Besides the Subscribe to Comments plugin, I got hooked onto other important blog community-building ideas at WordCamp Dallas. The next to go live on is the concept of Gravatars.

A shorthand brand name for “globally recognized avatar”, it’s a nice (and simple) way to spice up blog comments with personal thumbnail images on the many different web platforms that support the concept. In October last year, Automattic, the parent company of WordPress, acquired Gravatar and began working the concept into the WordPress core. But don’t be fooled by that relationship — Gravatars can be used nearly anywhere on the web that chooses to support them.

A nice thing about Gravatar support is also the inclusion of identicons. In the event that one of your commentators doesn’t have a Gravatar when they leave a comment, instead of your blog displaying a whoppin’ blank space (or worse, a default graphic that doesn’t aesthetically mesh with your site’s theme), a graphical hash is instead displayed in its place. The pattern and color are calculated from the IP address of the comment author, so it remains as unique as your fans.

Visit here to see what my personal Gravatar looks like on one of my more-recent comments. And here are the Gravatars/identicons for the top three commentators on my blog:

If you haven’t already, sign up for your own Gravatar account, then leave a comment below to see how it looks.

I Am a Nasally Non-Nosferatu

Thanks to Daynah, a fan, I’ve discovered my plan to remain fairly anonymous was dealt a blow. She let me know that during Wordcamp Dallas, I was captured on video asking a question of Cali and Neal about their upcoming road trip. The video proves two things: the fact I was photograph proves once and for all that I am not a vampire, and that my voice sounds as bad on video as it does in real life.

Zoom ahead to 27:22 in the video to catch me — but do watch the whole thing, as it was an inspiring presentation. It helped to get me get out of the creative ruts I was in just prior to WordCamp.

Thanks to John Pozadzides for documenting this event.

Advice from Photo Matt

Matt Mullenweg at WordCamp Dallas 2008

In my previous post about Wordcamp Dallas 2008, I mentioned my encounter with the founding developer of WordPress and his advice that I took action upon. Here are the results, beginning with details of how this site operates and the problem presented by such a setup.

Each page or post in WordPress can be tied to one re more custom fields, where numbers, strings, or booleans can be tied to that one specific post. Such fields are made unique by the combination of post ID, custom field ID, and custom value.

This particular website depends heavily on custom fields to create the relationships (e.g. links) between the main story pages and the individual story parts. In turn, those story parts use custom fields to define which characters and locations appear in the tale. For example, on a story part featuring two characters, the custom fields would appear like this, with the custom values representing the ID of the page for that character/location.

Generating relationships in this manner was required in my early days of WordPress, as I was unfamiliar with the application and it appeared to follow the path of least resistance to a quick go-live. Along the way came a new version of WordPress, and with it the concept of tagging. Tags are terms associated with or assigned to a piece of information. Both Flickr and users are already well-acquainted with this concept.

After his keynote speech, Matt Mullenweg was gracious enough to spend a few minutes with me, patiently listening to how I used WordPress to create the mixes of short story and book found on this site. He found the concept quite interesting, which is encouraging to someone looking for any support he can find in the blogosphere.

However, when he heard how I was using the custom fields to link posts, he blanched and wondered why I wasn’t using tags instead. For example, he said, I could tag a post with the names of the people and places involved. Then in turn, those tags could be used to generate a variety of cross-post links across my site, either to tag-specific archive pages or a list of related content displayed alongside each post. And as illustrated in later WordCamp sessions that day, search engines love tags.

Believe me, I was far from resistant to using tags. However, there were enough posts on this blog that it would require some work to migrate off my system of using custom fields. So for the rest of Saturday afternoon, while I listened to more sessions, I went about writing the scripts necessary to move data from the wp_postmeta table to the new taxonomy table structures (wp_terms, wp_term_relationships, and wp_term_taxonomy).

The work was done swiftly, and the migration worked like a charm. As of now, if you’re reading a story on this website, the character and location links you see in the sidebar are now powered by tags instead of custom fields.

Custom fields are still being used for other purposes that tagging doesn’t logically replace, such as linking story parts to their main story page. Otherwise, the switchover has been clean and refreshing. I’ve noticed that writing posts is easier now that I don’t have to dig through the admin panels for post IDs. My next steps are to modify my site theme to display the tags alongside their posts, followed by display of other posts using those tags.

I wanted to thank Matt for taking the time to speak with me. His suggestion, however brief and obvious, is much appreciated and should help make my website more functional in the future.

Hello Mother, Hello Father

WordCamp Logo 2008Just a quick note to mention that this weekend I’ll be attending WordCamp 2008, the annual gathering of WordPress Kool-Aid drinkers such as myself. This will be the first conference of this type that I’ve attended; as a result, I am simultaneously intrigued and nervous.

I’m especially excited about the opportunity to meet new people and expand my network. It’s been one of my goals for awhile to better know the blogging community in which I participate. Garnering familiarity with those sharing the same interests as myself should improve not only the quality of what I publish but also my skillsets — after all, I did my best with this site’s code, but I’m sure it’s paper mache compared to the beauty of other’s work.

There will be a number of interesting speakers, including the dude that begat WordPress. I plan to only attend Saturday (as my garden beckons to me on Sunday). If you’ve got anything that you want me to ask or find out, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to bring it up.

Spring Cleaning

Jenn and I spent most of the morning digging up our backyard, attempting to get it ready as McKinney’s number one bird attraction. Now that the soil is turned over and my arms are only 50% jelly from trying to wrestle the beastly gas-powered tiller, I took the rest of today to finish up the outstanding tasks on this website.

If you’re reading this post at my actual site (versus my RSS feed), you can plainly see that I’ve been quite busy. One of my new year’s resolutions was acknowledging that my own web design skills are a little outdated. So instead of trying to wrestle my own theme together, I co-opted a wonderful Rob Goodlatte theme and adapted it to my own needs. Thanks a million times to Rob for putting his Abstractia theme into the public domain.

For the nerds out there, my WordPress installation is finally up-to-date, allowing me to take advantage of some nifty new features — along with some swell security updates. Because I was so behind on version numbers, a significant rework of my site’s custom code was needed. Waddling, spit, and twine were exchanged for proper PHP classes and methods, allowing my code to be future-proof and portable. This means if anyone wants to publish their own online book like I’m doing here, let me know and I can get you setup, as my custom code is now encapsulated within a custom WordPress plugin. And just in time for the upcoming Wordcamp conference, where I hope the people I meet will help me learn more about this wonderful technology.