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The Future of Lincolnite: Part 3

June 12, 2013 at 1:00pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

Now it’s time to take a look at the features we want out of Lincolnite. And I do mean “we”. I want to provide the stuff you folks are looking for, of course. But I also need to ensure that I’m making this a project that I want to continue working on day after day. I will break up the features into three categories: content, design, and social.

Content

This one is pretty easy thanks to the feedback I’ve received this week. You folks want information and opinions about local goings-on in the style that I’ve been using for over a decade. Easy enough! No point in fixing what isn’t broken, right?

I can improve a few things, though. First off, restaurant-related posts tend to go over very well. We Lincolnites enjoy food. I need to see if I can make those posts a more regular feature, whether in the form of reviews or just general conversations about goings-on in the local dining scene. Likewise games tend to be very popular. I’ve been told that even when games don’t generate much direct participation in the form of comments, people still love to play along. Mr. T has been doing an incredible job with his weekly Where In Lincoln series; I want to make his game more accessible and fun, and he and I have already discussed how we can make that happen. I also want to more regularly play games like Twenty Questions, Four Corners, and Common Answers. If you have ideas for other types of games—preferably ones that don’t take me hours to set up!—I’m all ears.

One thing I haven’t done a great job with is opening Lincolnite to a wider array of voices. I want to make this site available to more bloggers. Some will be regular contributors and some will be guest posters. Getting more people on board will help with both the quantity and diversity of content available here. The tricky part: ensuring that certain quality standards are met. I don’t want to turn this place into a wasteland of partisan bickering, for example. Lincoln already has the Journal Star comment section for that.

Design

As I mentioned yesterday, many aspects of this site’s design bother me. I want a new look on the front end, and I want it to be friendly to the myriad mobile devices out there. (In industry terms, I want to build a “responsive” website.) The difficulty I have is that I am a code guy not a designer. More on that tomorrow.

Speaking of code, the system running this website has to change. One option is to continue using ExpressionEngine, but to basically start from scratch using the latest version. I don’t think there’s any good way to upgrade the system in place. I’ve got too many customizations behind the scenes to make a straight upgrade feasible. Another option—and my preferred one—is to build my own system as a learning exercise. I’ve become too comfortable in my career and I need to stretch out a bit. The downside of that option is it would take longer. Whereas I could have a new version of ExpressionEngine up and running and fully customized in a few days, building my own system would take much longer. On the other hand, I could build out the pieces in stages and release them as they’re ready.

Social

I dig it when I’m able to get you folks participating, whether it’s playing games, commenting on articles, feeding me tips, or even saying hi out in public. Thus I really want to work on the social side of Lincolnite.

With that in mind, I think I will keep some variation of the current nested comment system. Folks seem to enjoy being able to respond to a particular comment. One series of tweaks I do want to make is to the email notification system. Presently, you can either receive a notification for every comment posted on a thread, or for none. That could be refined to make the emails more targeted to you (i.e. only sending emails if somebody has responded directly to you) and less inbox-filling (i.e. only sending one email no matter how many comments there have been). It would also be nice to show you on the website how many comments there have been since your last visit and where you can find them.

I very frequently post on Twitter as both @MrWilson and LNKite, but neither of those accounts feeds content to this website. I would like to change that. There should be a more direct relationship between my activity on Twitter (and other social media venues, where appropriate) and on here. Don’t expect much Facebook integration, however. I’m not a Facebook guy.

I would love to make it easier for you to share information with one another. I’m not quite sure what that will look like. At the very least it needs to be easier for you to submit tips and ideas to me. The trouble is, many of the tips I receive aren’t “worthy” of being posted here. That’s nothing against you or whatever it is you’re promoting; it’s just that I try to carefully tailor the sort of content I post here for a specific sort of audience. Sometimes I don’t have time to put together a post before whatever you’re promoting has already happened. (Oops!) And I receive press releases all the time that never make it on here. Why not? Because I don’t really care about Budweiser’s latest promotion at some random bar in town, and neither do most of you. It’s not what this site is about.

That being said, some people do find that information useful, and the folks promoting these things could really use a way to get their information out there. I want to facilitate that somehow. I’m not sure yet what that would look like so let me know if you have ideas.

Your Turn

It’s your turn. Are there any feature requests you’d like to see? They can be large or small, specific or generic. Maybe they’re quick and simple, maybe they require a lot of work. Now’s the time to share them.

The Future of Lincolnite: Part 2

June 11, 2013 at 12:46pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

Before we tackle the “what’s next?” questions associated with Lincolnite’s future, let’s first talk about what things look like now. There is a mix of good and bad going on.

First the bad. I designed this iteration of the website over five years ago. While age alone isn’t inherently a bad thing, the fact that I’m not a designer is. Sure, you folks have told me you’re here for the content. Yet every time I type lincolnite.com into my browser and I see the existing site design, I cringe. It’s not the most offensive look on the web, but it had its day. It’s time for something fresh.

More importantly, the design was crafted to accommodate goals that no longer reflect reality. Consider the site navigation in the upper right. “Classifieds”? “Directory”? “Events”? “Forums”? “Gallery”? None of those things exist any more, and the Classifieds and Directory sections barely ever existed in the first place. One also has to wonder what the difference is between “Articles” and “Blogs”. That distinction is fuzzy at best.

The right sidebar also has issues. There are four separate blogs listed, but two aren’t used any more (625 Elm Street and DMB Sports Report). Mr. T’s Den is really only used for Mr. T’s weekly “Where In Lincoln” posts, which really should belong to the main blog. The long and short of it is that although it is nice to know who is posting content, “where” they are posting is largely irrelevant. The inLNK.in widget showing tweets containing the #LNK hashtag is mildly useful at times, but the feature isn’t being utilized particularly well. Then there’s the blogroll. Holy cow is that ever out of date. In fact, I almost forgot it was there. Finally there’s the monthly archive. ‘Tis a handy list of links for very rare purposes, but practically speaking all it does is show that I’ve been actively blogging on this system for a very long time. (I blogged for a few years before the end of that list, but a teeny tiny little database disaster nuked it all.)

There are other design problems as well. Some are subtle. For example, for a while I had enabled a feature that would show you which comments were new since the last time you visited. The feature broke during a system upgrade many moons ago and, for whatever reason, I never got around to fixing it. It was a great little feature that regular commenters miss. Mr. T, our resident photography expert, likes to point out how woefully the current site design presents images within posts. You can’t easily set up image galleries, nor can you easily display images wider than 450 pixels.

The problems happening behind the curtain are far more severe. Lincolnite runs on a system called ExpressionEngine (EE). I love EE. In fact, building websites and website components in EE is my job. But in a classic case of the cobbler’s children lacking footwear, the version of EE running this site is embarrassingly out of date. The system and its various add-ons all technically work, but the entire collection is so ridiculously fragile at this point that I can no longer upgrade any individual component without blowing up the whole thing. That’s why spam comments are such a problem at times, for example. It’s a house of cards and I’ve been hoping for years that nobody sneezes.

I could go on, but let’s not beat this poor horse any more. Let’s switch to the good stuff.

[crickets chirping]

I kid! Despite how frustrated I am with all of the stuff above (and more!), there are some good things going on here. People come to Lincolnite for the content, as you stressed yesterday. We can break that down into three components: 1) news and information, filtered for a specific type of audience; 2) analysis and opinion; 3) comments and reactions from readers. Those are our strengths and they are what need to be used as the foundation for whatever comes next. In addition, periodic injections of content “sugar” help sweeten the experience. The games and contests I create tend to be very popular and they probably should happen more often to help people stay engaged with the site.

All these years of writing content have helped to build a great little community. It’s still a little weird to me, but I’ve become a bit of a C-list celebrity around Lincoln. Folks don’t necessarily know “me”, but they know or have heard of Mr. Wilson. Thanks to this website I have met many of you in person. In fact, I ate lunch with three of you yesterday at Leadbelly. (Look for a review soon!) I also get a kick out of how many people spot The Missus and my kids around town.

And we’re a diverse group. Regular readers include folks on the political far right and the far left; evangelical Christians and militant atheists; wealthy homeowners on the City’s fringes and folks just barely scraping by. I’m not making up those characterizations to make a point; you folks have described yourselves to me in those terms. We’re all here because we enjoy participating in the community in various ways. That’s our link.

Lincolnite could do more with this community of ours. Right now Lincolnite helps build a small buzz for certain local businesses. That has been neat to see at times. And you folks have come through amazingly with thousands of dollars in donations for various causes over the years. That’s just plain awesome. Yet I can’t help but feel like there’s more potential here. So while content is the foundation of Lincolnite’s next iteration, our community should play a big part in the core infrastructure.


That’s how I perceive the current state of Lincolnite. Did I miss anything? What do you think about the way things are here at Lincolnite?

The Future of Lincolnite: Part 1

June 10, 2013 at 1:12pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

We need to talk.

Lincolnite is struggling right now. That’s no secret. I haven’t been blogging as prolifically as I once did. The number of comments has declined. Spam comments are a pain. The site is just a blog yet the site design implies a much broader reach. And so on. Things just aren’t going real well for Lincolnite at the moment.

It’s my fault, of course. I’m the guy running the show and I’m just not keeping up. There are many reasons for that, all of which are predictable and understandable. But I’m not happy with the way things are going.

I started the website called Lincolnite.com from my dorm room back in March 1999. It was, at that time, intended to be a bit of a Yahoo! clone, but at the local level. It would be a Yahoo!-style directory of local websites, plus reviews and commentaries on things from around town. Eventually it morphed into a blog when blogging was still in its infancy. I discovered how much I enjoyed writing about local topics, and how incredible it was that other people enjoyed reading and responding to my thoughts. I slowly built a base of readers, most of whom stayed with me even through the Great Database Disaster of 2004 during which I lost everything associated with the site. (Backups? Who needs backups?)

Lincolnite’s peak came a couple years ago. I posted like crazy and a wide variety of commenters participated in fun and engaging discussions. Although visitor numbers are still doing ok, participation has dropped way off because I’m simply not engaging people like I used to. There’s no energy here.

Lincolnite is and always has been my own personal project, so I could choose to not worry about all of this. It’s my hobby. Why stress about something I’m putting out there for my own enjoyment? What I have learned over the years is that Lincolnite strikes a chord with people. It helps fulfill a desire that people have for participating in this community. People need to have an outlet like this. Indeed, the very same motivations that drive me to write about Lincoln drive others to come here day after day to read and to comment. I have discovered that folks so appreciate this little thing that I do that they trust me to filter and analyze news about local goings-on; they ask me to speak at their events; they donate generously to causes I support; they invite me onto their radio shows; and they’ve even encouraged me to run for public office, promising their votes, their money, and their time. All this based solely on my written rants and musings here on this blog. I’d be one hell of a fool to brush all that aside with a dismissive wave and say “Meh, it’s just a hobby”.

There’s are opportunities here, and I’m missing them.

This week I’m going to ask for your help as I spend a lot of time thinking about Lincolnite. What is this place? What could it be? What ought it be? What can it be? These are big, complicated questions.

This post is the first in a series that will continue for several days. Next I will look at the way things are with Lincolnite. What’s going well? What’s wrong with this site? You can help me think through the current state of things. In Part 3 we will examine the features we want from Lincolnite. We will look at all kinds of ideas, from the realistic to the pie-in-the-sky. Then in Part 4 I will talk about how you can help. I know some of you want to participate more broadly with Lincolnite because you’ve told me so. What might that look like? Finally in Part 5 we will talk about next steps. I will describe the decisions I have already made (based in part on the feedback you provide this week), and the things that still need to happen.

I hope you take some time to think about all this. Whether you’re a first-time reader, long-time lurker, or active participant, I want to hear what’s on your mind. Good or bad. So please, let’s get the conversation started and do plan to come back often throughout the week to read and respond to the comments. Thanks!

Where in Lincoln is this?

June 10, 2013 at 12:39pm By: Mr. T Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

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EDIT: Solved!

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Nothing Says Progress Like a Meeting

June 6, 2013 at 5:23pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

It’s not much, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Nebraska Department of Roads is hosting a public meeting on the South Beltway on June 25 from 4:00pm to 7:00pm at Lincoln Southwest High School. I assume they’ll cover topics like: the project’s route; land acquisition issues; environmental impacts; funding issues; extremely hypothetical timelines; the fate of the existing route of Highway 2 through Lincoln; and so on. It’s a meeting I would love to attend—I even went so far as to add it to my calendar—but I’ll be in Des Moines assessing referees at a soccer tournament. I hope a few of you are able to make it.

Thanks so much to the tipster who sent this in.

Where in Lincoln is this?

June 3, 2013 at 12:25pm By: Mr. T Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

image

EDIT: Solved!

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