10 years of A Great Big City
I was living alone in New Jersey, sitting in a computer chair pulled up to a card table and using a gigantic laptop in what would have been a dining room for any previous tenant. It's a vivid memory, but it's difficult to grasp much deeper insight into why I was choosing to build a website that day. Like most of my life choices, it was probably fueled by desperation and with no plan for profitability. Two charming personality traits that certainly haven't faded since then.
I still have the notes I kept while building AGBC, so I have a small view into my thinking at the time. It's difficult to open that file and scroll through a list of goals from a decade ago that I still haven't accomplished, and it might be described as a "lack of follow-through" on an evaluation form. But hey here are some other funny names I brainstormed for the site, so let's read those instead:
- isnewyork (was the generic name I used for the project during brainstorming)
- nybrarian (fun to say, awkward to look at)
- evrwhr (did I mention it was 2010?)
- conurbation (is "an urban area made of several unique towns that have merged", and also somehow looks more awkward than "nybrarian")
- a great big city (was the second-to-last entry on the list, after "city in a bottle")
I knew of and liked A Great Big Pile of Leaves, so I'd be silly to think that wasn't part of the inspiration, whether or not I consciously recognized it at the time, but my mind focuses a lot on the rhythm of language and "A Great Big City" feels very pleasant phonetically.
Let's listen to some AGBPOL that I may have been listening to at the time: "The Fiery Works I", from 2007
It wasn't until just now that I found out they're a Brooklyn band.
I had other sites listed in my notes under "Competition" — Looks like about two thirds of them are gone now, including both "The Scoop" and "The Local" by the New York Times, but congrats to the 10-year survivors: Hyper-local neighborhood newspapers and Patch.com. Apparently print ads for local dentists are the most sustainable model for local news.
AGBC wasn't supposed to be a newsblog, which is why I wasn't particularly prepared for it. I don't have a journalism background and I fell into writing news articles because that was the simplest part of the total site I envisioned, but I am hesitant and incompetent and tackle everything on my own, so I ended up being a reporter in addition to a website developer. At its best, I wrote about interesting stories I discovered during my multi-hour walks around the city. At its worst, I rewrote other news orgs' stories just to pump up the site's visibility online. I'm sorry to say that the rewriting actually did increase the site's visibility, so I stopped.
The site only had ads for maybe three years total in the middle of the 10 year span. I despised the trashy Google Ads that would show on the site, all for the reward of a fraction of a penny per page view. I would regularly nuke the ads out of frustration. If you go to Google's ad manager to block advertisers from appearing on your site, magically they show you online fashion companies with colorful banner ads and not the clickbait trump-coins-for-patriots.blue that ends up on your site. 😡 I'd rather bleed money every month than make a pittance by allowing Google to gurgle out scummy ads onto the site.
But my thoughts on how local news should/could be funded will eventually fill another blog post.
An inspiration for A Great Big City was Astorians.com, which looks to date back to at least October 2004. It's nothing more than a community forum, and not even one I visited much, but one that made enough of an impression on me while living in Astoria (after my mom emailed me the link) that I wanted to expand that utility out to all neighborhoods.
The main topics listed on Astorians from December 2004 are like a roadmap of everything I wanted AGBC to become: An events calendar, meetups, connecting people offering services or in need of work, where to find ____ in Astoria. It made me want to build something that would inform people about the city around them and make all communities stronger by bringing them together. I haven't accomplished that, by any measure.
One of the most difficult conundrums I face when trying to answer "What is A Great Big City?" is the machinery concealed behinds its newsblog exterior. Existing for 10 years also means solving 10 years of problems with custom programming behind the scenes. If you peek behind most local news sites, I doubt you'll find a friendly Twitter bot, a program that reads RSS feeds and ranks the content into a list of top stories, automatically-contextualized emergency alerts, or robo-written posts that use data to find out why your local pizza place was shut down.
It's fun stuff; it's an accomplishment; it's worth nothing.
Fast-forwarding to today, the site has certainly slowed down, but is persisting. Hurricane Sandy nearly killed it once. My personal life nearly killed it multiple times. Now the pandemic is attempting to kill us all.
I'll probably start the podcast again. It's yet another thing that never achieved the aspirations I had for it, with the difference that it's something I'm actually good at and have enough confidence in to grow. Like most any work outside of an office cubicle, it was just too demoralizing to keep chasing down anyone willing to fund it — an uphill battle that has ramped up steeper now that small businesses are struggling to survive through the coronavirus shutdown instead of spending to support local talky podcasts.
So, happy sad birthday, AGBC. You're by far the most-viewed thing I've ever created, but I don't know where we'll be next year.