24 ways returns with bleeding-edge web insight
24 ways this weekend returned for its eighth year of seasonal web treats. The site has since 2005 acted as a kind of advent calendar for the web industry, each day revealing a piece of essential insight into technology or process.
This year finds the site in fine form, with all manner of cutting-edge articles, and there have also been some big under-the-hood adjustments. We spoke to 24 ways founder Drew McLellan about what we can expect from this year’s collection of articles, what goes into 24 ways, and why he thinks the site’s endured.
.net: What can people expect from 24 ways this year? Are there any articles you’re particularly excited about?
McLellan: On a basic level you can, of course, expect 24 new articles! We cater for a wide audience, and attempt to cover a broad range of subjects, and this is the bit that readers sometimes miss—don’t expect all 24 articles to appeal directly to you personally. We try to make sure there’s something for everyone, but that means that not every single day is going to be aligned with your interests. The beauty is that if that’s the case, a new article’s on its way the next day!
.net: How do you choose the designers and themes to feature?
McLellan: Each year is a mix of articles by authors we’ve approached, and articles that have been pitched to us. Sometimes we’ll start with a topic we want to cover, and work back to find the best person to write about that. Other times, we’ll spot someone who’s been working on interesting things and ask them if they’d like to write something of their choosing.
We usually start planning in September, and just under half of this year’s articles came from pitches. Obviously, we only have 24 slots each year and we like to have a varied schedule, so we can’t take everything that’s pitched to us, but if the idea is strong and you can write well, there’s a good chance.
.net: Why do you think 24 ways has endured?
McLellan: It’s a bit of an event, which helps keep it exciting. This is our eighth year of running the site, and I don’t think we would’ve been able to keep it going for that long if we were publishing two articles a month, rather than 24 in 24 days. The schedule is intense and fun, but hard work. The eleven-month break in between is enough for us to forget how much work it is!
The other thing we try to do is make many of our articles very forward-looking. We’re not afraid to cover a technique that’s only usable in one beta version of a browser. As long as it’s part of a standard—and therefore will likely roll out into other browsers in time—we’re happy to cover things you can’t use yet. It’s interesting to know what’s around the corner, and raising awareness of unimplemented cool features helps designers and developers know what they should be asking browser manufacturers to implement.
.net: You’ve mentioned on Twitter that you’ve switched CMS this year. What was the reasoning behind that?
McLellan: When the site launched in 2005, it was pretty much a last-minute project. To get the site live quickly, I reached for the blogging system Textpattern, because I was familiar with it. Textpattern did a good job managing articles, comments, RSS feeds and so on, but development stagnated. Its flexibility enabled me to implement some custom features as plug-ins, like the day-by-day navigation down the side of the article pages, but basic features like comment spam detection were causing us problems. Replacing a CMS isn’t usually a fun job, so we carried on with Textpattern for longer than perhaps we should have.
Fast forward to 2012, and we now have our own CMS, Perch. I’m currently working on a new version, and so it made sense to rebuild 24 ways using it and at the same time test the new features. The change has enabled us to immediately implement improvements to comments, like the ‘helpfulness’ voting and to implement Akismet spam filtering. Generally it’s a much more flexible platform to be working with, which is important as I imagine we’ll be redesigning the site next year.
.net: Can you tell us a little about ‘helpfulness’ voting?
McLellan: It’s a change to the comments functionality. Comments can be a real challenge, and they often don’t add anything of value. We’ve all seen cases of people rushing to post the first comment, just posting something useless, trolling or getting into pointless arguments about things only tangentially related to the topic of the post. We thought about removing comments from the site entirely.
The thing is, even though they can get lost in the noise, we do get useful comments, and so we set about creating a system that we hope will surface good comments, and bury less useful ones. We’ve done that by adding a simple voting system—a ‘helpful’ or ‘unhelpful’ vote on each comment—with the list sorted from most helpful to least.
This has the obvious effect of putting the most helpful comments at the top. Sorting comments by something other than time also has useful secondary effects. ‘First’ comments are now no longer valid—what appears at the top is the ‘best’ comment, not the first. The fact comments are not sorted by time also makes it hard to have an argument with another commenter, which helps solve another problem!