motd.co: 2014: What I Did

Okay it’s the end of the year and it’s time to get reflective (including all of the selfishness that comes with that)! It’s actually pretty intense how Internet this year has been for me. I’m happy to be able to say that I worked pretty hard to get better at the skills that I have; some of them paid off in obvious ways while others were enjoyable pursuits. I could tell you that this is a review of my year overall but I’m going to be honest right here and tell you that this is really about programming, about internet, and about my growth as a programmer on the internet, because that is what I am most excited to review when it comes to 2014, an otherwise very up-and-down year for what seems like everyone.

First, the disappointing truth: I told myself I was going to make a video game this year. That didn’t happen, but I think that was for a couple of pretty good reasons: I changed jobs and noticed a particular piece of technology that I wanted to invest in practicing and understanding better, so I did; and secondly, I met a number of really awesome people that I admire in late 2013 and early 2014 and spent a significant part of the year being in community with them, learning from them, and emulating them to some small degree of success. Learning how to make video games ended up on the back burner, and I’m okay with that! I still have very little idea how to make an actual video game. I will get to it some day.

In 2014 I finally learned how to use Ruby on Rails. Ruby has been my preferred language for working on personal projects for quite a while; I think 2014 is probably when I finally hit the point where I would say I was comfortable, possibly even competent, with some of the core tools of a lot of modern Ruby web developers: from top to bottom, I learned some amount of proficiency with rbenv/chruby, bundler, foreman, rake, and Ruby on Rails. I still have plenty to learn about all of them, and it may turn out that one of them isn’t what I want to use when developing an application in Ruby, but it certainly helps that when I search for help on projects online, someone has usually done what I am trying to do using these tools in a way that makes it easier for me to reach a solution. There are still reasons that Rails in particular drives me crazy, but I can appreciate the speed with which I can get things done after learning what it and its community expect from me on at least a basic level.

I managed to go from having a passing knowledge of what Rails as a framework looked like and having built lots of applications using Sinatra and Datamapper to shipping the very first working version of Narratron in the span of 15 days. I took a week off between the time I left Gilt City and the time I joined Vox Media and I took an idea that I had been meaning to make a reality for quite some time and made it a website that people could sign up for and use. That felt really good! The site saw some exciting traction during July and August and then I brought the site down for a few weeks when I broke my Linux server; regaining the community goodwill that I had built there once it came back up proved difficult (and I think the novelty had worn off in some ways). There are still things I want to do to make the experience of that site better and I hope that I can make it a fun social thing for people to do online together in 2015. Narratron is the perfect example of the kind of thing I want to make, and it feels super special to me.

I made Backtracks publicly available this year too! Backtracks is a site that scratches a huge itch for me: to help remind me of the kind of music that I have enjoyed in the past and also to make accessible a massive amount of information (more than 120,000 tracks over the span of 10 years that I’ve listened to as of this writing) that I’ve given to a company that is owned by a giant conglomerate who no doubt squeezes some profit out of mining my data. I fully recognize that until services that automatically log your listening behavior like Spotify or Rdio make your listening history accessible via API that this site will never be really valuable to a large number of people but I have received some feedback that makes me feel good knowing that for a handful of people like me, this is a valuable (and totally maintenance-free!) service. I’ve actually been scheming about whether or not this is a thing worth pulling off of Heroku and adding features to next year.

I did get a new job this year! I’m excited to be in the job I’m in; I am fascinated by the business my company is in and I feel that my current position in particular is vital to our success as a company, lets me frequently get back to my roots building tools that serve my coworkers in a way that lets me get direct, honest feedback about how I’m doing (both positive and negative), and is among a team of really smart and witty people with whom I feel challenged to keep up with on a daily basis. It also doesn’t hurt to be working on a collection of websites that I feel like are in the public eye among my peers; I used to (and continue to) talk/chat/tweet about these sites (the good and the bad) on a regular basis; participating in them is a pretty exciting thing after a career up until this point of working on cool technical challenges with products that I would probably not have had any exposure to if it weren’t for being employed at the company that makes them.

At the beginning of the year I spent some time doing some good old-fashioned creative writing. This was a hobby I enjoyed when I was younger, before I was crippled by self-doubt, and for whatever reason it bubbled up, I’m happy to have spent some time experimenting with it again. I’m pretty unsatisfied with what I actually decided to share with other people (4-5 pieces of work, honestly two I’m even remotely proud of) but I also wish I had stuck with it, even privately. I don’t regret spending time on other things but I still want this to be part of my life—but I don’t know how to reconcile myself with feelings of being an impostor, of being one in a million of people who think their ideas are worth anything, of being way behind people who have already spent lots of time doing this sort of thing, of feeling like I have spent enough time in other pursuits that I should “stick with” those.

This year seems to have been the year that a small but vibrant community exploded around generative art after some germinating for the past year or two. I’m speaking of the group of people who you could probably most closely associate with the “#botALLY” label; but while that name and their most common exposure most closely aligns with Twitter bots there is a growing collection of work elsewhere digitally and in the real world. Having had the pleasure of knowing (and looking up to) someone like Allison Parrish as long as I have, and having gotten a chance to meet and talk to other people you may have heard of who also have received considerable accolades for their work in generative art, it’s easy to take this stuff for granted, but I am super excited to have met (at least online but also in many cases in person) people doing really awesome work like thricedotted and Derek Arnold and to have been inspired by artists as awesome as Katie Rose Pipkin and Andi McClure. When I look at all the amazing things made in 2014 by people whom I would lump under this umbrella of a sort of new generation of electronic literature/generative art (because their work is reaching beyond text/literature in scary fast ways), my work feels hollow in comparison, but I did build almost a dozen Twitter bots this year. I learned some things from building almost every one—sometimes something technical but frequently something else—and as a medium that I think encourages building something fairly self-contained, putting it out for others to react to, and largely moving on, I hope that next year I can find ways to grow creatively through work that’s informed by what I did this year.

When I think about how I started 2014, I would say that I was searching for where to go next in my life in a lot of ways. I’m proud to say that I got better at a number of skills with which I already had some level of familiarity—in a way that was good for my career and good, on some level, for my feelings of self-efficacy! On the other hand, there are things I had in mind for my year that I wish I had done to grow in really new directions and I hope I can find a way to do that next year. As far as personal growth goes, I see a lot of tradeoffs in 2014, and while I know that I can’t control everything in my life, I’m hoping to find a way to be more intentional about things next year.