In our Museum Informatics class, we were assigned a project to learn a new technology, particularly a technology that one might be thinking of using for the final project (how it could be used in a museum setting or extend the museum experience).

Prof. Twidale Quote:

You are to look at it from the perspective of how it might be useful in a museum setting.

You can pick a technology you know nothing about, or one you are already familiar with but have always been meaning to investigate further.

As I had already thought of doing a historically-based blog on Manet’s Olympia painting, I thought it would be absolutely advantageous to learn WordPress (or other blogging software).  It was possible that in learning and testing the technology that WordPress might not be the technology I wanted to use for the assignment, but after spending hours and days with it, even with its limitations, I found it the perfect vehicle for the Olympia blog. The end result was that in learning the technology, I actually started building the Olympia blog, thus incorporating what I learned in its creation.  Of course, it was for me a difficult, frustrating process.

The concisely-written assignment activities are to:

1) Fiddle with the technology
2) Learn how to use it
3) Create something with it (not too big!)
4) Tell us about it, and you experience of learning and fiddling

Fiddling:

I love that word “fiddling.”  So while I fiddled with WordPress, my “Rome” (outside world responsibilities took 2nd seat) burned.  I fiddled so much that I burnt and broke a few fiddles.  I probably over-fiddled, which is my tendency, and it turned into the blog itself.  This tendency to over-fiddle brings to mind a classic Prof. Twidale moment that stuck with me…

Words of Wisdom on “Over-Fiddling:”

When our Museum Informatics class was onsite at the University of Illinois paper-prototyping an iPod technology (that was a mind-blower in itself), I spoke with my group of a particular functionality I thought would be important for our application.  Prof. Twidale came by and reminded me, “Remember, we’re not creating Microsoft Word.”  He also mentioned to me not go into so much particulars at the beginning because these “add-ons” could be done later but stressed a first layer approach (i.e. “get grounded”).  Again, this was a paradigm shift for me and he helped get me out of that stuck brain mode.  What’s quite funny is that I worked for Microsoft designing applications and I was approaching this paper-prototyping activity like as if I was in that mode.  I realized that during and after the activity, Microsoft (and all others) would have probably built cleaner and better applications by doing paper-prototyping over creating huge product specification guides.

Now back to the learning technology bit…

The Report: Learning a New Technology – WordPress

My WordPress Example: Olympia 1865 Blog

The end results of learning WordPress was the creation and development of my blog prototype “Blogging Manet’s Olympia in 1865″ for the final Museum Informatics project.

How I learned to use the technology:

Because I had never used a blog before, any Web 2.0 tools, never used HTML, and being your basic techno-neophyte, I had to dive in and blunder around.  Being highly intimidated by the idea and mystery of blogging, I first searched YouTube tutorials and came one I watched first before taking the plunge.  I watched Chris Abraham’s 45-minute YouTube video to get acclimated.  After watching his process, I got the courage to go to the WordPress.com site and start my blog experience.  After signing up,  I spent a considerable amount of time exploring the interface, drop downs, menu items, tool bars, buttons, toolbars.  Then, I awkwardly and with difficulty learned WordPress by creating the Olympia 1865 blog.  Details on how I applied and explored WordPress are described in my post “Progress Report.”

What was easy and what was hard:

Easy:

Tags and Categories:  It was surprisingly easy to tag and categorize posts.  In each post, you can assign your own tags and create your own categories.  In the Post Tag option, you can also choose from your “most used tags.”  You can also go back to your posts and add or delete tags and categories.

Managing Multiple Blogs:  WordPress allows you to manage multiple blogs from one user account.  This is quite handy to have a central way of accessing and utilizing all your blogs.

Hard:

The Post Toolbar and Icons:  I don’t know but I think the WordPress team has to take a look at these icons.  Some of them are absolutely non-explanatory.  For the life of me, why do you create grayed-out icons for your upload/insert items (these are for pictures, media, sound, etc.)?  I mean it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that grayed-out means inactive.  This blows my mind – particularly on important functionality for blog posts.  The icons are also incredibly small and could be redesigned to convey better meaning.  In addition the formatting Visual Toolbar could use some help.  There is a multi-colored icon filled with small boxes that is supposed to let you know that if you click on it, it expands the Visual formatting toolbar to include more formatting options.  This is unbelievably poor.

Bugs - Yes, I’ve noticed some basic bugginess in WordPress.  The most obvious one is writing this post.  No matter how man times I’ve bolded a word or words, sometimes it sticks and most of the time it doesn’t take.  This is particularly aggravating in doing absolutely simple formatting.  Also, another bug is that sometimes the images that show up in the “Edit Post” do not show up on the actual blog but only a box with a ? mark.  Is it a bug in the theme, or in WordPress? I don’t know why that is.

What was surprisingly easy or surprisingly hard:

Surprisingly easy: Activating the Blog

I have to say the one thing I thought would be the most complicated was activating the blog through WordPress.com.  It was the easiest and so instant.  Here is the screen where the magic happens:

Next, you supply your blogdomain, blog title, and then click “sign up.”  After that a message goes to your email to activate the account.  Once that is done, you can sign in to your blog and presto, here you go.

Surprisingly hard:

Creating the Blog:  Because I was learning as I was creating the blog, I’d have to say it was incredibly arduous for me to do.  I didn’t feel that the WordPress interface was intuitive at all.  I actually found it often clunky, unresponsive, full of busy stuff, text being jam packed against another, etc.  The difficulty again may have been enhanced in not knowing the program in building the blog.  A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into creating my basic blog prototype.

Adding Video:  First of all, it is not clear that you add video to your blog.  Then the only way you can is to embed it as a link from another site.  Videos cannot be stored like images on the WordPress.com site.  The icon and link to upload/insert media is not clear nor explanatory.  You can pay $59.95 per year and upgrade to VideoPress, which allows you to upload video files from your computer to the Media Library and access and play it directly within your blog.  Here’s an example screen of VideoPress functionality you don’t get in the regular WordPress.com account:

VideoPress

“Aha!” and “Duh!” moments

Regarding these moments, Professor Twidale provides a critical observation:  You find out that “when you suddenly figure out how to do something and maybe realize it should have been much easier, but [realize] the system’s design made it look more confusing than it was.”  I’d have to say almost all of my “Aha!” and “Duh!” moments  (and especially those “Duh!” ones) come from some awkwardly designed WordPress interface issues.

Aha:

Once I figured out that to choose your widgets, you needed to drag them onto the prescribed areas, I found it quite fun to move widgets around, modify them, and try different ones out:

Another Aha! moment was when I realized that even if I published a post, I could always go back and edit it.  I thought that was phenomenal.  I was so nervous in even posting anything and saving continuously in Draft mode because I thought once I published it, it is done.  The ability to edit all published posts is very freeing, and can allow for corrections and modifications.

Duh:

There are considerably more Duhs! than Ahas! so here we go:

1. Themes: Ok, I just didn’t get it and it took me some time to realize that the WordPress word “themes” really meant “designs” or more accurately “templates.”  I don’t understand why WordPress couldn’t follow convention in naming this correctly.  I couldn’t grasp how central this was.  I spent hours, and I mean many hours, exploring the themes that WordPress has to offer.  Again, I didn’t realize that because these WordPress themes are created by WordPress community members, you cannot do the same thing with every theme.  An example of this is in my theme I cannot place any images in my header where in other themes you can.  This is a major roadblock for me because my image is central to the blog itself – the painting of Manet’s Olympia.  This lends itself to the following issue that took me a long time to come up with:

2. There’s a difference between setting up a blog through WordPress.com versus WordPress.org. I wanted to utilize all those cool custom themes that were out on the Web, put couldn’t find a place to enter or plug in the theme.  I also wanted to access all that amazing functionality with the 700+ plug-ins that are offered in the WordPress community.  Well, in setting up my WordPress.com blog, that “ain’t gonna” work.

The issue is this, as posted on WordPress.com’s Support site called “WordPress.com vs. WordPress.org:”

The distinction between WordPress.com and WordPress.org can cause some confusion for people. Let’s clear it up.  WordPress.com is brought to you by some of the same folks who work on WordPress, the open source blogging software.  WordPress.com utilizes the same WordPress software which you can download at WordPress.org.  With WordPress.com the hosting and managing of the software is taken care of by the team here at Automattic.  With WordPress.org you need to install the software on your own server or with a 3rd party provider.

WordPress.com Benefits

  • It’s free and much easier to setup
  • Everything is taken care of: setup, upgrades, spam, backups, security, etc
  • Your blog is on hundreds of servers, so it’s highly unlikely it will go down due to traffic
  • Your posts are backed up automatically
  • You get extra traffic from blogs of the day and tags
  • You can find like-minded bloggers using tag and friend surfer
  • Your login is secure (SSL) so no one can get into your account if you use wifi

WordPress.com Cons

  • We provide 70+ themes (and adding more every day) which you can modify and edit the CSS, but you cannot run a custom theme*
  • You can’t hack the PHP code behind your blog*
  • You can’t upload plugins

* The VIP program on WordPress.com for high-traffic and high-profile sites allows you to run custom themes, custom PHP code, ad code, and WordPress plugins.

WordPress.org Benefits

  • Ability to upload themes
  • Ability to upload plugins
  • Great community
  • Complete control to change code if you’re technically minded

WordPress.org Cons

  • You need a good web host, which generally costs $7-12 a month, or thousands of dollars per month for a high traffic site
  • Requires more technical knowledge to set up and run
  • You’re responsible for stopping spam
  • You have to handle backups
  • You must upgrade the software manually when a new version comes out
  • If you get a huge spike in traffic (like Digg or Slashdot) your site will probably go down unless you have a robust hosting setup

WordPress.org is free blogging software. With WordPress.org, you can install themes and plugins, run advertisements, edit the database and even modify the PHP source code. WordPress.org is the home of this software. Anyone can download the software for free but it must be installed on a web server before it will work. Web servers are generally not free. Hosting your own WordPress software can be fun and rewarding; it also places full responsibility on the blogger. If you mismanage your web server, you can lose your entire blog.

For no charge, WordPress.org provides downloadable blog softwarecommunity mailing listscommunity support forumsdocumentation, and free themes and plugins.

WordPress.com is different. You do not have to download software, pay for hosting or manage a web server. When you sign up for a WordPress.com blog, you will get a URL like “andy.wordpress.com” or you can map a domain so your blog is available at “example.com” without the “.wordpress.com” portion.  You do not control the software or the database; FTP and shell access are not included. WordPress.com is based on a multi-user version of the WordPress software which does not permit uploading of PHP themes or plugins (although many popular plugins are built into WordPress.com ).  Popular javascript embeds such as YouTube are supported, but for security reasons some of the lesser known embed codes will be stripped out.  CSS is also restricted by default for security reasons, but you can purchase a paid upgrade to gain the ability for full CSS editing.  What you can do on WordPress.com is blog for free.

For no charge, WordPress.com provides web hosting, unlimited database storage with redundancy and backups, automatic software upgrades, community support forums, multi-lingual administration and themes, real-time traffic stats, comment tracking, blog and post rankings and other features not available anywhere else. These features will always be free for blogs started on WordPress.com; if you ever find yourself being charged for these at WordPress.com, pinch yourself and wake up!

WordPress.com is a commercial enterprise owned by Automattic, a company started by the founding developer of WordPress and staffed by full-time developers, designers and support agents. It runs a multi-user version of WordPress called WordPress MU. WPMU is also free, open-source software. Developments sponsored by Automattic are regularly contributed back into WordPress.org so the community can benefit.

WordPress.com offers paid upgrades as a way to provide premium features without forcing bloggers to host their blogs elsewhere. These upgrades are optional. Basic blogs will always be free on WordPress.com and the basic services will continue to be upgraded with better features.

3. Dashboards: Another WordPress semantics issue is the term “dashboard.”  I just couldn’t understand this term at all.  It seemed rather obtuse.  Then I finally realized that this is the work space area where you manage the blog.  I just came across this on the WordPress site on what the Dashboard is.  It also offered a video tutorial on the Dashboard.  I didn’t know they had any videos on WordPress but they are found on a site called WordPress.tv.

4. Widgets and Layout:  Related to the themes issue are the widgets.  The widgets are what adds increased functionality to the blog.  What’s frustrating about WordPress is that one is allotted select widgets in each theme design.  It took me a long time to get this – mainly by sampling other themes and then noticing how the widgets were different for each them.  What that means is that one theme can have widgets you want, and the one you have not have those or have a few of them.

In the theme I picked, I wanted this design format because I thought it lent to my idea of a Paris newspaper rag, as well as looking quite similar in design to Salon.com which I sort of wanted to emulate.  However the layout and widgets are constrained by the theme.  I particularly wanted the widgets to show up on the right side column, but it will only put them at the bottom of a three-columned content blog area.

5. There’s a difference between Posts and Pages. OK,  this took me a long time to grasp but I finally figured out there was a difference between posts and pages.  The posts are what I write that shows up on the blog space.  The pages are WordPress’ great addition to the blog space by allowing one to create web-like pages on your blog space that can hold different content outside of the postings.  This can make a blog act more like a basic website.

Helpful WordPress Guides:

1. WordPress’ Online Manual – WordPress Codex

WordPress offers text-based tutorials on WordPress Codex which is its own website as well as being the tab “Docs” in wordpress.org. WordPress Codex works as a text-based resource for information about WordPress such as:

  • Getting Started
  • WordPress 2.9 Information
  • Working with WordPress
  • Design and Layout
  • Advanced Topics
  • Troubleshooting
  • Developer Documentation
  • About WordPress

Blogger Lorelle in “A Guide to the WordPress Codex” highlights good places to start within Codex in gearing up on WordPress.

2. WordPress.tv:  I didn’t come across this until after this assignment, but WordPress has a site with just videos on it.  It also has a “How-To” section with video-based tutorials and help.

3. WordPress Support:  WordPress.com has an excellent site that has some clear, concisely illustrated and nicely-worded support documentation on WordPress.

4. Tripwire Magazine’s “100+ Massive WordPress Tutorial Collection” has some free video tutorials on WordPress basics (some of these I had to ignore because they required a custom self-hosted website and thus installation more complicated – not the 5 minute installation for WordPress.com site but having to create a database, edit downloaded .php files etc – NOT!).

5. “How to Be a Rockstar WordPress Designer” is a downloadable book costing $ but offers a free sample chapter that is very clear and easy to read called “Getting Familiar with WordPress.”  This is a very nice introduction to WordPress, which I wish I had read earlier in my learning and searching.

6. Free WordPress Video Tutorials are offered on iThemes website.  Some of these are the same videos posted by TripWire magazine.

7. Free WordPress Video Tutorials are also offered on Mark McLaren’s (an online marketing consultant) McBuzz Communication’s Business Blogging 101.  He’s organized it so that you can view tutorials by topic or by skill level.

8. WordPress Plugins and Tools: Though I haven’t been able to explore plugins (there are over 700+ WordPress plugins available) because I am creating a WordPress.com automatic installed blog versus a manual WordPress.org one plus the time required for customization and coding, Mashable has some excellent lists of top plugins and recommendations:

Mashable has these a good resource plugin lists:

9.  On YouTube, Chris Abraham offers a long (45 minutes) but friendly introductory WordPress video tutorial.  It’s a bit old (2006) but still worthy of use. However, he also posted an updated tutorial (2009) that I utilized.  There are other numerous WordPress YouTube tutorials but I liked his friendly tone to just jump in there.

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