Choosing Software for Digital Fiction: Step 3

Finding a Web-builder

First, I’m not a giant corporation with tons of cash to spend to hire a web developer to create the all-singing, all-dancing web extravaganza I’d envisioned. I’m a broke PhD student, struggling to even pay my tuition. If it weren’t for Google Scholar, I wouldn’t even be able to find texts I need for research!

I’m not well-connected in the web-world, either. I don’t have that awesome buddy with tons of web-knowhow and plenty of spare time to design something for me. Besides, that takes half the ‘research’ out of my research. I mean, how can I really expect other authors, some who are in the same financial situation I am, to attempt this crossover to digital media, if I’m hiring out half the work? If I can’t show them how to do it in the first place, I haven’t done the job with the dissertation that I’m setting out to do.

So I set out to discover what was out there for me to play with, to see if I could combine technologies, to create some kind of chimera of softwares that would be THE digital fiction revolution/solution.

As familiar as I was with iWeb, I knew it wasn’t going to suit for this purpose. As with many Apple products (and as an Apple-devotee, I fully admit that I HATE how proprietary they are with their shit), many of its functions are tied to publishing the site via Apple’s MobileMe. That means you have to have a MobileMe account, pay for it every year, and oh yeah, have a shite web address that might not reflect the story you’re building. iWeb and its peripherals are for personal use, not professional; anyway, it doesn’t meet many of the functionality requirements I wanted, such as community and membership capabilities.

On to other web builders. Now, through the university, I do have access to DreamWeaver. I’ve never used DreamWeaver because I’m a cheap ass bastard and won’t buy it. But I’ve heard of it for years as THE web builder, so I added it to my list of possibilities. Not high on the list, though, because it would require me to work only on uni campus, on uni computers, which are all Windows PCs. Not a huge hurdle, but a big inconvenience that would be like a rock in my shoe growing to the size of a boulder in the next few years of my research.

I started a search for other WYSIWYG web builders, knowing that if I need to do some coding, most allow some degree of it. I found a few – some freeware, some cheap enough that I wouldn’t mind purchasing (in the USD$40 range). I added them to the list.

Then, timing and subject matter and things in the back of my head collided. One, I started this trek while on mid-semester break from uni; i.e. I wasn’t on campus much, so had very much shifted the DreamWeaver option to a very distant back burner. If I’d been on campus every day, I probably would have explored this first, and wasted a lot of time.

Two, I’d just finished a whole day of talking about wikis for the CEDAR seminar, had been working with Google Sites (which are wikis, though they don’t call themselves that), WetPaint, and PBWiki for various groups throughout the semester, and had taught some of my first year poetry students how to build some hypertext poetry using these free WYSIWYG wikis.

Three, when I did a search for WYSIWYG web builders, a lot of wiki-oriented sites came up. The universe was telling me something. So I altered my search, and started looking at wikis. Yay for me, I quickly found WikiMatrix.

“Choose the wikis that meet your personal needs!” it said. It had a search wizard that asked me what I wanted, and narrowed down the options to fit me. Even getting as narrow as I could, I still wound up with something like 30 wiki-builders to sift through. Luckily, WikiMatrix built this huge comparison chart for me to winnow out the losers (i.e., those requiring Windows to build, or that cost me moolah).

I narrowed it down to a few top choices. The first I tried was a PITA to download and install. First lesson learned: Just because it SAYS it’s platform-independent, that doesn’t mean it is. A lot of them claim independence based on the fact that VMWare Fusion exists, so you’d have to build your whole site and update and manage it from a parallel machine on your computer (and we’re back to the hair-pulling that is the 90s dialup machine). No, thanks.

The second, Tiki Wiki, was a dream. It comes bundled in a .zip file, and is merely a collection of files that you upload onto your webserver. It has several wikis dedicated to instructing you how to use and customize it. Installation was quick and easy.

Granted, I already had a web host, server, and website. If you don’t have these things…Uh, why don’t you have these things? It’s like not having a cell phone or something. Please get one.

Anyway…I’m still in the process of playing with my Tiki Wiki. It really is fully customizable, and in only a couple of days I’ve learned some insides and outs of it. Here are a few things you can do with the site, most from the WYSIWYG interface that comes up once you’ve loaded it on your webserver:

  • Wiki: It’s a wiki. It has all the capabilities we’re used to seeing in a wiki – page changes, page histories, online management/editing, etc.
  • Membership: I can customize membership possibilities, down to how people log in.
  • Community: Forums, blogs, games, user-activity stats, newsletters, articles. More capabilities here than I know what to do with yet!
  • Mobile: Click on the “mobile” option in the navigation bar, and you get a simplified site, automatically, for use on mobile devices.
  • Customization: I can customize everything, from the theme, to what messages are delivered when people sign up. I will need to eventually learn a little CSS, but I’ll get there.
  • Groups: I can create groups with various permissions – you paid $XXX for your subscription, you can do anything you want. You, however, are on the free version, so you may read the site but not edit. Fun.
  • Page options: I can lock pages I don’t want people to be able to edit or contribute to. People can save PDFs of the site. So many things.

These are just a few of the options I’m excited about. I’ll be playing with it more and more as I build my prototype story in the next few months, and my dissertation should include a really good breakdown of how I go about using these capabilities to build the digital story.

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