In the beginning, there was Hermenaut, an excellent ‘zine out of the Boston area from the mid-90s. Hermenaut hit it pretty big, as zines go, because it was packed with excellent writing and funky topics (issues had themes like “False Authenticity” and “Vertigo”). My old Liberace piece was originally written for Hermenaut’s “camp” issue. Fast forward a decade. Some of the original Hermenenaut authors, including Boston Globe writer Josh Glenn (who was one of Hermenaut’s founders) participate in a free-form (but closed) mailing list for around a hundred writers and gadflies.
Eventually, the “Hermeneutic Circle” realized that many of its subscribers maintained their own blogs, which gave rise to the idea of a “planet” web site that could be used to aggregate new posts from all of the individual blogs (without requiring writers to post in two places). Glenn signed up with Birdhouse Hosting, we registered hermenaut.org, and went looking for a solution.
The rub was that Glenn wanted more than simple RSS aggregation. He wanted posts from scattered blogs made into actual posts on the Hermeneutic Circle, so people could comment directly on the site. Somehow we needed to consume RSS feeds and produce new entries on the new blog, rather than just links. Eventually I stumbled on FeedWordPress – one of the coolest WordPress plugins I’ve tried in a while. Hand it a URL and it will discover all embedded feeds and ask you which one to subscribe. Each new author found in the feeds is made into a genuine author in the local WP system. Each category found in a feed becomes a genuine category in the local WP system. A nice API gives you a new set of template tags you can use to control whether commenting happens on the original author’s site or on the local site. And so on. Really nicely done (and yes, we tipped the plugin developer).
Hermenautic Circle went live today in starter mode; we’re off and running. And once again, I’m just amazed at the amount of work saved by the rich plugin landscape surrounding WordPress (I really thought I was going to have code this by hand).