As we’ve mentioned on the Movable Type news blog, today Boing Boing, the immensely popular “Directory of Wonderful Things”, relaunched on the Movable Type 4.0 platform. There were a lot of people and organizations involved in the effort, but one of the key parts of the technology team was Apperceptive, the New York-based consulting company that has become one of the most successful members of the Six Apart Professional Network.
We asked Apperceptive’s team a few questions about their work on the Boing Boing relaunch, and got some great answers from Apperceptive principal David Jacobs and developers David Raynes and Mike Kania.
Six Apart: Okay, first: Who is Apperceptive? How long has the company been around?
David Jacobs: We were founded last year by myself and John Emerson. We were building a lot of blogs, and having fun, and we wanted to do more. Now we’re 10 people (and hiring!). Mike Kania was employee number 1.
Six Apart: Wow — you’re growing really fast! And all the work you do is around blogs and social media?
David Jacobs: Yes, almost exclusively. About a quarter of our work is pure design, but always, always towards media or blog projects. And of the remaining work, another third is customizing or patching custom CMSes for folks. The remaining half is blog plugins, templates and support.
Six Apart: That’s great. So, I know David and David have been fairly prominent in the Movable Type community for years, and all of you have been active in social media for a long time. But how did you get introduced to a project like working on Boing Boing?
David Jacobs: We have actually been talking to Boing Boing over a period of 5 months or so. They were on a very old version of MT, so the first project we did for them was upgrading their current database (which has tens of thousands of entries) onto the MT4 public beta and the MT 3.x version, which was the latest at the time. They used those installs to test out the tools and decide what direction they wanted to take the site.
Six Apart: And they had in mind the idea of expanding to include comments, and changing the visual design?
David Jacobs: We actually weren’t sure what they had in mind; our goal was to present the platform at its best, and then answer any questions they had about what was and wasn’t possible. Because we’ve been so nose to the grindstone with some of the deep details of the project, the launch was really the first chance I had to appreciate the work that FM Pub [Federated Media] and the Happy Mutant team did to orchestrate all of these pieces - from the design, the logo, the hosting, the templates and the custom plugins.
Six Apart: Okay, so once you were on board, what were everyone’s roles on your team?
David Raynes: Oddly enough, DJ had me writing plugins. :) One powers the “Don’t Miss” section on the bottom of the site.
Six Apart: Nice — how does “Don’t Miss” work?
David Jacobs: The “Don’t Miss” plugin allows Boing Boing (and BB Gadget) editors to pull out Entries and Comments that they want to stick on the front page. It was intended as a service for their casual readers - if you can’t keep up with everything on the site, here are three links for you to look at. A lot of the plugin work was behind the scenes, and we’re working on some plugins to make their moderation and publishing workflow very smooth.
David Raynes: Very much plugin zen (code-wise), in my opinion.
Six Apart: “Plugin zen” ?
David Raynes: Very simple. Not much actual code in there. It does what it does very well and nothing more. I could probably trim it down some more, but that can come later. The backend could easily be extended to include trackbacks and, really, any other object in MT (e.g., assets).
David Jacobs: What I think was cool about that process was that I took an existing (MTE) plugin we had, adapted it to MT4, edited the schema, and then handed it off to you. Then you cut the code in half and made it MORE useful, which I appreciated. Erasing code is sometimes as powerful as writing code (like any good writing).
Six Apart: What’s it been like building plugins on MT4’s new APIs?
David Raynes: Now that I’m starting to wrap my head around it, I’m having a blast.
Six Apart: There were some pretty specific requirements for enabling commenting on Boing Boing, what were those like?
David Jacobs: Running the risk of kissing up to our clients, I do want to note that it’s a great joy to have clients that inspire you to work harder and that have such a demanding community. Teresa Nielsen Hayden is a doing some great thinking around how healthy communities should grow, the editorial team has a very rich and uncompromising view of how the site should work, and the FM Pub tech team was fantastic. We’ve had to support a lot of in-house tech teams on this platform, and I don’t think it’s a stretch that these guys took to it more than anyone else has (of course they had some experience) and really pushed the platform in new ways. And to run the risk of talking ourselves out of work, I’m pretty sure they could have done this without us.
Teresa had 20+ items that she came up with from her experience managing large communities and from her conversation with the BB editors about their goals. It was a very detailed spec - and luckily a lot of it was native in MT4. Some of the things we take for granted (permalink to comments, the ability to edit comments, and so on) are seen as top shelf features in other systems.
I’m not sure how much we’re allowed to share, but it was a mix of ideas you’d expect and ideas you wouldn’t. We’ve almost met the whole list - and you’ll see some of the results in the BB comment threads very soon.
Six Apart: Very cool. Is it intimidating working on a high-profile site like Boing Boing, or are you used to it?
David Raynes: Just the opposite for me at least. It was exciting rather than intimidating.
David Jacobs: It’s a little nerve wracking, but it’s very exciting when it launches. It gets back to the expectations of the client and the community.
Six Apart: What’s it been like working in MT4 versus your past work on MT, or on other platforms? How has it been participating in the Professional Network and working with Six Apart?
David Jacobs: Most of our contact was with FM Pub’s team, and they did a fantastic job of measuring out the different constituencies and shielding us - keeping us focused on the work. I can’t say enough good things about those guys. :)
David Raynes: For MT4 vs prior MTs, I have to say it’s been invigorating and refreshing. Not that prior MTs were bad or stale or anything like that, but the injection of new toys to play with and reenergizing of the development community has been very motivating.
I’m once again tempted to try and keep up with Arvind. :) I think I now spend more of my free time writing plugins than I did when I wasn’t writing them for a living.
David Jacobs: Well, Mike, you built some alt-tmpl [alternate templates for MT’s user interface], and having the site being branded as Boing Boing from end to end is important.
Mike Kania: This is true, I customized some of the comment / templates to adapt them for the Boing Boing look & feel. Which was REALLY easy to do, I must say. It’s nice to be able to quickly modify some templates, drop them in
alt-tmpl, and have a whole new look while still using the MT functionality.
Six Apart: Well, this work is really impressive, and David we’re thrilled to see your new plugins for displaying statistics on the MT4 dashboard show up in the Movable Type Plugin Directory. Thanks for your time.
Thanks to the whole crew at Apperceptive for taking a moment to speak with us, and we’ll be keeping an eye out as their newest projects get off the ground.
"Maybe this makes me a massive, nitpicky nerd, but all I could think about while I was watching this video is that the blue cosplayer's costume is incorrect."
Yes, Mike8787 I DO think that makes you a massive, nitpicky nerd, but I have to admit that I thought the exact same thing. I'm geeking out now that Boing Boing has enabled comments for their community, and that Apperceptive was able to play a small part in bringing Boing Boing 2.0 to life. The Happy Mutants of Boing Boing have also launch today their new gadgets blog with Joel Johnson (the fifth beatle?) at the helm.
We're also pleased to note the relaunch of Talking Points Memo's Election Central. I have to admit I'm possibly even more geeked out about this launch, not just because of the exceptional content, but also the poll tracking and calendar features that make it easy for those of us a behind on the CSPAN podcasts to stay abreast of what's happening on the election trail.
I hope you're not shocked when I tell you we read design blogs. It's true — designers like design. So when Typographica reached out for a little Apperceptive love, we jumped at the opportunity.
As their traffic has grown, Typographica found their setup needed some tweaks to keep up with the increasing demand. Apperceptive helped migrate the site to new servers, upgrade their system, and perform a template tune-up to keep all the talk about descenders and x-height flowing smoothly.
If you're a bit befuddled by the slang, we're confident everyone can enjoy Typographica's Best Fonts of 2006. Them letters are purty.