staying with Blogger. I learned to code HTML and CSS with a program called CodeCademy. Having the ability to understand (at least at a rudimentary level) the language that makes up the web and then being able to access it (which Blogger allows through its template editor) allows me in theory to be able to change anything about my page's construction. I'm still working at improving my skills, but theoretically, I can work towards improving my site and its functionality. I'm hoping to learn PHP and a few other web languages to make future improvements as well. For now though, I'm back to blogging and we'll see where that takes us.

Later on, I'll hopefully have the opportunity to share some of the other lessons I've learned as a part of this process, and we'll explore some systems for learning things like CodeCademy that are available free on the web.

Best wishes.

No comments:

Post a Comment