Wing-building infrastructure

There’s a lot of friction to publishing, though not so much to writing. I have honed my writing tools over the years and can grab any of my devices and get started writing — well, typing — in a matter of seconds.

But when the text of a blog post is done, there’s a significant chunk of work remaining to post it online. I took the first step late last year in simplifying this process by switching from Jekyll, a static site generator, to Statamic, an actual CMS.

“Oh, no,” I can hear you say. “Not another post about blogging platforms!”

There’s a whole genre of such blog posts, common among developers and other technical geeks especially.1 But rest easy, this is not one of them.

There’s a lot to like about using a proper CMS over a static site generator, even if you’re technically proficient, like me. The chief feature that a CMS provides is a Control Panel that you can access from your browser to create and update posts, whereas with the generator you have to work with text files and then compile the site.

The problem wasn’t working directly with text files. That’s how I write anyway: blog posts, notes, fiction, everything. I love plain text.

But the compilation stuff has always been a hassle. Jekyll is based on Ruby, a petulant ecosystem if there ever was one. Keeping Jekyll up-to-date was a chore. I would sometimes go months between writing a blog post, so when I tried to publish something I had just written I would find myself spending half-an-hour or more to update Jekyll so that I could compile the site and upload it to the server.2

Compare that with a CMS which, unless it’s hacked or becomes grossly out of date, more or less keeps working. You log in, paste your content, save it, and boom — it’s online. The catch is that most CMSs use databases which adds a lot of overhead for a simple personal website like this.

The solution? A platform that offers the power of a CMS, but which uses plain text files for content. In short, Statamic.3

I’ve been using Statamic since 2015 at work, but because it’s a commercial product I’d been too cheap to use it for my personal site. But last fall I bought it as a birthday present to myself.4 The site has lain fallow since then, as you may have noticed. Only two posts published in the last six months.

But as I mentioned yesterday, I want to start writing more frequently here. I tweaked the site’s configuration so that I can paste new content via the Control Panel. I also set up some automation to announce new blog posts on Twitter and Facebook, so that I don’t have to do that manually. There’s a lot more to do, but I’m taking it a step at a time. “Good enough” is plenty good.

I’ll be travelling soon and won’t have access to my laptop. As long as I can paste in a new post via the Control Panel, I’m happy. (This is how this post was published.) I’ll try and make this even more efficient in the coming months. After all, since Statamic reads plain text files, I should be able to build a workflow to export these directly from Ulysses, my writing environment of choice.

Last night, as I was tweaking the site’s configuration, I was stuck on some issue, and so jumped in the Statamic Slack to ask a question or two.

I used to be really active on this Slack a few years back, because, as I mentioned, we use Statamic at work as well. But partly because I have been doing less web development this year, and partly because we’re still using the older version of Statamic at work, I haven’t been that engaged with this community.

But as I posted my questions and received helpful answers from two regulars that I knew from back then, I was reminded why I loved hanging out there in the first place. They are a friendly, helpful, and good-humoured bunch.

A long time ago, they encouraged me to learn PHP when I was ignorant of backend code, and then helped me along. They answered questions about Statamic with incredible patience. More than once one of the CMS’s creators would stay with me for, literally, hours to troubleshoot some thorny issue. I got great advice on software, web design, relationships, music and everything else under the sun. Also, many, many GIFs.

I hope I’ve given some help to others in return, but honestly can’t imagine ever squaring this account. The generosity of the Statamic community cannot be overstated.

One of the hardest, most uncertain periods of my life, was when I moved from working at a local academic library to working remotely with a higher education consortium. Part of that transition was taking the small bit of web development I had been doing at the library and doing it at a much grander scale for the consortium. I was self-taught and most of the time I had no idea I was doing.5 The Statamic folks not only helped me get things done, but showed me how much of web development was making it up as we went along. It was a privilege to have the curtain lifted by some great web craftsmen and seeing how much stitching together there is in making something that, once done, looks made out of whole cloth.

It’s a beautiful realization — that the only trick is muddling along — and it applies equally to life as to web development. As Ray Bradbury put it:

Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.

When I first encountered that quote I found it charming, but fundamentally flawed. What happens if you fail to build your wings in time?

Well, if you have a community, they’ll catch you. That’s the deep core of belonging: to feel safe enough to take risks.

The Statamic community helped me to risk changing jobs, which seemed rather mad at the time. I was abandoning a stable job while living in a country in an economic crisis. We didn’t talk about any of that, of course. We talked about matters at hand: site deployments, front-end libraries, recalcitrant templates. And it turned out fine.

At the consortium where I work, I spend a lot of time thinking about communities — how to grow and support them. We recently flew almost two dozen people from around the world to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria. Their goal was to learn skills that will help them in their digital projects and to become advocates for innovation at their local institutions. But that was only part of it. The more challenging goal is to build a community of digital innovators. In other words, to put together the infrastructure that would allow them to take creative risks. To try. To fail. To succeed.

An infrastructure not of things, but of people: a community.

Statamic turned six this week. Jack McDade, Jason Varga and the rest of the folks involved with Statamic took a risk in devoting themselves to this CMS. Their work enables many sites, including the site for the consortium I work at, as well as this personal blog. Statamic has also spawned a wonderful community.

For me, Statamic has been much more than a CMS. It has been a home.

But tonight I’m also glad that, because of Statamic, I can write these few words and easily publish them.

  1. This genre is almost as large as that of bloggers apologizing for not having blogged in a long time — which I have also engaged in. I wonder if future historians of popular culture will analyze such texts with the same devotion that contemporary scholars show towards the ephemera and marginalia of past centuries. With what eyes will they look upon our posts? Curiosity, bafflement, nostalgia? ↩︎

  2. The actual updating process doesn’t take long, but it would inevitably throw up obscure errors that I would have to hunt down and fix before the updating could be completed successfully. ↩︎

  3. Statamic is literally a portmanteau of “static” and “dynamic”. As its creators joke, no one can pronounce it. But other than that, it’s pretty good. ↩︎

  4. “Honey, I bought you a CMS!” are words that have never been uttered by anyone, ever. ↩︎

  5. I still don’t. ↩︎

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