My Advice to Novice Webmasters

Author: Mike Craig

“There is no more dangerous gift to posterity than a few cleverly turned platitudes.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald; This Side of Paradise

This undertaking, like more or less anything I will ever write for this editorial section, may well be conceived in the spirit of nothing greater than ego. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that my position among preservationists (not titular in any way, but I seem to be fairly well thought of) demands that I do this sort of thing. After all, Tim Connolly has done it, and so had Spazzoid before his page was assaulted. I suppose it was hard to see from my own vantage point the transition my site made from “newbie” to “veteran.” That is the same reason pre-adolescents have to be reminded of how much they’ve grown to fully appreciate it. From their perspective, they haven’t gotten any taller; everything else has become more accessible. I think that’s a fair analogy.

As web sites go, however, the advance is a little more Wolfeian (referring to The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe). All webmasters start out at the foot of the NES Preservation “ziggurat”, but they don’t begin with the guarantee of making it any higher. And indeed, many never do -- especially with the proliferation of NES sites that has taken place lately. I tend not to realize the fact that my site is among the more visible members of the NES scene, mainly because the transition has been my own. I may not be at the zenith with |tsr and Kalata, but the facts remain. I don’t go out and ask people to link to me anymore; people come to me. I don’t join visible webrings anymore; it is not necessary.

I cannot, for myself, discern what has drawn people to my site. I do not especially want to -- it would siphon the magic of it. Actually, I was for a long time not aware that I had made as much progress as I had. It seemed that popularity would result in a complete transmogrification in the way I worked. To this day, I cannot express what I expected. Perhaps it was something like the vague feeling of importance that descends on small children when they don those cardboard crowns at Burger King -- it changes their conduct ever so slightly, partly because they fear the crown will fall off, and partly because they think it makes them special. Nothing of that sort happened, though. I still sat in my chair, writing reviews in the same old perfectionistic way I always had. The only change was that I had developed a greater sense of how to satisfy my perfectionism. Yet, my standing had changed, only at such a glacial rate that I was not fully aware of it. Where once I got no responses, I now received plenty; and they all seemed, in one way or another, to say the same thing: that I was doing a good job (save for one irritable person with an entire oak tree up his behind.)

Now, whether I am presently doing a good job I leave for time to decide (“Don’t try to be a great man. Just be a man, and let history make its own judgments.” -Star Trek: First Contact). However, about a month ago, it was made plain to me that I was, at the very least, doing a visible job. (I’m not bragging; it’s just that people have paid progressively more attention to my site.) I was contacted by a person who was beginning a new site, and wanted “a few pointers on how... [I] became so accomplished.”

A Pentecostal realization of where I now stand quickly ensued. I don’t ask the big-dealers for advice anymore. I interact with them; I joke with them; I laugh with them; I give and take with them. I am one of them, and while even moderate importance is a sensation entirely foreign to me, I realize that it carries with it a responsibility -- a responsibility both to produce the highest quality of work I can and to be aware of my “audience” that, happily enough, runs in tandem with my own desires. I do not know if there are any other beginners out there who want my advice on how to get started. However, in the unlikely event that there are, I offer the following suggestions.

I quoted Fitzgerald earlier to emphasize that, in the end, everybody must follow their own convictions, not the pontifications of some other person with no way of fully understanding their situation (okay, so I probably would have quoted him even if that opportunity failed to present itself.) I do not, honestly, have any business telling people what to do unless I am compelled by their requests to do so. However, that quote still does not accurately elucidate what I am doing here. Any insinuation on my part that I am clever would be presumptuous, and a severe infraction of my own desire not to seem arrogant (I know I always do, but I don’t want to). Also, since I am a member of the same generation as most of the people who run NES web sites, calling them “posterity” is not wholly correct. This epistle is likewise not a “gift” in the traditional sense, as gifts are usually occasioned by something. My editorial is, on the other hand, randomly produced, not at all fun, and I presume not what most people who view my site would ordinarily want -- most of us would take a gingerbread nut over a Psalm* any day, I conjecture. It all really comes down to the quote’s one accurate reflection of my intents -- the “platitude.” That is, honestly, what this whole discourse truly is -- a synthesis of truisms and generalizations founded on my own experience of the web scene.

So I guess my first bit of advice is that you shouldn’t take my advice. It is nothing more than an itemization of what I did during the Shrine’s fledgling stage, and what I would have done differently if given a second chance. Perhaps it makes sense; perhaps it means something. Then again, it might turn out simply as the ramblings of a silly twit who overestimates his own importance. Listen to it if it makes sense to you. Otherwise, follow your own convictions -- that is the only way the pursuit of webmastery will ever mean anything.

* A reference to Jane Eyre, which I used to hate, but seem not to anymore.

1) Patience and Recognition

My first not-so-humble entreaty is conceived partially in my own self interest; and that is that you not jump the gun about webrings. They can be a helpful resource in advertising your site if you are willing to wait a bit before joining them.

The logic behind this is fairly simple. It is perhaps a sad truth, but very few people want to visit a site with minimal content. If I visit a site by way of a ring to find that it has no content other than a front page and a section stating what has been added (rather unnecessary at that point, I should add), I will not feel compelled to return. Indeed, most will probably forget the site as soon as they leave it, remembering it only as “that page that didn’t have anything.” This would be fine, if not for one thing. The mass of people who view your site will likely contain a few of the more influential members of the NES web scene. If they do not find anything that captures their interest, they will not want to link to you, and your hopes of positive perception will be dashed. This is not irreversible, but it is exponentially more difficult to learn to walk after you’ve shot yourself in the foot.

Another important factor to consider is the possibility that running a site may not appeal to you. Plenty of people begin sites with high intentions, but many lose that idealism in a hurry upon realizing that maintaining a quality site takes work. Human beings are fickle. It is entirely possible that you will become disillusioned with your "pipe dream" after starting out in its pursuit (I fully expected to be when I created this site.) That is fine -- but don’t plug your site at every available opportunity until you’re certain that you will keep with it (for the record, I waited two-and-a-half months). There is nothing more irritating than a widely-circulated, unsubstantiated site that has not been updated in two years.

I should also point out that, in my case, sites that have joined multiple webrings exude a certain psychology. When I see that a site has joined more rings than it has had updates, it seems to me -- perhaps unfoundedly -- that the proprietor is begging for attention. Rings can only direct traffic to your site. It is your responsibility to keep it, so don’t rely on the ten webrings to which you belong to send your counter up into the cosmos. Only a small minority are helpful, anyway -- the rest are either too big or too obscure to be of any aid. (By the by, you will know you’re beginning to move up when the rings start to seek you out.)

Unrelatedly, one of the more offensive carbuncles on the NES preservation scene is the infernal site that makes promises without keeping them. Instant attraction is not worth the frustration that will result if you say your site contains things it does not yet contain. I am sympathetic to the zeal of novice webmasters who want to develop a following instantly, but deceiving the very people you want to allure is not a way of achieving this. It will give you one influx of hits, followed by total rejection as the result of viewer alienation.

Finally, I exhort you not to get impatient if you don’t generate waves of traffic at first. The inrush of visitors can be glacial, but if you are sufficiently devoted to your site, and noticeably appreciative of the NES, it will most likely come. The ignored sites are, for the most part, those that are updated once in a blue moon, or those that are merely personal homepages that mention the NES once or twice. The latter probably just make reference to qualify for a webring, anyway.

2) Depth and Verve

When I started this site, I did not intend for it to become the mammoth part of my life that it presently is. It was just a whim -- nothing more, nothing less. I wrote a few half-assed reviews, and assumed that my love for the NES would permeate the work even if I neither made reference to it nor wrote with any emotion. Still, like the covetous Yank that I am, I wanted the idealized hordes of rabid visitors -- the fame, the glitz, all of it. Well, if you’re anything like I was, I have two worlds to shatter for you. First, there is very little “glitz” involved in paying tribute to a video game system that went out of style with the slap bracelet. There is a reward, to be sure; but if there’s such a person as a superstar webmaster, I must have stumbled into a parallel universe (presumption was the only thing that made me want that anyway.) Second, not one of the NES sites in high regard got there without applying a great deal of effort (Kalata could probably get away with it, but, thankfully, he doesn’t want to.) That’s right -- positive recognition occurs only as the result of perspiration.

Nobody wants to read a review that says nothing more than “this game is good.” Nobody wants to load an archive of MIDIs that, in truth, contains only six files -- unless they are of the proprietor’s own creation -- or fifty bad ones. Explain as probingly as you can why the game is good, and examine fully why you like it. Work hard to make the MIDI archive as broad as you are able. If you don’t care, don’t expect us to care.

Another trend that abounds, due sometimes to equally lackadaisical approaches, is what I term the “cold fish” web site. Plenty of sites exist that, despite decently crafted reviews, editorials, and other innovative sections, are simply not amusing to visit. The culprit tends to be that, either due to some twisted idea of “professionalism” or an indesire to put his/her back into matters, the proprietor gives the impression of having no personality. Nostalgia is not a professional sensation. There is no need to be impassive and stoic in this medium. If you love the NES, make your audience comprehend why. Don’t be afraid to discuss yourself. Your site is the produce of your own mind and convictions. Share anecdotes, try to be witty, express yourself with enthusiasm, and have no fear of spontaneity. Any site worth its salt is a clear reflection of its own creator. The NES community visits your site with the dual hope of finding out what you think of the system and getting an image of precisely who you are that extends beyond “My name is [A] and I am [B] years old.”

As to the latter motivation for the cold shoulder, the only thing I or anyone can do about lazily plotted tribute sites is ignore them.

3) Miscellany

In my somewhat lengthy experience of this corner of the web, I have run across a few trends that, though they do not diminish the quality of the sites themselves, turn me off. I don’t want to brand any of the sites that happen to invoke these -- which is why I re-emphasize the fact that these things, and everything else against which I have advised in this article, are merely my own grievances. They do not guarantee a site’s failure any more than their absence guarantees its success. They are merely the presumptions of an individual who, at best, likes thinking about things in-depth and, at worst, is way out of his jurisdiction.

Anyway, my “pet peeves” are enumerated below -- mainly because I like bitching about things.

Giant Composite Images (i.e. “Images that amalgamate multiple game stills into a single graphic”) - First off, they’re clumsy. They tend to take up entire screens, oftentimes without mentioning the name of the site for which they are used, and forcing the viewer to scroll down indeterminately until he/she finds some actual content. Secondly, they take too long to load. I do not know exactly where my tolerance wears off, but I lack the composure to wait eight minutes for one graphic to process. Finally, they’re unnecessary. The exact same effect could be achieved by peppering images from singular games throughout the entirety of one’s site, and without the consequence of loading times that would accommodate the State of the Union address.

Blurry Screen Stills - I do not know exactly how they are captured so inefficiently, though I’ve been told that a VCR is usually involved. It is not necessary to go through three different machines just to get one sloppy image when emulation can achieve a clearer result without demanding that one leave one’s computer. Honestly, that is one of the primary purposes of emulation -- to provide webmasters with a way of capturing accurate images deftly. Unless no ROM of the desired game can be located, or the person in question feels strongly inclined toward the VCR method, it would be simpler to use NESticle.

Republications of the Mike Etler Rarity List - I don't mean to step on Mr. Etler’s efforts. He obviously put a great deal of time into researching his list; and while I applaud the fervor, the product fails to interest me. I do not especially care whether a given game is a C- or a UC or a PROTO, and seeing the list pinned up on half of the sites I visit does nothing to endear me to it. No ill-will toward Etler, his document, or the sites that display it is intended -- just that if I see it one more time...

My advice is not qualified by anything other than the fact that people seem to like what I do. I cannot tell conclusively how “good” my endeavors are -- aesthetic goodness is very subjective. All I can be certain of is that I have earned a decent level of recognition -- sufficient to convince people of the validity of my suggestions. Do I deserve it? I don’t know, and I don’t especially want to. External awareness has justified the writing of this editorial, but I cannot defend its claims on any grounds other than that they are my own opinions -- my own “platitudes.” The decision of how to plot a site rests with each designer, and I hope they will listen more to their own convictions than to mine -- for I have no certainty, no empirical examination to back up what I have said; it is all one big argument of taste. For the moment, all I care to do is like what I like.

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