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TidBITS Turns 17

Today marks the 17th anniversary of TidBITS, which we’ve published continuously since 1990. On previous anniversaries, I’ve written about our accomplishments, our goals, lessons we’ve learned, and more. I had hoped this year to roll out some flashy new services and approaches to publishing, but as is so often the case, development has taken longer than expected, so the public face of TidBITS hasn’t changed much in the last year. As Apple said when delaying Leopard, “We think it will be well worth the wait.”

But like a 17-year-old in his or her senior year of high school, preparing for graduation and subsequent passage to college, there’s a great deal of upheaval happening beneath the surface. College is where it becomes possible to reinvent oneself, and we’ve been doing a lot of thinking and working behind the scenes to make that reinvention happen in the next year for TidBITS. We’ve always tried to be transparent about what’s happening at TidBITS; here’s a look at our current efforts.

Site Improvements — In preparation for a major redesign, we’ve been quietly implementing a few new features on our Web site.

  • Inline images in articles. For the last few months, articles that contained image links in the email editions of TidBITS have actually displayed those images inline on the Web (for an example, see “Add a DJ to iTunes with SpotDJ,” 2007-03-26). That’s right, after 16 years of TidBITS being text-only, graphics have finally crept in. Cutting-edge, I know, but with tools like Plasq’s Skitch on the horizon for making screenshots even snazzier, we’re pretty sure that mixing graphics and text isn’t just a short-lived fad.
  • Bookmarks for sharing articles. At the bottom of every article on our Web site and in the HTML edition of TidBITS in email, you’ll now see a line of links to major social bookmarking sites, including, digg, reddit, Slashdot, and Yahoo’s MyWeb (let us know if you’d like to see other sites included). If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of social bookmarking, it’s a way to recommend an article to other users of a particular service. The more people who vote for an article, the more it rises in the rankings and the more people are likely to go read it. We implemented social bookmarking links because it became apparent from our recent reader survey that we have a long-standing, loyal readership. The flip side of that, however, is
    that we need to work harder on introducing new readers to our content, and we’re hoping that social bookmarking links will help. You can help by using them to recommend articles or to vote for already recommended articles – thanks!
  • TidBITS Talk usability redesign. Our TidBITS Talk discussion list has nearly 1,700 email subscribers, but I’m noticing an increasing number of people finding discussions via Web searches and asking questions (sometimes even years later, which feels odd from the email perspective, but is perfectly understandable from a Web viewpoint). In an effort to improve the usability of TidBITS Talk, I’ve fiddled with the CSS styles to clean up the design, reworded a lot of the boilerplate text that Web Crossing supplies in order to improve clarity, and made it possible for registered users to give usefulness ratings to individual messages.
  • Connecting articles and discussions. We’ve also started down the path of connecting articles and their discussions directly, so if you look at articles from last week that have generated discussion, the “Discuss This Article” link at the top takes you directly to the appropriate TidBITS Talk thread. If no discussion has been started, that link merely creates an email message to TidBITS Talk; engineering a Web-based solution that’s invulnerable to spambots proved more difficult than we anticipated, so we’re still working on the final approach.
  • Mailing list subscription management. I’ve mentioned this feature before, but it has been and will continue to be an important part of our infrastructure moving forward, since it lets everyone manage their own email subscriptions easily. As an added bonus, when you log in to manage your email subscriptions, you’ll remain logged in for easy addition and rating of TidBITS Talk messages.

TidBITS Editing System — A year ago, in “Wanted: Better Document Collaboration System” (2006-04-03), I discussed what we needed in a document collaboration system. Although at least one project is in a very early stage to provide such a system, we needed something that worked today. Luckily, Bare Bones Software came to the rescue with BBEdit 8.6, which added word-level diff, so we can compare two revisions of a document and see exactly which text has changed (most diff implementations for displaying the differences between two documents work at the paragraph level, not the word or character level).
Then contributing editor Matt Neuburg set up the Subversion version control system for us to provide versioning, a centralized repository, and a transfer mechanism.

BBEdit can act as a Subversion client, which lets us avoid using the Subversion client programs available for the Mac, none of which worked well for those of us who aren’t programmers. But even BBEdit doesn’t offer a particularly helpful interface to Subversion. After putting up with our griping for a while, Matt wrote a utility for us that significantly improves the Subversion workflow from within BBEdit by handling locking and unlocking of articles; it also simplifies status checks, commit messages, and file management.

Now, between Matt’s utility and BBEdit’s built-in features, I can easily add a new file to the central repository, making it available for other staff members to edit. When I want to edit again, I can check to see if anyone has it locked, and if not, lock it myself to ensure that no one else will make changes simultaneously. Once I have the file open, I can check the version history to see who has made changes, and read any notes made about each version. I can also compare the current version of the file to the last version I saw before diving into new edits. When I’m done, it’s trivial to write a commit message describing my changes, unlock the file, and send my changes back to the master copy in the central repository. The file is
available for editing offline, and can be sent to outside contributors for edit checks.

There’s still room for interface and process improvement, but this system has made our collaborative writing and editing far faster, easier, and more confident. The next step for the collaborative editing system is to integrate it with our other major piece of infrastructure, the TidBITS Publishing System.

TidBITS Publishing System — It’s a testament to the work of technical editor Glenn Fleishman on the TidBITS Publishing System that no one has seemingly noticed changes in TidBITS since our 26-Feb-07 issue, when our entire behind-the-scenes publishing approach changed. For many years, we would manually assemble each issue in a single file, and then send out that file.

Now we add articles to the TidBITS Publishing System throughout the week, and if an article is ready for public consumption, we merely set a status that makes it available on our home page under the ExtraBITS section. This approach is part of our overall goal to move away from thinking of TidBITS in issue-centric terms. In the TidBITS Publishing System, we create articles and combine them to create an issue, whereas in the past, we created an issue and then broke it apart into articles for our Web archive.

On Monday, to generate an issue, we simply go through all the available articles we’ve published or staged but not previously included in an issue, set an order for those we want to publish, add a summary, and push a button. Actually, we still take a number of publication-day editing passes to improve the quality of the writing, but the effort to release an issue has dropped tremendously from just a few months ago.

Largely that decrease in effort is because previously we all tended to put off writing and editing until the last minute, whereas now it’s easier to get something written and posted to the Web or to a staged area sooner. Plus, we can all take edit passes whenever it’s convenient, rather than putting off the work until it’s necessary. Since none of us like to see typos creep through even on the Web version that precedes the issue, it’s all the more likely that articles will get an early edit pass.

Looking Forward — All these efforts lay a foundation upon which we’ll be building in the upcoming year, and we hope you find the improvements useful. Rest assured that changes to the email editions of TidBITS will be minimal, since there’s no reason to mess with a successful formula. But as we’ve been learning from our reader survey, the ways in which people get their information on the Internet are changing, and we need to change with the times as well. That’s fine – like a high school student contemplating college, we’re both excited and a little scared by all the possibilities.

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