A few months ago I had an idea for a new tool and service that I thought could be useful to WordPress developers and agencies who manage lots of WordPress sites, but who can't or don't want to go all in on automatic updates. After spending some time thinking through the details and researching what was already out there, I decided to go ahead and build it.
I started writing code and building features on July 1. A month later in early August I launched the first version to a production environment, and now I'm starting to tell people about it.
Even if you don't travel in those circles, perhaps you'll identify with this sentiment: we have all of these things in our lives running software that someone else has written (routers, computers, apps on our phones, the navigation systems in our cars, the firmware on our TVs), and we're supposed to keep them up to date with the latest versions, usually in the name of speed and security. But often that turns into a part time job of logging in to those devices, finding the settings screen where updates are displayed, and trying to understand what's changed and how much it matters. Automatic background updates are helping in some cases. But wouldn't it be nice if these devices and tools could come to us and tell us when they're ready for an update, and what exactly has changed? So, WP Lookout is set to do that for at least one small corner of the Internet.
It's been a while since I've set out to launch and grow a new business from nothing. It's thrilling to again be thinking through architecture, strategy, business model, marketing, finances, legal paperwork, scaling, innovation and all the other pieces that go along with trying to make something thrive for the long term. It's also vulnerable to be putting something out into the world and wondering how it will be received, or if anyone will care.
I'm hopeful that good things are ahead. Regardless, I'm proud of what I've done so far. I've learned a lot along the way — about building a SaaS ("software as a service") business, about how awesome developing with Laravel is (I'll write more about that soon on my tech blog) and about what solutions people who manage multiple WordPress sites might or might not be looking for to make their lives easier.
After I'm a bit further along I'll share more details and updates. In the meantime, please check out WP Lookout.
Even though a best practice for blogging in general has always been to find a niche or subject area focus and stick to it, I resisted that for a long time with this main personal blog because I wanted it to encompass all of the various things I think about and work on. In the early days of blogging, I found my audience didn't mind too much that I would post one day about something technical and the next day about something personal and non-technical and the next day about something very specific to my local community; it was easy to hit "next" in their RSS feed reader and move on if they weren't interested in the subject.
I'm pretty happy with my current home audio production and podcasting setup. I sometimes get questions about what tools, software and equipment I use, so I'm sharing more about that here in case it's helpful to others. (This post has affiliate links, so if you end up buying something by clicking on them, I may get a small percentage of the sale.)
It's worth noting that most of the audio production I do involves recording interviews and conversations with other people who are not physically present. I also occasionally do some in-person recording, field recording and voiceovers for audio and video segments.
My day-to-day microphone is an Audio-Technica AT2020USB+ Cardioid Condenser USB Microphone. While I used to prefer some fancier XLR condenser microphones (and still use them for in-person interviews and more intricate setups), I was annoyed with the amount of mixer and cable setup I would end up doing just to record something simple, and the resulting amount of equipment that I had to have sitting on my desk if I wanted it to be at all convenient. I tried some of the supposedly higher end USB microphones like the Blue Yeti Pro, but I just couldn't justify the additional cost and other weird limitations that came along with using them. The AT2020USB+ gives me really high quality, rich sound and it's always ready to go at a moment's notice.
The thing that I hadn't done yet, but now have and detail in this follow-up post, is to create an automated way to clean up references to Flickr-hosted photos that exist in an existing WordPress website or blog. Without this critical final step, one could have a lot of historical content that still references Flickr-hosted photos instead of the version being hosted on your shiny new WordPress-powered photo site.
So here's how I did it. As with my previous post, this information is geared toward a technical audience that is comfortable with the command line and possibly modifying PHP code to suit their own purposes.
I thought about a couple of different ways I could handle this "find and replace" operation.
With 13 years of blog posts, many of which contain references to Flickr photos in some form, making the changes manually was not an option.
as <a> plus <img> tag groups that displayed the images full size inline with a link
as <img> tag groups that displayed the images at various smaller sizes, aligned left or right
I realized that I would need to be able to lookup the proper image URL for each display scenario. And given that my WordPress-powered photo site generated different image sizes (and that some of these had changed since the original data migration), that was not going to be simple. No one-size-fits-all substitution would work.
The good news is that WordPress easily supports building a custom REST API endpoint that would support a dynamic lookup of the information I needed on the photo site, for use on any site where I was finding-replacing content. Once I realized I could decouple those operations, it was clear how to proceed.
Creating a "Find by Flickr URL" API Endpoint
The first step, then, was to create a REST API endpoint on my WordPress-powered photo site that would allow me to specify the original Flickr photo URL and find the related WordPress post that had been generated during the migration process.
If you look at the code of the original migration tool, you'll note that for each WordPress post it creates, it adds a post meta field _flickr_photopage where it stores the URL of the Flickr-hosted photo. That usually looks something like https://www.flickr.com/photos/myflickrusername/123456789/. We can use that post meta field to do a simple lookup of the equivalent WordPress post object.
Since I want to be able to retrieve an image URL at a specific size so that I'm not embedding full size, large image files in posts that only need, say, the 300 pixel wide version, I also needed to accept width and height parameters, and then do a lookup of the related attachment file URL in WordPress.
Nice! Now I have the permalink of the photo post that replaces the original Flickr photo page, the URL of the image media file I can use in an <img> tag, and some other meta info if I need it.
The Find-and-Replace WP CLI Plugin
Now, it's time to use that API endpoint in a big find-replace operation.
The clear choice was to make a WP CLI command that could be used to run this on the command line, where I could log and review warnings and errors and have better memory management.
In creating this command, I used this general approach:
Get all the posts in the WordPress database that mentioned a Flickr URL with my username in it
For each post found, look for specific kinds of Flickr link and image references that need to be replaced
Extract the original Flickr photo page URL from those references
Use the API endpoint created above to look up the corresponding information on the photo site
Update the post content with the information retrieved from the API
It sounds fairly simple, but I ran into several challenges and opportunities for optimization:
Not only were there references to the Flickr URL structure above, there were variations to consider such as the internal version of my Flickr user account ID that was in wider use years ago, or the flic.kr shortened version of their domain.
The API lookups could generate a lot of activity on my photo site, so I added some caching since those responses should rarely be changing.
I found some photos that I had apparently set to "private" or "contacts only" on Flickr but had left referenced in my blog posts, so I had to manually address those.
My Flickr-to-WordPress migration tool didn't handle Flickr "sets" (although it preserved and stored the data needed to handle the), so I had to redirect those references.
I had to make sure not to replace Flickr references to other people's photos.
Flickr varied its use of http versus https in different embed code it generated over the years.
In the end, I had a working plugin that could do a dry-run operation to see what it was going to change, and then do a "for real" run to actually update the posts as stored in the database.
$ wp flickr-fixer fix-refs --dry_run=false
Getting all posts containing Flickr references...
Found 203 posts to process.
Success: 621 replacement(s) made across all posts
With the API lookup cache primed, on my site it only took a minute or two to run. YAY!
(If you use it, you'll need to find/replace my Flickr username and a few other hardcoded references accordingly.)
When I think about the time I put in to first creating the original Flickr-to-WordPress migration tool, and then the time put into this content cleanup tool, it turns out it was a non-trivial project. But it always felt like the right thing to do, since once I was moved fully into WordPress I would have absolute control over my photo collection without depending on the changing services or business model of Flickr or anyone else.
It also highlights a few important lessons for migrations and owning your data online:
Try to be consistent in the ways you reference third-party tools and services in your content or workflows. If you have a bunch of variations and inconsistencies in place, any future move to another tool is going to be that much more painful.
Hold on to as much metadata as you can. You never know when it's going to come in handy.
When tackling big migrations, break hard problems up into smaller, slightly easier problems.
Document your thinking and your work along the way. It's too easy to get stuck going in circles on longer projects if you forget where you've already been.
APIs are magical and user-facing services that don't have them should be avoided at all costs.
Yesterday I gave a talk at php[world] 2019 about "Tips and Tools for Gluing Together the Open Web." Below are the slides, text and links from my talk. Where applicable, the slide images link to relevant websites and code.
A few months ago, I was helping a local non-profit organization with their new website. We were almost set to launch, but they had one more request: can we get the next five upcoming events we've put up on our organization's Facebook page to show up in a list in the website's footer? I initially thought that surely there would be a simple way to do this, but as I looked in to it, the short answer was no, no you can't.
There's an embeddable Facebook widget that can display events, but you don't get a lot of control over appearance and it's far from a helpful list that can be scanned quickly. This seemed like such a basic request - connecting Facebook page events to a website - and yet as I poured through Google and Stack Overflow search results all I could find were frustrated users and abandoned tools that had tried and failed to do this one thing.
It might be hard to remember, but there was a time when Facebook wasn't the only place to learn about upcoming events in our communities. Instead of having to scroll past silly memes and political rants to get the details of the next potluck, lecture or book club you cared about, the information was available in lots of other places. Events were available on websites and apps, and they were shared via constantly updated feeds that you could even integrate directly into your own personal calendaring system.
You could learn about what was happening down the street or across town, and you didn't have to give up your online privacy to do it.
At some point, this shifted. Weary of the duplication of efforts maintaining event information in multiple places, and increasing fragmentation of sources that you needed to consult to figure out what's happening, people longed for a more centralized, authoritative spot to enter and learn about community events. I was one of those people.
Facebook saw this opportunity and jumped on it.
They made it easy to enter and promote events, and they sprinkled in social features to make it extra compelling to do. Not only could you learn about the event itself, you could see who among your friends was planning on (or interested in) going, and what they had to say about it. If you were an event organizer you could see what kinds of events were catching the interest of your target audience, and you could more easily avoid scheduling your big fundraising gala on the same night as the art museum open house.
At first, Facebook made access to event data one of the most friction-free parts of its platform, and they didn't require you to be "on Facebook" to see it. You could get email notifications, RSS feeds, ICS feeds to bring event information into your own productivity tools and daily life. There was API access so that you could build tools and websites that incorporated the event data where you wanted it to be.
Over time, all of that access was removed. The APIs were shut off, the feeds were shut down, and the message was clear: you have to come to the Facebook website or app to learn about events that you might want to attend.
It's nothing new to note that Facebook's user interface and business model are built around keeping people inside its walled garden. Whatever you might want to contribute to or get from your Facebook experience, they want you to do it on their website or in their mobile app, and on their terms. Their ability to sell advertising space depends on it.
But as with many other aspects of Facebook culture and its grip on our personal and community data, there's a significant downside. Facebook's decision to lock up event information has real implications for how we encounter and experience public life in our real-world communities.
Why is this a problem?
It means that like our exposure to news or updates from our online friends, our awareness of community events is driven by a black-box algorithm optimized around profit over everything else. It means that one company's shifting views on what constitutes an acceptable event, and its sensitivity to the interests of paying advertisers and political organizations could determine whether we see the details of an upcoming protest, demonstration or other exercising of free speech.
And it means that anyone concerned about the privacy implications of having their interest in a given event tracked, sold and monetized may have less exposure to the events that may have traditionally shaped and defined public life in their community, and private life in their circles of friends and neighbors.
There are practical implications too. An organization or business that still chooses to have its own website is having to enter and maintain event information in multiple places, which is time consuming and inefficient. People who want to avoid using Facebook are either left out of the loop or forced into using it again.
I went looking for solutions to this in the context of a website project I was working on recently, where the request was simple: can we bring our Facebook event data into our WordPress site? I had naively assumed that Facebook would have an interest in making this easy: if people could enter their events in one place and have them pushed out to everywhere that mattered, it would be so much easier to see them as the natural place to maintain that information.
But again, they don't make it easy. There's no API available to fetch event data, even for a Facebook page on which I'm an administrator. Event data is not displayed on public-facing Facebook.com pages in any kind of structured ways, and in fact it is rendered in ways that make it resistant to traditional "scraping" tools. There are no other user- or developer-friendly tools for working with event data that I can find.
Yes, Facebook does have a "page widget" that lets you display event information from a Facebook page elsewhere via embedding, if you are an admin on that page. The layout and customization options are pretty limited, but more importantly this is not the same thing as having access to the event information itself for importing, displaying, searching, archiving or other actions that someone might want to take.
Asking page owners to initiate displaying the event information elsewhere also eliminates the chance for other interested parties to "slice and dice" event data in potentially useful or interesting ways. If I want to create a website where you can search and display all of the animal adoption-related events in the Facebook facebook happening within 50 miles of my zip code, I can't. I can't do this even if all of the animal adoption agencies enter their events on Facebook, make them public and put page widgets up on their own website.
Can software fix this?
Being a software developer who works all day long on tools that try to make publishing easier and more interconnected, as I thought about this issue I still felt like there must be some way to extract event data from publicly shared Facebook events. After all, if you can see them in your web browser even while not logged in to Facebook, then that means the data is by definition publicly accessible in some form.
I can't tell you what all of the query parameters mean but I think doc_id is the Facebook-internal indicator of a shorthand for which query to run (so apparently "2343886202319301" maps to "all upcoming events" or something like that) and pageID is the internal ID of the Facebook page itself. I can imagine this query breaking later on if Facebook decided to update the doc_id mappings, but for the time being, it works.
The result of the request is a JSON object that contains all the upcoming event info one would need to import Facebook events into another system, display them on a non-Facebook website, and so on.
From this point, I could imagine creating a tool that, given a list of Facebook pages, automatically and regularly grabs all of the upcoming public events available in Facebook and does something useful with them. Here's a proof of concept PHP script that lays the groundwork for that.
This file contains bidirectional Unicode text that may be interpreted or compiled differently than what appears below. To review, open the file in an editor that reveals hidden Unicode characters. Learn more about bidirectional Unicode characters
Does Facebook care if we access event data in this way? Yes, yes they do. Their terms of service about Automated Data Collection explicitly states that if you try to extract data from the Facebook platform in an automated way, they can ban you forever. But more likely than anything is that they will change the way their platform works to make this kind of data retrieval even more difficult.
I think there's hope for some shifting expectations about what's considered fair here. A U.S. appeals court ruled just last month that web scraping does not constitute illegal activity, and went so far as to acknowledge that if a scraper is retrieving publicly available data owned not by the platform but by its users, the scraping can't be blocked.
In the case of Facebook event data, it's worth noting again that we're talking about publicly available information shared by organizations that want it to get more exposure online about events that they want the public to attend. Restricting access to that because it's a potential source of advertising revenue seems beyond greedy to me. In the end though, it's up to organizations, businesses and individuals to decide whether they want to have their event data locked up, or out on the open web.
You can help
If you are an event organizer, please consider posting your event data outside of Facebook on a publicly available website!
If you are someone who cares about building a healthy culture of civic engagement in your community, advocate for the organizations you're involved with to move away from tools that make this harder in the long term!
If you are a developer at Facebook or anywhere else that builds tools for people to share information, please don't lock up that information! Show your commitment to the open web. Provide APIs, RSS (or in this case, ICS) feeds, good documentation and facilitate easy exports of user-owned data. (A quick shout-out to the folks at Eventbrite who, at least for now, make available for free a very robust API to access community events shared on their platform.)
I'm glad for any feedback and suggestions about these challenges; please comment below. I've also explored the themes discussed here in various past posts, including:
I'll be presenting a session at php[world] in Washington, D.C. on October 23rd, "Tools and Tips for Gluing Together the Open Web." I get to combine a bunch of topics I'm interested in: the programming language that powers 83% of the web, tools and ideas for helping people own their online homes and content, the principles behind (and discussions happening around) strengthening the open web, the publishing platform that powers over a third of websites out there, and hacky little bits of "glue" software I've written to get data in or out of a given service.
I'm excited and it looks like a great conference. (My employer, Automattic, is an event sponsor.) If you're interested in PHP, software development and/or the open web and will be in the D.C. area then, I hope to see you there.
I've been running a personal WordPress multisite instance for several years now, and I use it to host a variety of personal and organizational sites, including this one. I really like the ways it allows me to standardize and consolidate my management of WordPress as a tool, while still allowing a lot of flexibility for customizing my sites just as though they were individual self-hosted sites.
The one exception to this has been the URL structure for images and other attachments that I upload to any site hosted on this multisite instance. Whereas the typical WordPress image URL might look like this:
where 25 might be the site's unique site ID within that multisite setup.
There's nothing wrong with this approach and it certainly makes technical sense if you have lots of sites on your multisite instance that are either subdirectories or subdomains of the main multisite domain.
I used to love Flickr as a place to store photos, and as a community for sharing and discussing photography. But as its ownership changed hands and its future became at times uncertain, I grew reluctant to trust that it could continue to be a permanent home for my own photos. My discomfort increased as I have become more engaged with the need to have full ownership over the things I create online.
So, I set out to migrate my 3.6GB collection of 2,481 Flickr photos, along with their tags, comments and other metadata, into a new home while I still could.
As an advanced publishing tool, WordPress typically defaults to displaying information about the author behind a given post or page on a WordPress site. But sometimes you want to build a website that has a more "singular" editorial identity, and that doesn't appear to be authored and managed by multiple people, even if it is. I see this regularly with corporate brands, political organizations, larger not-for-profits, and advocacy groups where the identity of a post or page's author could distract from the content being shared.
So how do you keep WordPress from revealing the author information - names, usernames and more - for the administrative users of your site? Here are a few tips, aimed at WordPress developers comfortable customizing their sites through changing the theme and plugin code.