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Twitterprose and the Expanding Bread Loaf of Any IT Project

Note: somewhere in this wee catechism is the request for assistance to create a custom WordPress feed, possibly in Atom (only because it’s an unused feed in a WordPress installation I’m using). I’ve found some documentation, but real-world experience would be gratefully received.)


A fA fine use of my timeew months back I wrote for Techsource about the need to be very judicious and strategic about library IT projects — and it was a talk directed at those outside IT, who in their enthusiasm (which is a good thing) may overwhelm their IT departments with poorly-thought-out requests (which is a bad thing).

I’ve been struggling to provide a new service, Twitterprose, and the effort reminds me of that article. The idea is smart, fresh, and has relevance to libraries and 2.0 efforts: use Twitter to deliver daily lines from the best (or at least most interesting) of creative nonfiction. I don’t call my idea innovative because Debra Hamel already has Twitterlit, but my twist is the genre — wee, poor, neglected creative nonfiction — and the links, which are either to LibraryThing or to online essays and journals.

I provided Twitterprose for a couple of days by manually posting to a Twitter account, but then decided to get clever. Yes, in a week where I had two articles, two presentations, a committee document to review, and fresh creative writing for a workshop to pull out of whatever orifice availed itself to me (plus the curve ball of M-ch–l G-rm-n erupting over on Britannica), I got clever.

It is at this point that the project turned into the story — I believe it is a Leo Rosten story about Hyman Kaplan — where the protagonist gets on an overheated bus with a ball of bread dough that begins to expand, and expand…

It wasn’t enough that I had a Twitter account with the service; I needed an accompanying website. I remembered Anne Lipow leaning forward over dinner a few years back, telling me to register a clever domain name now, before someone else got it. Now, I thought to myself, now!

This is the easy part: between GoDaddy, Dreamhost, and WordPress, I had a website up in, oh, a couple of hours. I could have stopped with the domain registration, but I was on a roll, and one task fluidly followed another. My other tasks were not getting done, and I turned in a much smaller piece to workshop than I intended… but I had the website up. That’s something, right?

The loaf of bread still seemed manageable enough when (despite many decent canned themes available from WordPress, some of them literally a click away within the WordPress installation) I decided that I needed a theme with an attractive and personalized image at the top — say, books from my library. O.k., so I lost most of an evening standing on a chair taking pictures of books from my collection (because of course they had to be the right books) and learning how to stitch the images together in a panorama before deciding that I was best served by a simple, McSweeney-esque theme already available inside WordPress. It’s all good, right? After all, I was learning something new and important.

On the domestic front, we ate frozen Lean Cuisine pizza on our own for the second night in a row. Or was it the third?

It was at this point I asked myself — in that casual way you ask yourself, while driving in an unfamiliar country with maps in other languages, “If this is Luxembourg, why does it look like Trier? ” — just how would the website feed itself to Twitter? Because that, after all, was the point: an elegantly simple 2.0 service that posted updates in two places, a blog and Twitter, with the automagic assistance of the Autobahn-smooth tubes of the Interwebs.

The ball of dough in my lap was swelling, swelling; it was stretching the paper it was wrapped in, and causing notice.

I had heard about Twitterfeed. Painless, I thought! All I needed to do was register the feed with Twitterfeed. Wait, they recommend a Feedburner feed; I’ll install the WordPress plugin and then set up an Feedburner account. Tweak, test, tweak, test. The WordPress theme stubbornly points to the default feeds; I’ll correct that through the Widgets. Oh, wait, I need something called an OpenID. For that I can use my Yahoo ID. I’m not sure what’s open about any of this, but o.k., I get an OpenID, and after a little flailing around set up my account in Twitterfeed.

So the next day I post to the blog, and eagerly peer at Twitter every few minutes for several hours. Nothing happens. A few hours later, after I update the Twitter feed manually, I write the Twitterfeed people and learn that Twitterfeed ignores entries without titles. O.k., I can dig it. The day after that I write an entry that’s all title, but the Twitter post mangles the link to Librarything.

I write Twitterfeed’s folks, who advise that the link for LibraryThing should wrap around the blurb — not a simple trick in WordPress — so I write Debra Hamel, who cheerfully advises she created a custom Atom feed just for Twitter (in fact, in an earlier message she had mentioned this, but in my eagerness to get on the bus with this project, I conveniently chose not to pursue that telling detail).

She wrote a custom feed?

So let me recap: the week before ALA, with piles of work to do (some of it bread-and-butter), I plunged into a new service that required domain registration, a new website set up in Dreamhost, nameserver configuration, installation of blog software, and several new accounts on services I haven’t previously used; then I spent more time fiddling with images to “customize” the design for a website for an unknown service with 31 subscribers, all of whom I know; then I learned what was really required to make all this happen, which includes wading through the half-baked and sometimes outdated documentation for WordPress (sorry, it is possible to love WordPress and agree that its documentation is often a day late and a dollar short) to set up a custom feed.

What I have done is get off the bus and set the swelling ball of dough in the fridge. Nobody but me knows or cares if Twitterprose is updated manually or by computers, those delightful labor-saving devices (cue insane laughter). The evolution of Twitterprose — which at one point I envisioned sharing at ALA, through buttons and bookmarks, and ever so casually remarking with my geek friends, oh yes, it all works so easily — can await more halcyon times, such as Sandy’s trip in July, when I can putter with syndication feeds and get my special Twitter feed Just So.

Yesterday afternoon I chained myself to the couch with my committee work and a red pen (Sandy: “Why are you on the couch? That’s so quaint!” Me: “To avoid the Web”) and gave a long document a serious scrub-through, then wrote my dialog for my social-software-presentation video, which will be a simple talking-head offering and not a clever animation of web-surfing through that real-kewl open source software someone just shared with me.

And I categorize this under Librarian Wisdom, not Hot Tech or RSS, because the lesson is so obvious to anyone in IT. Public service folk want Second Life accounts, but they don’t know what’s involved in tracking down that very busy guy in campus IT who needs to open special ports up on a per-IP basis. You want IM accounts, but haven’t factored in that IT does care about closing off file-sharing for people who really are gullible enough to accept files from a nice man who says he just wants to help them clean their computer.

Even geeky folk don’t always know what they’re getting into — and usually not because they lack expertise: quite often it’s because they’re busy enough, and task-focused enough, that they don’t always stop to remember that anything that looks easy probably took a few weeks of sweat equity to get that way, and that cool surface elegance usually masks a massively expanding ball of dough that took the project into the most unexpected areas.

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