A Retrospective on The Aquarium

Tuesday will be the 5th anniversary of the First Post in TheAquarium and I am using that as an opportunity to do a retrospective.

What is it?

The Aquarium is the official news group blog for GlassFish, modeled after news blogs like Gizmodo, BoingBoing and Autoblog.  It is, foremost, a periodica and it shares many traits with those in the traditional media, including the importance of quality writing, consistency, building and keeping an audience and deadlines.

Effectiveness

TheAquarium has been one of the top three Popular Blogs at Blogs.Sun.Com for many years and has been the top blog for the last couple of years. That visibility and reach has been intertwined with the growth of GlassFish although the impact of TheAquarium goes beyond that as it helps keep the community connected and informed.

One way to indirectly track the impact of TheAquarium is through Google Trends:

That uptick at the end of 2005 aligns well the start of the TheAquarium. Causality between the two events is hard to prove, but I’ll go ahead and claim that’s the case.

As you can see, GlassFish grew very nicely for three years until it peaked with the launch of Sun’s GlassFish Portfolio (the “E” flag in the chart). If you look carefully you can also see smaller spikes that correspond to the IBM rumor and the Oracle announcement.  After that the graph shows a decline, and later a stabilization. The next phase for GlassFish and TheAquarium will be the release GlassFish 3.1, the first new major release under Oracle, at the beginning of 2011.

Historical Context

The Aquarium was an evolution of our previous blogging experience, mostly at Java.Net at that time.  We had launched GlassFish at JavaOne 2005 and we were making good progress on the first GlassFish release but that progress was not visible internally or externally.  When Sun announced Red October I used that as a motivation to start The Aquarium.

Audience

The target audience for TA has always been external and internal.   Internally, Jonathan and other Sun execs were regular readers.  TA also helped with communication across different teams and geographies at Sun and, like the rest of Blogs.Sun.Com, TheAquarium led to much improved information flow, which led to better alignment, improved agility, and, eventually better products.

The Authors

For many years we were averaging between 2-6 posts each weekday.  We slowed down a bit last summer 2009 but even so we have more than 3200 entries.  To spread the cost of maintaining this publishing rate, TheAquarium was conceived as a group blog from the beginning.

The original editors were Carla Mott, Rich Sharples and myself, with other editors joining and leaving over the years, in part driven by topic expansion.  Below is a recent list of posts by author; as you can see, we have many authors, but the authoring load has remained concentrated on me, and I’ve remained “Editor-in-Chief”.

rtenhove 1 dr156914 2 treydrake 2 nav 3
arvindsrinivasan 4 ripcurl 6 atul 7 andi 8
nazrul 8 fkieviet 16 qouyang 17 bytor 19
Binod P G 25 Giuseppe Maxia 25 woodjr 41 superpat 48
arungupta 63 carlasblog 133 sharps 185 alexismp 310
pelegri 2272

Topics

TA started focused on GlassFish but we expanded the topics over the years to cover the larger scope of the GlassFish Portfolio and new “friends” like MySQL.  This expansion was always a balancing act: we wanted to gain new readers and to expose new areas to our core readership, but we couldn’t expand too fast or we would lose that core readership.  In the post-Oracle era, we have reduced our coverage and concentrated again on the GlassFish Server

The Formula

Like other periodicals, the content at TA needs to be timely and well researched, the entries need to come in a regular basis, and should be easy to read.  We have also followed a specific formula over the years:

  • Length – Posts are short, typically ranging from 2 to 4 paragraphs, although recently we have also included some longer posts.
  • Images – Each post has at least one image that relates to the content.  Sometimes finding a good image can take more time than composing the text.
  • Entertaining – Posts try to be easy to read.  We also regularly add jokes (you judge how good they are), often through the image in the post.
  • Highlighting Content – Most posts refer to content elsewhere so bloggers with smaller audiences can benefit from our larger readership.
  • Validated Content – We validate the content before advertising it, taking advantage that the TA authors are all in the GlassFish engineering team.
  • Correlated Content – We link to multiple sources and stories to give larger context to the news.
  • Tagged Content – Entries are tagged using the Roller machinery to simplify searches.

Writing is Hard

Writing is hard.  Fitting the story into a small budget of words – omit needless words – can produce a satisfying result, but it can take time and often you need to just move on and publish the entry.

Localizations

As TA and GlassFish gained popularity we wanted to reach out into audiences that might not be very comfortable with news in English.  Since Sun had a strong culture of blogging, it was relatively easy to find volunteers to translate the content, and that is how we ended with 8 translations, although some of them were more active than others.  The activity of some of these translations has decreased significantly after the Oracle acquisition.

Weeklies

Over the years we have tried different variations on Weeklies.

We tried two variants (automated or manual) of a summary of the posts of the previous week. The automated version (e.g. this one) was cheap; we stopped it because the infrastructure bit-rotted.  The manual approach (e.g. this one) was better at capturing what happened in the week but is more resource-intensive.

We have also tried versions of a weekly catch-up post where we collect uncovered but important news in a single post.  This is much cheaper but less useful than individual posts.

Sharing the Load

The biggest challenge with The Aquarium has been finding the resources to continue to do it.

The ideal author needs to be knowledgeable of the technology and of its practical and strategic status, should know the teams involved in the relevant efforts, and should have the authority to write about these topics without having to ask for permission except in exceptional cases.  It also needs to have time to find and validate leads, write the posts, and then interact with the readers.  And should do this every day for years…  while holding other jobs.  This is not easy.  Also, the time an author spends writing posts for TA limits the time (and leads) available to spend in personal blogs – compare pelegri vs TheAquarium.

Finding translators is easier, the main problem there is that BSC authors need to be Sun employees.

Allowing direct community participation in TheAquarium could solve these two problems.

Using The Aquarium

TheAquarium attempts to record all important events.  This information is exposed via HTML, RSS, and ATOM using facilities described in here.  The information is then used in a number of ways:

  • As a daily, to stay abreast of events
  • For searching or browsing
  • To populate several pages, including the GF Wiki, the GF Admin Tool, GlassFish.org, our FaceBook page, etc.

The Twitter Years

In the last couple of years we have seen a surge in micro-blogging, mostly twitter.  Although a twitter is much cheaper to create than a post, its value to the reader is lower.  To get the best of these two media we push news as-they-happen to @glassfish and then use TA posts when the story deserves it … and whenever we have the time.

Still, I believe we have not yet figured out the best way to leverage twitter.

In Summary

I’d describe the experience with TheAquarium as a big success; although the time investment has been very considerable, I’m convinced GlassFish would not have been successful without it. I think the model is applicable to other situations, although it might be possible to adjust the approach to leverage better the community and new tools like twitter to reduce its cost while improve its reach even further.

Happy Birthday, The Aquarium!

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One Response to “A Retrospective on The Aquarium”

  1. Why Node.js Now? | Castellers v2 Says:

    […]   It seems a good way to get back into blogging regularly; not as frequently as in my old The Aquarium, but around once a week, we will […]

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