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Thursday, April 12, 2007
By Paul Ford
It makes sense to associate the word "launch," previously for boats and rocket ships, with the release of new websites. The word evokes the landing pad, crowds of onlookers, and the fact that the craft, from the moment the countdown ends, could suddenly explode, raining loose tiles and human remains over southern Florida. (Trivia: Cocoa Beach, Florida, insiders call an exploding shuttle a "NASA rainbow" and its residue "'nautchunks." [Not really.])
I just launched a new site for work. It took about eighteen months to get it into shape to put it into the world. I had help along the way--especially at the end, when I was able to hire a friend to help me with database work and my fiance to help me wrangle scans--and I re-used a lot of work other people had done. But basically the thing that made the project happen was me beavering away at a stack of books 100 feet tall, trying to turn them into files on a hard disk.
I have plenty to learn, I learned, but I'm a passable beaverer. Verbwise, I scanned, revised, converted, ocred, contracted, phoned, disputed, layered, sorted, aligned, tested, coded, indented, debugged, edited, blurred, sharpened, managed, advised, wept, styled, worried, refactored, and uploaded. Huge events: moving in with Mo, the death of a friend, professional failures, people drifting off to new states or countries--all happened within the boundaries of the task, with its ever-changing requirements and shimmering deadline, and I was bound to those old magazine pages like a 19th-century whaler was bound to the sea (sans hardtack). Finally on April 1 it was over.
I decided along the way that this project was a final hurrah of my geek self. The landmarks of the last year-and-a-half are impersonal, like resume lines: "arranged purchase of Fujitsu 5750c scanner; figured out page alignment strategy; built RDF-based CMS with smart caching." In the future (actually, the now) I'll go home nights, make schedules, and keep receipts. By September I'll be married, seeing movies, and remembering birthdays.
But back to April 1: To launch you flip a switch. One server goes down; another comes up, and the new thing is alive. (This time wasn't like the time in 1996, when I was 22 and erased 33,000 user accounts. I have grown.)
Brace yourself for the initial angry wave of criticism: how dare you, I hate it, it's ugly, you're stupid. The Internet runs on knee-jerk reactions. People will test your work against their pet theories: It is not free, and thus has no value; it lacks community features; I can't believe you don't use dotcaps, lampsheets, or pixel scrims; it is not written in Rusp or Erskell; my cat is displeased. The ultimate question lurks beneath these curses: why wasn't I consulted?
You take the criticism into consideration no matter how much vitriol wraps it, file away bug reports where appropriate, reply politely if it's worth it, and shrug. Then wait a few days. Now comes the more significant feedback--possibly praise, and, if you are lucky, not opinions but problems--things that you can think about and fix.
Some people are trusting and friendly; others swear and append "I AM VERY UNHAPPY" to their emails in misdirected righteousness. Again, you must shrug. People are used to complaining to faceless organizations that don't respect them, and often assume an offensive posture, expecting that a display of anger will gain your attention. They don't understand that you are the team in I. The only option is politeness--remember always that you are dealing with other primates.
You fix the first bugs, and then a few more bugs. There is still a ton of work to do, onward and ever, a billion scratches that must be buffed, but it doesn't need to be done at once. It's time for your victory lap. Instead, the fever to finish is sucked out of your gut and replaced with heavy stones. You can barely lift your legs. Expect a terrible depression.
I have now between five and ten newly empty hours a day, and the things I pushed away--seeing friends, writing fiction, eating off of plates--don't return naturally. The project is gone, taking with it the nearly monastic order it gave to life. In its place there is: one, the need for praise (even if they march you down the hall on their shoulders it will never fill up the well), two, the sense of failure (all those problems left unsolved, all the rough edges and clutter that you couldn't distill to simplicity), and three, the sudden awareness of insignificance (all you have done is to turn on another blinking screen among the blinking billions in the media night sky).
If you work for a startup you can fool yourself into believing that the reward will be eternal wealth, but I work for a nonprofit, and the reward is: I did a thing, and I doubt I'll ever do anything like it again. One, two, three: I will never get enough praise; of course I failed; and what I did was not particularly important. The best thing to hope for is that in time and with much more effort the work will become transparent to its users, that it will be taken for granted. That's life with websites.