My first real website

The Link's website in summer 2002

The Link's website in summer 2002

For some reason that completely eludes me now, I took a trip through the Wayback Machine this week to visit my first big website. It was for The Link, the better of Concordia University’s two student newspapers (at least while I worked there). And sadly, it’s a website that no longer exists except in the form of a few snapshots in the Internet Archive.

Taking us back to 2001

Having been appointed to the position of webmaster for a newspaper that didn’t have a website, it became pretty clear what my first job would be. During the summer of 2001 I embarked on a project to create a server and install a content management system on it that would be suitable for newspaper articles.

The first part wasn’t too complicated: a generic desktop server with Slackware Linux installed on it, a few tweaks, and the server was up.

The CMS was a different story. This was two years before WordPress. Months before the first MovableType. After minutes of searching, I figured my best option would be to use Slashcode, the Perl-based engine behind the popular Slashdot. (Hey, remember Slashdot? Apparently it’s still there.)

In hindsight, it was a horrible mistake. At the time (and I suspect this is still the case) it was an awful, inelegant piece of hacked-together software, built from scratch to support Slashdot and awkwardly patched with new features. That meant changing things very difficult.

Among the annoyances that only grew over time:

  • Accounts had to be created for each author. Every time a new person contributed or even just wrote a letter to the editor, an account had to be created. A few years in, the “author” drop-down menu had over a hundred names in it.
  • No concept of “issues” to tie together articles of a certain date. Instead of showing all the articles for a particular issue, it would be programmed to show the latest X number of articles.
  • An impossible-to-understand caching system that required all sorts of manual resets in order to do something simple like change the background colour on the main page. This is combined with a background daemon that had the habit of turning itself off.
  • A database that tended to get corrupted causing everything to go bad.
  • Hard-coded or semi-hard-coded constants and variables, such as a “security level” that was in the form of an integer instead of a list of capabilities.
  • No built-in way of handling photos or their captions.

But for its faults, the system also had many useful features, some of which were ahead of their time:

  • Threaded comments, comment rating and group moderation (being Concordia at a time of relative political chaos, these got a lot of use)
  • Integrated RSS, including the ability to pull RSS headlines from other sites
  • Form keys to prevent spamming and double comments
  • “Boxes” (what WordPress calls “widgets) that provide for various functions and bonus content in the sidebar

For about five years, the website ran on Slash, frustrating webmaster after webmaster, until a database crash in the summer of 2006 forced them to switch to a new system. By then, thankfully, technology had progressed to the point where more elegant solutions were available.

Still, it’s a shame the archives have disappeared.

You can see what the website looked like a few months after launch in 2001, a few months later after a redesign, and in 2004 before I ended my tenure as an editor.

One thought on “My first real website

  1. Tim

    For all the flaws of the underlying system (and I can attest to that!), you managed to not just keep the ship afloat, but provide meaningful content to students and (trollers aside) further the discourse.

    It is truly a shame that the content is gone; the short-term memory that afflicts Concordia student poltics, and specifically CSU politics, is further handicapped by the loss of what would have proven to be an easily accessible historical reference.

    Someone once wrote: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, all the while failing to attribute the source of the original work. =¬P

    Reply

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