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How Web Development Created Blog Action Day

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Read Time: 6 mins

Blog Action Day is a huge initiative launched by NETTUTS owners Collis and Cyan Ta'eed. There was almost no possible way you didn't hear about Blog Action Day on October 15th, 2007, as over 20,000 blogs and 19 of Technorati's top 100 participated and wrote posts on the topic of the environment. This year's Blog Action Day, (which is happening as we speak), is turning that focus to poverty.

Building a site that can withstand a huge surge of traffic on one day takes considerable planning and work, as well as a little creativity. Collis has shared with me some of the inner workings of the Blog Action Day site and how they built the website to provide a platform for action, bring a community together and handle torrents of traffic on one day.

  • This year NETTUTS is participating in Blog Action Day (October 15th) and helping raise awareness about poverty. It's not too late to register your blog and change the conversation for one day -- today!

Maximizing Their Skills

The good folks at Envato were able to have incredible success in 2007 with the first Blog Action Day because they maximized their skillsets. Collis explains how the concept for Blog Action Day was found, out of a skill that bloggers had.

It's important to know where a person is at their most effective. If you stick a doctor in a soup kitchen to peel potatos, you aren't really maximizing that person's effectiveness. That is, you could get a lot more effect by having them helping the sick and ailing and putting someone who knows more about kitchens in to replace them on the potato front.

When we created Blog Action Day it was designed to maximize our skillsets. We sat down and said what can a bunch of bloggers and web developers do that doesn't effectively have them peeling potatos? How can we use the web to do something that involves social action?

Before you try and build a killer website or anything related to start a global movement, you have to really narrow in on what your skills and strengths are. This will help ensure you never waste valuable skills and resources.

Utilizing Frameworks

As you may know, one of the most important aspects of the Blog Action Day site is the registration form that allows bloggers to sign up and commit their blog to a post on October 15th. The site actually has two components; a Wordpress blog and a Ruby on Rails site (at site.blogactionday.org) that handles the registrations, front page and translation engine.

The Rails application is a good example of using a framework to rapidly develop a site. We have a NETTUTS series on how to learn Ruby on Rails from scratch, as well as some Django tips. Either way, frameworks allow you to rapidly build entire web applications much quicker because they take care of much of the repetitive tasks that hand-coding a site in PHP or Python have.

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

Instead of the old-school mentality of creating a whole site from scratch, the Blog Action Day site uses lots of tested, pre-made scripts that have already been rigorously error-checked by the development community. Aside from using WordPress to handle the CMS, they port in a Twitter feed for news, use Google's Blogsearch to display the latest posts, Google Translate to translate all the extra content (though the site has one central page that is properly translated that gives a summary), Vimeo to host the video rather than doing a custom flash player, and fundraising is done via other sites (kiva and change.org).

By utilizing these 3rd-party services Collis and Co. were able to rapidly build a site that has plenty of updated content on the page at all times. We've talked about how to build functional forms without coding, and also how to submit a form without refreshing the page. In the tutorial on how to build a portfolio from scratch, Collis touched on how to easily import your twitter feed into the layout.

Get Creative

Leading up to the big day, the traffic on the site has been fairly constant at around 5,000 visitors a day. However, today (October 15th) the site traffic is surging. To handle this, Envato and their developers created a different homepage that uses Javascript tabs so that all of the content isn't loaded on each visit to the homepage. By loading only small sections of the page at a time, the load on the servers is reduced considerably.

By using a little ingenuity, the Blog Action Day site loads quickly even on October 15th.

Collis's own efforts with Blog Action Day have been influenced by the story of two developers who created Kiva, a world-renowned online microlending service:

A great example of another group using their web skillset effectively is Kiva. When they started the two cofounders were working at PayPal and Tivo respectively and one day a friend of theirs asked if they could help a struggling African entrepreneur he knew. When they sent an email to their friends the loan request was quickly filled. Then they got a few more loan requests and so this time they put out a press release and bloggers started writing about it and those loan requests got filled. Then they both quit their jobs and founded Kiva.

With a bit of ingenuity all sorts of things are possible. And if there's one thing web developers are famous for - it's ingenuity and problem solving!

Caching, Caching, Caching

Aside from the nifty Javascript switcher on the homepage, the Blog Action Day site utilizes copious amounts of caching. Their engineer John Barton uses caching in Wordpress as well as in the Rails application. If you're going to invest your time into making a popular site for an organization, caching is absolutely critical. The less number of times your site or application accesses the database, the more traffic your servers can withstand.

Less is More

You'll notice that the Envato site doesn't have all the bells and whistles that a full-blown community site would have. There's no user area, there's no forums or any other user activity going on the site design. Why? Because those would distract from the core purpose of Blog Action Day, and it would be a lot more work for the people at Envato. The Blog Action Day site focuses on simplicity around one central message.

It's simple applications and ideas that change the world. Blog Action Day is an excellent example of a small yet focused idea that has taken the Internet by storm. You can't do that without focus and a website that is thoughtfully built to leap over the hurdles that will eventually come its way

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Glen Stansberry is a web developer and blogger who's struggled more times than he'd wish to admit with CSS. You can read more tips on web development at his blog Web Jackalope.

If you want to support Blog Action Day, please vote for this post on Digg. Thanks!

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