Claytopia is the culmination of my online presence journey over the past 20+ years. To understand where I am going with it, you need to understand where it’s been.
A Strange New World
Back in 1996 I was 17 and had just started to get into the local Winnipeg BBS community with my shiny new 14.4 modem. It was there that I was introduced to the BBS server for Freenet, a local BBS that provided *NIX based dial-up access to the Internet. I got my first ever electronic mail (or as it was known back then, e-mail) address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and it also gave me space to set up my very first website, which was located at http://www.freenet.mb.ca/~esu478. Sadly, the link no longer works and it seems Archive.org never got a copy of it. I don’t quite remember what my original site looked like, but I believe it was a frameset consisting of a header frame, a left sidebar menu frame, and pages that contained links to the (very primitive) search engines that were available at the time and other sites of interest. It served as my “cloud-based” bookmarks in that I could access sites that I cared about from any computer with an Internet connection.
By 1998, Freenet decided to get out of the email/web game and terminated their service. I was halfway through my Computer Science degree at the University of Manitoba, and decided to recreate my site on the U of M’s servers. I titled it Clayton Rumley’s Web Center and added “cooler” graphics to it. It now lived at the easy-to-remember URL http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~umrumley.
At that time search engines weren’t that great and there weren’t a lot of websites that aggregated links by category. I was very interested in things like pseudoscience, cryptozoology, conspiracy theories, and other such nonsense and built Clayton Rumley’s Web Center as categorized pages of links to other pages I came across that interested me.
I worked a few tech support jobs in the late 90’s, which gave me lots of time to surf the web so my pages of links grew and grew, despite still being a static HTML site. A counter I installed on the pages showed that by the year 2000 I had accumulated over 10,000 visitors to my site. I would frequently get emails from people who found my site and loved how I had organized all the links. I was directed to, and joined an email list in the cryptozoology community and actually corresponded with people like Loren Coleman, who for the uninitiated is a prolific author and researcher in the community! An interesting side-effect of my participation was that I was referenced as a contributor is his 1999 book, Cryptozoology A-Z! Someday I hope to procure a copy and see exactly what I contributed!
Things were still going strong with the Web Center until the end of 2001 when several changes to my personal life occurred and I found myself unable to update the site regularly. A second blow came as the relatively-new website Google had risen up as the de facto search engine where you could find anything you wanted quickly and accurately. The concept of websites that acted as link directories was quickly becoming obsolete.
December 2001 also saw me finishing my Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, and after a grace period the University of Manitoba disabled my student email and website space. Around that time my buddy Corey Shnider began experimenting with running Linux servers in his basement. He bought the domain name genma.org and pointed it at his local system running Apache. I migrated the site to his server, where it sat at http://genma.org/~clayton.
Rebranding the Web Center
Despite the new home I still really couldn’t figure out what to do with the site. By then I had gotten fairly knowledgeable in PHP and was itching to create a more dynamic version of my hard-to-update static HTML pages.
At that time I was also a fan of Something Awful and would frequently read their hilarious articles and Photoshop Phriday competitions. I decided I wanted to do that; I would create a new PHP-based website and write hilarious comedy blog entries. Since the site was going to be centered around my humour and blogging, I decided on renaming it “Claytopia”.
With my insatiable narcissism and questionable artistic skills, I also did what any graphic designer would tell to you to not do, and designed my own logo, which was based on a late-90’s caricature I had created of myself:
I then set out to create an amazing online comedy experience, and after a few weeks of writing a custom content management system, the brand shiny new Claytopia was born. My first splash page was a message to people who were looking for Clayton Rumley’s Web Center:
Once you entered, you were treated to a fresh and modern website with my posts about my life’s musings and anything else I felt like writing! It had a custom user account system where people could sign in to leave comments on articles or have discussions in the forums. Astute readers will notice that Claytopia’s layout bore a very suspicious resemblance to the Something Awful homepage of 2003.
This kicked off a golden age of writing for me. A few times a week I would pump out short, humour-laden articles commenting on current culture, strange events, or new programming tricks I had learned. My writing improved and I developed a distinct style where I could write things like this:
Talking about death invariably leads us to forming questions such as “why are we here?”, “how did I get here?”, “where is here?” and “why can’t I have an enjoyable experience at Pizza Hut?”
My First Domain Name
By the end of 2005, Corey had decided to stop running genma.org which was okay with me, as I was in a better position financially so I could finally stop bumming off of other people’s servers. Setting out on my own online for the first time, I realized I needed a domain name. I had named the site “Claytopia”, but because some jerk had already registered “claytopia.com” (which is currently parked, so I guess I win) I decided to go with “claytopia.net”. I replaced the genma splash page with a new site “summary” splash page, which again suspiciously resembled Something Awful’s splash page:
During that time I also re-integrated Clayton Rumley’s Web Center into Claytopia, turning it into a database-driven collection of links that users could comment on, hoping to make it a bit of an early Reddit-like system (I had no idea what Reddit was at the time as it too was a brand new thing). Unlike the people behind Reddit, however, I was based in Winnipeg, had no marketing skills, no investors, and no idea how to monetize anything.
During 2005 I was introduced to the game Sudoku and I became interested in how to programmatically solve Sudoku boards. After writing a solving algorithm, I decided to take it one step further and create an entire Sudoku program. By the end of December I had completed the first version of Chisai Sudoku. I gave it away for free because it was just a proof of concept and it sat on Claytopia largely ignored for the first few months of 2006. Then in the spring, a popular Spanish site downloaded and reviewed Chisai Sudoku giving it a high rating. The result was thousands of (mostly Spanish-speaking) people visiting my site and downloading the game over a few day’s time, temporarily causing problems to the server it was hosted on!
2006 hummed along nicely, with me making frequent posts, and people joining the site mostly to post on the Chisai Sudoku page and comment on how much they liked it (and offer suggestions or translations of the minimal documentation into Spanish, etc.).
A Bad End to the Naughties
At the end of 2006 I decided to set out on my own and started my web/software/new media business, digifi. Because of the demands of my new business, my ability to post ground to a halt and in 2007 I only produced 8 articles. Then in August of 2007 the major relationship I had been in for four years ended unexpectedly which affected me greatly. Suffering from depression I struggled to maintain my business, went back to working a day job, and found it very difficult to write amusing articles without sounding overly bitter or angry in them. I decided to walk away from Claytopia for a while until things settled down, and for 2008 I didn’t write a single article.
In March of 2009 my house was robbed and my computer was stolen, along will a ton of personal files, emails, and projects that I will never get back. I ended up being unable to come back to Claytopia for another six months, when in August I created the only post that year just to let everyone know I was still alive.
In attempts to get myself back into developing Claytopia, I started working on redesigns of the site, but I had lost a lot of momentum and I wasn’t even sure where I wanted to take it. I came up with a few alternate designs, but nothing that ever went further than Photoshop.
The Death of Claytopia
2010 saw more life changes and a generally more positive turn around in my life. I started posting again, managing to produce eight posts that year, and nine in 2011. Demand for me to work side projects for digifi grew and life started getting busy again. My output dropped to only four posts in 2012.
In March of 2013 my father died in his sleep at the age of 62 without any warning or obvious indication that his health was bad. Despite being deeply troubled by his death, I still managed to produce nine posts after he died. I had some other personal drama affect me in 2014 which resulted in only two posts that year; both of which were edits of Calvin & Hobbes comic strips with Calvin removed, presenting a surreal series of stories where a tiger wanders around silently making quips in the final panel.
Claytopia was written by me from scratch in PHP and included an administrative backend where I created, edited, and posted the articles. I had a few people interested in creating articles for the site and rather than give them a large
<textarea> control to work with I installed the then-popular FCKEditor so that they could easily write articles similar to how modern WordPress works.
Trying to make things better for contributors (from whom only one or two posts were ever generated) ended up being my downfall. My continued neglect of the site included failing to update third-party libraries and in 2015 a security hole in my outdated version of FCKEditor was exploited by hackers who defaced the website with some nonsense messages and probably something anti-Semitic; I don’t even remember any more.
The hack brought awareness of Claytopia’s existence to my host, who informed me that the method I was using to host Claytopia technically violated the terms of service of my hosting agreement (I honestly had no idea). I quickly moved the domain to a shared Windows hosting server I was running other projects on and put up a single page explaining what happened to Claytopia and that I was going to use this opportunity to start the site with a fresh perspective.
Busy with life and other projects, Claytopia sat in limbo. In the meantime I was reading about the Fermi Paradox (a subject I am very interested in) and upon doing a Google search discovered an amazing article about it by the thought-provoking Tim Urban from Wait But Why. Reading other articles by Tim made me realize that what I’ve been trying to get off my butt and write for the last ten years or so have been articles like his. I just didn’t know it until I saw them.
Because of his blog, Tim Urban has become well known (and was even invited to do a TED Talk and a talk at Google!) and based on the comments many people have found his posts insightful and helpful. Researching him even more I came across an interview that Shopify did with his business partner Andrew Finn, and Andrew said something that really resonated with me:
Find your niche. I think especially with how large the world is, how large the internet is, if you can stick to your authentic voice then it’s awesome—no one copy that. – Andrew Finn
Now I have no delusions of being the next Tim Urban, but I think as far as blog-writing goes he’s a pretty good model to aspire to. It will be his footsteps I follow until I find my own footing.
I also begrudgingly decided to use (ugh) WordPress for Claytopia instead of recreating a content management system. As much as I’m a firm believer in writing everything from scratch, the reality is that I don’t have the time right now, and WordPress is already highly optimized for SEO and social media connectivity. So I’ll spend more time writing words than code, which for the first time in my life, is probably a good thing. I just have to watch out for the security holes. Happily my WordPress updates itself automatically.
It’s been twenty-two years since I wrote the first version of what would ultimately become Claytopia and a lot has changed. When I started out building websites all you had to do to get views was post content. Now it seems everything has to be some form of click-bait headline implying the death of a celebrity or how a local person just beat the casinos and there’s nothing they can do about it just to trick people into paying attention to you. The Internet has changed dramatically, as has the world and the potential audience I can now reach via social media. I’ve changed too. At 39 I’m twenty-one years older, I’m a father of four, I’ve had jaw surgery to correct my Brian Mulroney-esque jawline, and my wonderful DNA (thanks mom & dad!) has caused my hair to lose all of its original brown colouring. My perspective has also changed. While I’m still bitter and sarcastic, I’ve become a lot more introspective, and I want the new Claytopia to reflect these changes and maybe apply some of my many, many life experiences to something that can educate and even help people. At the very least it’s a piece of myself that I can leave behind for my children and future descendants to get to know me better.
I’ve already started outlining posts that I plan to write. Unlike the previous version of Claytopia where the articles were largely my opinionated rants, I want to try my best to back up what I’m writing by citing sources and providing dissenting viewpoints. I believe it gives a writer more credibility and certainly more integrity. It will, however, add much more time to the process, and time is a very limited commodity for me right now. A post that would take me a day or two to write will now stretch into weeks or even months as I struggle to stay awake in front of my monitors each night. Even this post, designed to be my triumphant return to Internet posting, was started in February of 2017 but not published until a year later.
I’ve also considered the possibility of earning money from my writing, maybe by using Patreon, or selling items thematically-related to articles. It’s a new perspective for me. When I started my first website there was no such thing as monetization and nobody made a career out of blogging; you posted online because you felt you had something worth sharing. That part of me hasn’t changed and I still think I have something to share. If I ultimately do something that makes money though, I won’t complain.
By the way, if you still haven’t checked out Wait But Why you really should.
Welcome back to Claytopia. I hope you enjoy your visit.
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