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.