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John T. Unger

A Custom Built All-Comments Blog

John T. Unger February 21, 2007

I think just about everyone who blogs would agree that the most difficult part lies in writing new posts day in and day out… So when I was approached by a client who wanted to create a TypePad blog that would draw almost all it's content from comments left by readers, I thought it was a pretty brilliant idea!

Do You Know Any Secrets consists of a single, simple post which asks a fun question and leaves it up to you to provide your answer(s). Anonymity is both allowed and encouraged, but because the site was created as an extension of a forthcoming children's book, please be respectful and leave "secrets" that are suitable for kids. Comments are moderated, so off-color remarks will not appear on the site.

Read the secrets that have been shared so far or Share your secret here.


Do you know any secrets.JPG


The tricky part of the design was figuring out a way to display all comments on the main index page and then finding a good, easy way to archive them as the site gets more popular and begins to load more slowly. I've promised not to reveal the exact secret of how I generated the custom templates for this blog, but in the extended entry to this post I can tell you what kind of customization went into the project. As simple as the design is when you look at it, the client and I spent a lot of time thinking through the small details as well.

The main hack involved with the design of the blog was finding a way to alter the index template to display the full text of comments on the main page. The almost cooler trick was using the "Featured Post" part of the template to make it possible to archive the comments when they begin to drag load speed… Once the comments pile up too deep, all that needs to be done is duplicate the initial post and set the newer one as featured. All the comments on the featured post will display on the index page, while archived posts will show up as headlines linked to each archive at the bottom of the page.

I created a comments feed for the blog instead of a regular feed for posts, since all the content is reader generated. I've been subscribed to the Secrets feed since I built it and it's kind of fun to see what people tell. I also edited the templates so that the comments feed would be the one that was automatically discoverable by browsers and feed readers (such as FireFox live bookmarks or Google reader). For those who still like to visit sites in the browser, I set the comments to display in reverse chronological order, so the most recent comments always show up at the top.

There were a lot of small edits to the templates… We stripped out all the standard navigation links since the blog really is intended to function as a single page. In the future, as we build up an archive of older comments, I'll customize a "recent posts" sidebar item to display the archived entries.

We changed the wording on most of the template-driven elements: for instance 'Recent Comments' became 'Recent Secrets.'  Since everyone who comments is anonymous, I edited the link structure so that it reads "Commenter knows this Secret" instead of "Commenter on Title of Post." The only link now is to the Secret itself with no links to email or URLs provided by people who comment.

The footer for the post provides quick links to read Secrets or write your own. Again, things like the date or category were irrelevant, but we wanted people to be able to jump in quickly.

I edited the comment form to change the wording and to remove fields we didn't need. The client also requested that the "Remember personal info?" button be swapped out for one that agrees to the site's Terms and Conditions. I'm still waiting on the actual legal wording for the T+C page, so right now you're only required to "promise to be really, really good!" I also added cocomment integration because the form wasn't showing up properly when viewed with the cocomment firefox plugin enabled.

The Secrets blog was a lot of fun to build. I love the way it came out and think it's a pretty unique idea in many ways. Have fun telling your secrets to the world but do please remember to keep it safe for kids!

Share your secret here.

More Like This: Client Projects

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Debra Hamel says:

The text in the sidebar is a little hard to read, both because of its size and its color.

"I've promised not to reveal the exact secret of how I generated the custom templates for this blog...."

Why the secrecy? They're afraid someone else is going to set up a secrets site?

john t unger says:

Hi Deb…

I agree with you about the sidebar text… I was doing just the template design etc. not the color choices or the graphic for the banner.

As for my promise to the client not to reveal the template code: he hired me to come up with a unique use of TypePad to promote a book project. He's not worried about an exact copy of the Secrets site per se, but he wants to be able to use the site to promote the book while it's still kind of a new idea. Eventually, like anything on the web, there'll be copies (drinkingstories.com or truelifebreak-ups or whatever). He understands that, but asked me to hold off on explaining how to create competing sites until he's had a chance to use Secrets to promote the book to his publisher.

Ultimately, I think that's fair… I wanted to feature the site as an example of the kind of work I can do and because I'm pretty proud of how it turned out. But since the concept was his, I feel like I need to respect where he's coming from.

He and I emailed back and forth quite a bit because I did, of course, want to publish the hacks. I also really would have liked a design credit on the site… that didn't happen because the site is a copy of a site that is a big part of the story in his children's book. It's supposed to be a clandestine site run by MI6 and hence, probably wouldn't have a design credit on it in "real life." Bummer for me, eh? He's hoping that kids will read the book, Google to see if the site exists, find it and, well, be excited I guess.

You'll notice that I also didn't name the client, again at his request. I guess there are quite a bit of secrets surrounding the Secrets blog. ;-)

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