The Blogging Life – My Experiences With WordPress, Part One

I was rooting through the archives the other night, looking at stuff I have squirrelled away in old folders on my hard drive, and I came upon some long-forgotten, but very interesting bits ‘n’ bobs. One folder in particular stood out, a big one, with multiple sub-folders, containing all the back-up material that I’d saved from my very first, original, self-hosted WordPress blog, SFreaders.com.

These brought back lots of memories of my initial stuttering beginnings with blogging, and as it’s been a long time since I’ve done any kind of personal history posts, I thought I’d cook up a lengthy two-parter about my experiences with blogging on the WordPress platform, both on my self-hosted sites and here on WordPress.com. Here we go with Part One of Two…

Once upon a time, way back in the Jurassic era (beginning of May 2007), I started up SFreaders.com, my first blog. It was the first time I’d ever had a proper presence online that wasn’t merely a collection of three or four naff web pages on a free webhosting service. I’d had a couple of those in the previous five years or so, but they never went anywhere, certainly never more than a tiny website with a handful of drab, linked pages. The lack of webspace and options on those sites didn’t allow for very much more.

So, I decided to go looking for something a bit more serious, not that I had the slightest clue what I was supposed to be looking for or what to do with it when I found it. All I knew was that I needed something a lot more substantial, one of those paid hosting plans with all the bells and whistles. Purely by chance, during April 2006, I managed to buy a ridiculously cheap hosting plan on Ebay.co.uk, from some outfit called Centrica Hosting, who were resellers leasing server space from Heart Internet, one of the UK’s bigger ISPs. This was to lead to the very start of my first blogging experience.

Unlike the previous free ISPs I’d been with, which only gave you a tiny amount of webspace, to which you could ftp a few web pages and pictures, this new, paid hosting plan delivered the full range of services that these packages usually offer. To say that I was a bit overwhelmed would be a complete understatement. At that time, I only knew a smattering of basic HTML and CSS, picked up almost accidentally over several years of pottering around on the free websites. All of this new-fangled stuff about PHP, MySQL databases and dynamic webpages was total greek to me.

My initial intention had been to ignore all of that stuff altogether and just continue as before, sticking up a few static webpages and making use only of the unlimited webspace and unlimited bandwidth, which would allow the static website to expand and develop slowly, growing over a long period of time, without fear of running out of space. But I was no expert at HTML or CSS, just a competent beginner, learning as I went along, and coding all those pages by hand was pretty darned slow. It was taking me forever to get even a relatively small website together on my hard drive, to upload to the webhost’s server.

In addition, it did seem to be an awful waste not to use at least some of the multitude of extras included in the new hosting plan. So I began exploring the options on the webhost, although I really didn’t understand too much at first. But a bit of searching around the web and reading up of various computer magazines, and I was starting to get up to speed on things. Just by coincidence, at the very same time, I was reading an article in a computer magazine about something called “blogging” and something else called “WordPress”, which was supposed to be easy to install and maintain, and apparently a much easier and more automatic way of getting online and maintaining a site than coding by hand. This article changed everything for me.

Up until that point, I had settled firmly on starting up a static website. I was literally only minutes away from doing so when I read this article. I was actually on my webhost, looking at all the options, getting ready to start setting up the file structure and ftp the HTML pages and images to the site, when I spotted something that was pretty much what we now call “One-Click Installs”, or, at least, the 2007 equivalent. And one of the options was to install this WordPress thingy that I’d just been reading about. So right out of the blue, at the very last minute, I changed my mind and decided to try this instead.

Following all the (admittedly simple) instructions, in a mere few minutes, I had a shiny new blog installed and up-and-running. This was the evening of May 3rd, 2007, and within the following half hour, I had my first post and an About page up on SFreaders.com. I was well chuffed, and totally gobsmacked at how easy it was. During the next few days, I set up a few more Pages on my blog, and I began posting frequently and regularly from that point onwards. Over the next six months, from May 2007 up until October 2007, I put up a total of forty-two posts and a bunch of pages. I had my first serious and (relatively) long-lasting online presence at last.

Why did I make the last minute switch to a blog, when I had been for so long set on having a static website? Aside from the obvious fact, of course, that I hadn’t known anything about blogging or WordPress right up until I read that article? Well, I wanted a site up online fast and easily, and the article had convinced me that I could do just that with WordPress, which proved to be definitely true. It would’ve taken me months to get up a decent static site, at the snail’s pace that I was handcoding pages. Likewise, the article had convinced me that I could post content and maintain my blog much more easily than I could a static website. Again, this was (sorta) true, at least on the posting side of things. Thirdly, I wanted something a bit more interactive than a static site, so the idea of comments also attracted me, and they seemed to be a major plus, at least in theory, but didn’t exactly work out that way in reality.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Firstly, my big hopes for comments and interactivity ended up a huge disappointment. Despite a half-dozen replies to posts over the six months, there was virtually zero interactivity with others on my blog. The comments thing proved to have been a complete waste of time. The blog might as well have been a static site. A secondary drawback was that I simply could not resist the obsessive urge to tinker with the appearance of my blog – the themes, the CSS, everything – and I often spent far more time tinkering than I did actually posting content. In many cases, I just could not leave well enough alone, and ended up making a mess of things on quite a few occasions. I knew just enough to be dangerous.

Thirdly, and most seriously, once I started blogging, I simply stopped learning about web design. Back when I was hand-coding web pages, I was constantly learning more about HTML and CSS, picking up something new with each new page that I coded. But I’m essentially a lazy git, and once I started using WordPress, with the exception of occasionally fiddling with the CSS of a theme, my hand-coding experience came to a grinding halt. Why bother with all that learning code carry-on when WordPress did everything for me pretty much automatically? Seemed like a great idea at the time, but in the long run, it was extremely detrimental to my learning web design, as I’ve advanced very little in all the years I’ve been blogging. I often think of how far along I’d be now if I’d stuck with designing static webpages instead of switching to WordPress.

Overall, however, installing WordPress had proven to be a positive experience, and had kick-started my first serious, regular, online presence. As I’ve already said, for six months I posted regularly, very regularly at first, sometimes five or six times a week. But the frequency decreased as time went on, down to once or twice a week, until, at almost forty posts, I hit a brick wall. I didn’t make a single post for three weeks, just seemed to lose interest, run out of juice. I came back after the three week break and made three more posts and then gave up on blogging completely.

Why? Well, I think the main reason for this happening was simply bad timing. I simply should not have started a blog when I did. I could not have chosen a worse time. My teenage son had died in April 2006, slightly more than a year before I started my self-hosted blog. I really was in no fit state to run a blog or anything else at that time in my life, and it was remarkable that I was even able to get one started at all, let alone keep it running for six months. It was completely the wrong time to attempt such a venture. My mental state was very fragile indeed, and I was completely numb with grief after the death of my son. I was almost a zombie, totally at sea and basically existing day-to-day on autopilot. Everything that I did during that period was pretty much automatic, and I was in a permanent daze, as though I was seeing everything through a dense fog. I really don’t remember very clearly much of what happened in the first year or so after my son’s death.

But as the months went on, the nature of my grief and mental state changed. Instead of being numb and in a permanent daze, my head began to clear, and the pain flooded in. The raw grief was indescribable. The waves of severe depression began to hit me, one after another after another, and I felt as though I was drowning. My mental health crumbled, and with it my physical health also deteriorated markedly. I had stopped looking after myself, and I lost interest in pretty much everything, both offline and online, including blogging. It was a truly dark time in my life, and it was during these months that I drifted away from blogging, at first gradually, and then totally.

So I backed away from the blog, fully intending the break to be temporary, with the intention of returning to it when my mental and physical health had improved. For the next year or more, I did absolutely nothing with it, aside from coming online occasionally to check for any new comments. Then, one day early in 2009, I came online and SFreaders.com was gone, disappeared completely. The reseller that I had bought my hosting package from had gone bust (I should’ve guessed that it was too good to be true), and taken my blog (and I dare say quite a few others) with it. All gone, disappeared, kaput, without so much as an email or any kind of prior warning.

I was gutted that my lovely blog and all that hard work had just disappeared into the aether without warning, but was fortunate that I’d had the foresight to backup the database files and pretty much everything else on my hard drive several months before. Still, it left a thoroughly unpleasant taste in my mouth regarding self-hosted blogs, a distrust that persists to this very day.

So ended SFreaders.com, and my very first experience with blogging or running any kind of online site for a prolonged period. Next time out, my return to blogging on WordPress.com…

To Be Continued…