The Virtual Swamp, or Navigating the Web Without a Map
There have been some excellent columns recently on how fast things proceed on the Internet. And on the one hand that is good, because one can find pictures, screen caps, quotes, episode reviews, etc., pretty quickly. On the other hand, it can also be pretty annoying. Websites appear and disappear with wild abandon, it seems. One really has to spend hours on the Net to keep up with the changes.
Let me go into some detail here. Early last year, I was in a "Spike phase". I decided to go looking for pictures of Spike (easily found) and fanfic featuring Spike and Buffy (not quite so easily found). I discovered, to my annoyance, that there wasn't a "central archive" for Buffy fanfic. Maybe I've been spoiled, but Due South has the "due South Fiction Archive", on which one can find stories of all types imaginable. The Sentinel has 852 Prospect (slash) and Guide Posts (gen). Stargate SG-1 has Heliopolis (gen and het) and Area 52 (slash). Smallville has The Smallville Slash Archive. And Buffy? Nothing. I also tried to find Enterprise slash, which didn't seem hard until I logged onto the Trekiverse and discovered they don't have an Enterprise section! But it wasn't time to start pulling my hair out just yet.
So, how to find the fic I was looking for? I used a search engine, and did find many sites with stories featuring Spike. "There you go," you might say. Um, no. At least a fifth of all the links I tried was for a website that no longer existed. And the ones I actually managed to find? Well, some had one story. A few stories. Some had many. Many had links to other story sites. But my phone bill was mounting here and I was starting to get extremely frustrated. So, okay, in the end I managed to find (checking folder) about 90 stories. But this was after spending days systematically following one link after another. And all the while I couldn't help thinking, "If I wanted Sentinel stories, I'd have to check out one link. One!" The same happened with Enterprise. I happened to pick a somewhat uncommon pairing (Archer/Tucker), and found a couple of sites with stories. On one, the shows were not indexed, so I had to wade through the stories alphabetically, looking first for the name of the show, then for the pairing I wanted (I'm only up to 'M' as I type this).
I realise that it's not always feasible to have one all-inclusive archive for fanfic and other stuff. That's fine. But when people make it incredibly difficult to find anything to read, I'm sure you will empathise with my annoyance. I mean, how difficult is it really to separate Star Trek stories into Classic, TNG, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise sections? How difficult is it to actually show the pairing featured in the story? A rating? A summary? I'm not saying that I want to be warned about every little thing. I mean, asking to be warned about a character cutting his hair seems to me to be taking warnings to the absurd. And if I want to know if a character dies, I can always just scroll to the end and take a peek (I started doing this with fanfic after reading a Smallville story that traumatised me - and yes, I do read the last page of paper novels, too). But would writing a short summary really be that difficult? Come on, even novels have plot summaries or vague details printed somewhere on the jacket or the back. You can't judge a book by its cover, but you might get interested based on the summary. In the same way, you can't judge a story by its title (especially with stories that answer challenges to write fanfic based on Star Trek or X-Files episode titles) but you can by the summary.
What about when a site is actually physically (virtually) difficult to navigate? I mean, when you have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to even get into the main part of the site. What's that about? I know of a site that my browser (not IE or Netscape) just doesn't like. If I want to surf that site, I have to use IE or I can't navigate it. No, I'm not talking about that kind of thing. I'm talking about a site where the 'enter' link is so tiny or in such a strange colour or font that I spend ten minutes just looking for it. Or a site where you have to click on a picture to get in, but it's not immediately obvious that that is the case. Or where, instead of links that say, "Fan fiction", "My family", "Other", there are only pictures. Who is going to sit clicking on mystery pictures trying to find the fanfic? Not me. At one stage when I was surfing Buffy sites, they all made use of tiny little pictures in the middle of the page with tiny little words nearby, inside a tiny frame. Most of the page would be white space, and there would be a small frame in the middle of the screen that one had to use to navigate - and everything would pop up inside this tiny frame, even the fanfic! For crying out loud, who thought this was a good idea? There were over thirty of these kinds of Buffy and Angel sites, which showed that either someone had designed their site this way and been copied by everyone else in the fandom, or it had been discussed and decided that this was the way to do it. And it's, as Spike would say, bloody well not.
By all means, make your site fancy. Use frames, style sheets, pictures, whatever. Just make it user-friendly. You don't want people giving up in disgust because they had no idea how to navigate your site. And people who use pictures that are incredibly large in terms of file size are guilty, too. An average-size picture of about 400 by 600 pixels does not need to be 120k! And don't have a page of 'thumbnails' that aren't thumbnails at all, but the large pictures just set smaller on the page. That's defeating the object! Not everyone uses their phone line for free. For me, page loading time is a factor. I pay for every second I'm on the phone. Which means that when I go to a site that first has to load every advert and picture before the actual content of the site, I get angry and frustrated. Yes, I might be interested in your site, but make getting to the "meat" of it a mission, and I won't be interested for very long.
So, what do I really want out of fanfic and fandom websites then?
- I want the page to load in a minimum amount of time. I don't want to have to wait while my browser loads 40 pictures on a site that is supposedly a fanfic site. What do you need all those pictures for? I'm not going to your site for the pictures, I'm there for the fanfic. If you must have pictures, why not put them on another page? Is this really too much to ask?
- I want a central archive for fanfic. Come on, we all know that having a central archive makes things easier. Why make it hard for people to find your fanfic? Posting to a central archive means that people know where to find it.
- I want updated links to sites. Update your links, or, if more than a year or two has gone by, at least remove the links that don't work anymore.
- I want clearly separated sections. Why jam all the stories together when you could separate them by fandom or pairing?
- I want to know the pairing in the story. I also want to know the rating, the size of the story, and I want a short summary. That's not difficult to add, you know.
- I want a site that's easy to navigate, and to read. Having really tiny text in a tiny little frame in the middle of the screen really isn't the way to go. You have an entire screen to play with. Making people guess where on the site your fanfic is located isn't the way to go, either. Have links that are clear as to where they lead.
Remember, if you goal is to have people reccing your stories or coming to your site, you don't want to make them navigate through a virtual swamp in order to find them!