World of Apple author Alex Brooks

Alex Brooks artistically illuminated by an iPad | Photo by Merry Phillips

There’s no easy way to say it, 2011 was a bad year for this website. Such a statement isn’t easy for me to write because it isn’t easy for me to hear; in July World of Apple will be seven years old and anyone who has ever run a website will know that it’s not all dissimilar to bringing up a child. And this child is now at the ripe old age of seven. What follows is a short reflection of those seven years, the lessons learned and the experience garnered and a hopeful punt at where I’m heading.

Those seven years taught me a lot but the last 12 months taught me so much more than all of those years put together. In my personal life I excelled in areas that are vital to my future life, I gained knowledge, experience and friends that will see me go far. I was featured on TV and in magazines for the first time, I completed my first major political campaign, I started renting my first house and I went from thinking I was grown up to knowing I was growing up, a key distinction in decision making. In fact, all age does is make you realise the decisions you’ve made today may not be the right ones later. But, you never know until it’s done.

Whilst I, myself was doing all this changing this child was suffering. This child that has been nurtured with thousands of hours of my life. This child that has seen me slave all day and all night, ruin relationships, make holidaying impossible but also the same child that has seen me at my happiest, flown me around the world, seen beautiful places and products and made some amazing friends. It’s incredible to suggest that this non-material collection of words, code and pictures can have such incredible power never mind being able invoke such emotion in me.

It took me too long to realise that I was neglecting this child and it took me even longer to realise what I was doing wrong. With the benefit of hindsight it seems obvious now and I’ve outlined it clearly above, this child grows only with dedication and time and in 2011 I supplied neither of those things. But there is a third ingredient and that ingredient is me.

I started this website in 2005 for the simple reason that I wanted a website that reported on Apple in a sensible, objective and concise fashion. Put simply I wrote the website for me and by doing that everything else came naturally. Then came the growing pains and I’ve only realised now that this is where the trouble began. A website with thousands of uniques a day needs powerful servers, developers and designers and the only viable option to pay for that is advertising, ugly and ineffective advertising—the ineffectiveness can be combatted with a dose of quantity.

Success brings many things and greed is certainly one of them and being young certainly makes it worse. A simple formula for a website running advertising is that the more people who turn up on a single day then the more money the website will make on that day, so the website quickly goes from two lengthy, well written posts a day to six short and badly written posts.

The best way to know how much money a website is making is to watch the stats and watch them like a hawk I did. The first time I got linked from Slashdot (remember that place?), Digg and many other big sites, the rush was incredible. That child of mine had benefited from the work I put in, had flourished and went to its first school play and was a huge success. I couldn’t have been a prouder parent.

But I had cheated.

Instead of carefully crafting my child’s outfit for the school play I took the easy route, I went out and bought the best outfit I could find. On stage in front of an audience of onlookers it looked fantastic and the applause and words of congratulations from other parents felt incredible but it wasn’t real.

I never realised though, I just loved the high and relished the attention. Problem is, the highest high never comes again and day after day I began seeking the same feeling, only it was duller every time. So the tactics got worse.

Those of you familiar with this author will have witnessed some of those very tactics. From the likes of posting NDA screenshots and details to raving about the number of cease and desists I’d received. They were great for the pocket and those line graphs showing uniques leaped month after month.

As the bars on the chart grew higher the content got worse, its effects on my reputation and on Apple became stronger each time and it was damaging behaviour. Then the charts began to level out, the previous behaviour was having effect and I and this website were now suffering. 2009 saw two million uniques, 2010 saw one and a half million and last year saw just over 500,000. I grew out of love with the stats when they no longer fed my hunger, if I hadn’t then maybe I would have noticed before.

The stats weren’t the answer though and they never should have been. The big charts were merely an extension of big money, the real happiness was in the content. The whole experience is actually a reflection of a wider problem in online publications across the entire internet and maybe I’m flattered to have made it out the other side but I’m by no means unscathed.

So the solution?

As many of my friends would tell you and thankfully a lot of advisers will also contest I didn’t know the answer to the problem because I couldn’t see the problem. By the time I realised that the charts were flat and the money had all but dried up it seemed too late to reverse the trend. Should I just pump out more content? Should I take on more writers to help? Maybe I’ll run some giveaways to bring in quick rushes of traffic, I thought. All of this is time consuming though and time is not something I had, I needed a quicker solution. Frankly, I needed a miracle.

“I’m going to pull the plug” I said somewhat teary-eyed to a number of friends. I had the excuses to hand when they vehemently encouraged me to stick with it. I’d tell them that an explosion of sites and big media corporations interested in Apple had fragmented the audience too much and competing with $100 million corporations with hundreds of writers was impossible. Honestly it was just a fancy way of covering up my own faults and self-defeat.

The content began slowing up before October but the death of Steve Jobs helped put it all in perspective. I was deeply touched by Steve’s death, as I remarked at the time it felt strange to feel grief for someone you couldn’t even call an acquaintance. How can you miss someone you’ve had the briefest of encounters with? It opened up some questions on life and death, and fed my philosophically inquisitive mind. The coverage of Steve’s death was often moving and many reflected on his genius, his vision and other talents related to Apple and technology. I noted that he had another talent, one often overlooked, the talent of thought. The best example of such is his Stanford commencement speech that he made in 2005. There are some fantastic points to relish in those 15 minutes but here’s one of my favourite takeaways and something I now subject myself to:

I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech

Steve Jobs delivers Stanford Commencement speech in 2005

October saw the last post I made to World of Apple for 2011, the days and weeks that followed were some of the strangest I’ve ever experienced. Whilst my life progressed in ever greater ways an invisible force was eating away at me. Whilst it had been staring me in the face for a long time the answer to how to feel happy about this website was working its way to the surface.

The real answer to the problem had in fact been obvious all along; it all began floating to the surface at WWDC in June when respected Apple-veteran Jim Dalrymple (originally of MacCentral, now running The Loop) offered some on-key words of wisdom to me over some greatly enjoyed Heineken.

Put simply, World of Apple is a brand but more succinctly an extension of me, my thoughts and my opinions. These words are my voice, these pages are my work. And my happiness isn’t about the money, the traffic or even the trips around the world and playing with Apple’s latest and greatest. The happiness is in hitting the publish button on 1,000 words of my branded content. The feeling of producing and watching others enjoy quality, original thought is one of the greatest I could ever experience. Engaging in conversation with those who agree or disagree, exploring individual ideas and producing original content is what makes me look into the mirror and make me want to do it all.

The conclusion wasn’t easy, the changes go against what I’ve seen as natural but it all fits with the original concept I thought up seven years ago which was to produce a site I would want to read.

The site I want to read doesn’t churn out the same news and rumours that thousands of other sites have, the site I want to read doesn’t post fanatical rumours from idiotic sources. To make matters worse this churn effect often comes with a form of chinese whispers, led mainly by eccentric, traffic seeking asshole bloggers who are unable to distinguish fact and fiction, unable to pick up the phone to a public relations team to check a detail or more unbelievably spend the time to produce something thoughtful.

The site I want to read and will produce will post thoughtful commentary on Apple. The kind of commentary and prose that that’s sensible, articulate and adds value to a wider discussion happening across the internet. There are already a handful of sites just like this, authors who have in some cases taken grave risk to quit their day to day lives to produce content just like this. I value those sites, I enjoy reading their content.

The changes have also inadvertently seen me join a sort of ongoing blogging revolution, one in which many sites have opted to remove commenting. World of Apple has over 6,000 comments, many of which are relevant and informative. Whilst the ability to comment has now been removed I hope to keep those comments attached to their relevant posts.

The argument of whether to keep or remove comments was an easy one for me. The number of readers who emailed between October and December to ask about the status of the website was proof enough to me that a conversation can be held without the bloating workload that is moderating and maintaining comments.

I’ve also removed all forms of advertising from the website and RSS feed. The Apple rumour mill is constantly full of outlandish rumours that are only being spurred on by sites seeking traffic and advertising money. Removing this metric will not only remove ugly distractions from the readers view but also from my writing eye. The only reason to write will because I want to not because I want clicks.

It’s difficult to scientifically state exactly how ridiculous the Apple rumour game has become. Anyone with a level head for these things can spot a good rumour a mile off, they come from certain sources and they have a certain feel about them. The reasons why the majority of websites are willing to run any rumour from any source is obvious, those clicks equate into money.

2011 was a tough year, 2012 will be better. As I’ve put a generation of this site behind me I should take some time to thank the people that have made it possible to get to this stage. Most notably Liam Gladdy who has stood by my side for many years helping with site development and server management. Liam’s skills are second-to-none and I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending him for web work, not to mention that his calming British accent can steer anyone round a crisis. I’ve overworked and poorly remunerated Liam many a time but I am eternally grateful and beyond our professional relationship I’ve gained a great friend.

Also special thanks to Jon Kokke who has had little involvement with the site of late but the design that you see today is his and I love it as much now as I did when he first showed it to me in 2009 (and frankly that’s all that matters).

This site has also seen many pairs of hands tap out some incredible content over the years. The content and discussions that preceded the writing done by Luke, Dee, David, Dean and Nishant to name a few have helped me no end.

Also of course thanks to those friends, whether they be virtual or not, who I bounced ideas off about what to do with the site, especially Jim. Big thanks to readers who encouraged me to stick with it, knowing the words aren’t just going into an ether does make a difference. I hope you all keep reading. As Dylan would say, the times they are a-changin’.

Let’s continue the discussion on Twitter. Follow @worldofapple or @alexbrooks.