Brandon Bohling

Text File Revolution

I am like any other technologist (ok, geek) out there…I love tinkering with new stuff1. For the most part I wouldn’t change this about me; it generates intense passion in my daily life as well as serving me well in my career. However, there are certainly pitfalls I inevitably fall into time and time again. The most prevalent is my constant tinkering with my online presence.

A Brief History of My Online Life

Since 1995 I have had some sort of website. In those 16 years there were easily 40+ different websites I either hand-coded or used some sort of publishing/blogging software or framework. To name a few: WordPress, Blogger, TypePad, Movable Type, Drupal, ExpressionEngine, Joomla, CodeIgniter, and CakePHP. Just look at the complexity of my online life a year ago2.

And the Point Is…

Today we are consuming and generating huge amounts of digital information. Some3 have made careers from this fairly recent phenomenon. Yet when I went to look for ways to optimize my online presence there still was no easy answer.

<StartRant> I am tired of losing HUGE amounts of my digital content due to the information being in data stores I either had little or no control over. Patrick Rhone discusses this very topic on an episode of Enough: Beware of Information Silos. I admit I am to blame for exponentially making it worse for myself by changing software every 6-12 months. Those that stick with just WordPress or any other publishing software are not as bad off, but how boring is that!? </StartRant>

So I started looking at alternatives to Wordpress, Posterous, Tumblr and the likes. Don’t get me wrong, those solutions are fantastic for many uses cases, but they will not work for me on my main content: thoughtful writing and thoughtful photography. What does that exactly mean? Any content that I feel has a longer shelf life than a tweet or snapshot. This meaningful (at least to me) content I need to ensure I own. For all the other stuff I will continue to use Posterous (bbohling.com) and Twitter (ebohling). Thus, my number one requirement:

Full control over my content: a) capture content in a timeless format and b) display content in a lightweight and elegant fashion.

Text File Revolution

Enter my Text File Revolution. I decided to go old school: text files. What format is easier to track, backup, and view than text files? One of the best data stores in my opinion. Obviously I am not the only one with this opinion with the huge increase of text editors, especially on iOS devices. Looking at my iPad and iPhone I have the following text editors:

And with Dropbox and Notational Velocity (specifically Brett Terpstra’s fork, nvALT) I can sync all the text files between my iOS devices and all my Macs. Capture content in a timeless format: check.

Now the harder part, taking those text files and turning them into a lightweight and elegant web site. Honestly, I started with WordPress and after a full weekend of futzing with themes and plugins I had a (fragile) solution. Fortunately, I quickly learned how fragile when just a few days later WordPress 3.1 came out and I upgraded. Everything broke. True, the theme designer quickly released a fix, but it made me realize how little control I had with my solution. My tech friend, Josh Bancroft, realizes this as well if you one of his recent posts on his simplified WordPress installation. In my opinion WordPress is still overkill for a want.

HTML for Men

What is more lightweight than pure HTML? There is certainly a reason that myself and other webheads stopped creating HTML web sites back in 1999…they are a complete pain to maintain. The largest site of pure HTML files I maintained was 400+ pages back in 2000 for a computer reseller…not fun. I remember in 1998 working with a buddy to create an engine that took content from text files and it generated a static, HTML web site. That’s what I want now! After some research sure enough there are a handful of static site generators:

Not wanting to spend a ton of time researching all the possibilities I looked to the web authors I read (and who they read) and noticed a few used Jekyll:

Whoa, awesome…now we’re getting somewhere! Display content in a lightweight and elegant fashion: check.

Jekyll: Where the grass is green (mostly)

I have only been working with Jekyll for about 16 hours so far and while I am extremely excited about this new direction I am taking, I can’t recommend many people following me. I’ll have a future post on the extreme technical nature of Jekyll. It is definitely not for those that don’t like to get their hands dirty…extremely dirty. I haven’t spent this much time in Terminal for a long time. However, once I got everything setup and automated it is a snap.

Conclusion

Below is a snippet of the text file that I used to create this blog post. The text file consists of a very simple syntax called Markdown created by John Gruber. It is a wonderful syntax that is hugely supported, but even if Markdown disappeared tomorrow my content is in basic text files that I own and manage.

Text File Revolution

It may seem silly to most, but I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I finally feel on the right path to not only simplifying my online presence but also controlling it. But I’m a tinkerer, so I’m sure I will have much more to say on the topic soon.


  1. Stuff = gadgets, programming languages, software, operating systems, and any other butterfly that catches my eye.

  2. Need I point out the irony that the link is to another one of my websites?

  3. To name a few: Becoming Minimalist, Zen Habits, and Minimal Mac.