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Free Work’s for Suckers

For nearly two years now, I’ve been “working” for a semi-legitimate film-criticism website that has, so far, earned me a broken computer that I can’t fix (which was supposed to be a bribe that I could either use myself or sell on eBay—hard to do either when I can’t make it work). In my defense, I don’t do that much work for it, and when I do it’s pretty much self-satisfying. In the beginning, the guy who runs it would send me the shit cluttering his desk, which nobody else wanted, and I’d happily review it. I haven’t done that in a year; he still sends me the clutter, but I don’t review it.

The advantage I have is that the man remembers absolutely nothing. Case in point: if you’re wondering how I hooked up with this guy in the first place, he was one of my professors in college. I wrote a paper in that class that he apparently felt was so good, he scrawled in the top margin of the first place, “Please make a copy of this for me to keep in my files.” This filled my already hyper-inflated ego to capacity, only to burst when I came into class a week later with a fresh copy for him, only to be greeted with befuddlement and mild amusement. He had no idea why I was presenting him with a blank copy of a paper he’d already graded (at first, he assumed I was turning it in late) and refused to take it.

I’m astounded by how little he retains, but most of the time I find his bewilderment in the face of things he should already know advantageous. The first thing he had me do—and really, the only thing I still do regularly—was update one guy’s weekly column using GoLive and templates that have existed since about 1999 (that’s not exaggeration for comic effect). I realized how inefficient and inept this system is, and how it’s caused these pages to become bloated and useless (dig into the source code and find metatags promoting Ghost World that has no business being there, not to mention 750,000 div tags because GoLive adds them for every paragraph you generate but doesn’t delete them when you delete those paragraphs).

I’m not what you’d call good at web design, but I’m a pretty devout hand-coder, much more willing to fuck around with trial and error until I get things right than leaving it in the hands of a WYSIWYG program that does nothing but bloat. So one of the first things I did was pitch the idea of switching over to some blogging software as kind of a rudimentary CMS. I know it’s hard to tell by looking at this place, but I’ve developed an alarming knowledge of MovableType’s templating architecture and, when I find something can’t be done, inevitably there’s a plugin that’ll make things work. I knew that with their templating engine and my HTML knowledge, I could replicate the entire site, as-is, without any fundamental differences in its look and feel.

Boss Man disagreed. He saw the word “blog” and instantly dismissed it, saying he didn’t want his “professional” website to look like a blog. We exchanged a few argumentative e-mails before I gave up, knowing by that time that if I waited a few months, then took a different approach, he’d be more receptive.

So when he presented the idea of buying the Adobe Creative Suite, which costs a ridiculous amount of money (even with his educational discount), I told him no, he shouldn’t do that. Avoiding the word blog entirely, I noted that there are free “content management systems” available online that can do what he wants to do better than Dreamweaver, and since all he’d use the other programs for is image resizing, and he already has an older copy of Photoshop that can do that, he’s wasting his money.

He liked the CMS idea, but I guess he was asking rhetorically because he’d already bought the Adobe software. Suffering from pangs of buyer’s remorse, he sheepishly asked if Dreamweaver could be used with one of these free systems. I said, “Of course,” without knowing whether or not it’s even true.

Springing into action, I took the time to dummy up a few new pages and a new graphical theme, all using MovableType, to show him what it can do. I sent him the URLs to the demo pages, explained to him what this architecture can do—almost entirely self-reliant, he’d never have to waste all that time hand-updating pages full of archive links, he’d never have to fuck around with fonts; all he had to do was copy and paste from MS Word. I knew this would appeal to his underlying laziness.

He loved both the redesign and the sales pitch, so I started to go ahead with it, expanding the layout to encompass the full site, then importing articles. A couple of weeks later, he took me by surprise when he e-mailed me and asked to send him the raw HTML pages of my redesign so he could use them.

I wrote him back, “Uh, yeah, it doesn’t exactly work like that,” and re-explained the way the new system worked, what would have to be done to launch it, and then once it is, with a new system founded on MovableType and CSS (yeah, the old site is so old and creaky, it’s all tables and font tags despite the endless div tags), we’d never have to worry about cross-site inconsistency again. You’d go back to articles from 1999, and they’d look the same as the ones from today. I’m certain I’m alone on this, but I often get a creepy, haunted-house vibe when I wander a large, old, ineptly coded website that has all these old, out-of-date pages with mismatched design, broken images and links.

I knew I wasn’t getting paid, but by this time it was more about me and my friend Mark, who I’d cajoled into writing for the site. He expressed some frustration that he wrote what he felt were pretty good articles but were embarrassed to put them down on a resume because he didn’t want people clicking on the site and seeing how ugly, sloppy, and unprofessional it looked. It occurred to me that, without consciously thinking about it, I felt the same way. That was the motive for the redesign—the writing from certain other reviewers was bad enough; at the very least, a fresh coat of paint would create the illusion of a high-class site. Besides, shortly before really digging into the redesign, I was told by Google that I needed “more projects experience” before they’d consider me; since I have exactly 0 “projects” to my credit, I figured this would be something big, elaborate, and impressive to work on.

And that’s what it’s become. I know I’m not a coding god—shit, 80% of the time I’m flying by the seat of my pants, and Googling solutions from other people to rig it up—but what I’ve done with the website so far is impressive. Every section has its own stylistic quirks, which in theory doesn’t play nice with MovableType, but it’s easy enough to trick it with plugins. By now, I’ve reached a point where very little is left to do, and I’ve spent the bulk of my time importing articles—nearly 1900 in, with about 1800 left to go. I’ve done this single-handedly for two reasons: adding more people, especially techno-spazzes like Boss Man, would just make things too confusing. Decisions need to be made to get the articles imported as quickly as possible. What’s going to happen if they freeze up every time they encounter something like Boss Man’s misguided decision in 2003 to have “dual reviews,” using columns with one person’s review covering one half of the page and another’s covering the other half. (A decent enough idea in theory, and I’ve seen it in practice on other websites and magazines, but it’s one of those things that only works when the writers have different opinions. When both reviewers of a movie love it or hate it, for roughly the same reasons, it’s not exactly a clash of the titans.

Although I’d told all this to The Webmaster and gotten his okay before I did all the work, he still e-mailed me about a week ago with a confusing suggestion: first, he guided me to a website of costly WordPress templates without seeming to realize WordPress is dreaded blogging software; second, he’d once again forgotten something pivotal and useful—I’m already working on it.

So I wrote him back and told him to save his money—everything with the redesign is already in place, with the exception of one or two kinks I’m still working out, so it’s mainly a process of importing articles. I glossed over the total uselessness of Dreamweaver in my redesign but did mention the consolation prize, that templates can be edited via Dreamweaver using an extension (which may not even work—I haven’t even install the copy of CS3 he burned for me). Instead, I focused on singing the praises of MovableType, both in general and as a superior product to WordPress (whether or not that’s true is irrelevant; I stuck with MT because it’s the program I know, and I’m far too lazy to learn another one to do free work).

He seemed pleased with it, especially the part where I said writers would be able to post their own shit (which I think would breed anarchy, but I knew it’d appeal to his laziness). I gave him his login and password to play around in the system a bit, but he…didn’t. Instead, he did nothing for almost two weeks, then e-mailed me this morning to say he’d really rather just pay the $75 for the templates—again, not realizing that these templates have nothing to do with Dreamweaver. They’re for WordPress, so even if we switched over, it’d be the same goddamn mess we’re already in—only we’d be starting from scratch instead of from 1900 entries into it. Oh, and did I mention he wants templates that will make his “professional” site look exactly like every blog on the planet, the very thing I’ve painstakingly avoided?

I don’t even know what to say when confronted with situations like this. It’s like, I think everything’s all worked out, and then suddenly he’ll throw a curveball that makes absolutely no sense. I know the only solution is to keep arguing for MovableType, reexplaining the benefits (and the amount of work already put into it) ad nauseam. He wants a different look? Fine, I can edit the templates that already exist. The system is in place, and as I already told him months ago, once we establish the basic concepts, we can change anything we want. He wants a horizontal menu, not a vertical one? Fine. But don’t tell me I’ve wasted six months of free labor, and don’t tell me it’ll be another year before we launch the redesign because of all the time required to import all those articles, just because he had a whim.

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