2002 - The Encyclopedia in Review

by Daniel DeLorme,
2002 was my first full year with ANN, and what a year! Tempest first got me involved with ANN around the summer of 2001. He asked me if I'd be interested in maintaining an "Anime Encyclopedia" which would contain information about all sorts of words related to anime, so that news articles could link to those definitions when necessary. Of course, I accepted, but the scripts required to manage the Encyclopedia weren't ready yet. They had to be made by the only one who knew PHP at the time, the guy who made the 2001 redesign (the blue layout you see currently).

In the meantime, I started playing around with PHP and as it turns out, I learned that it was child's play for an experienced programmer like me, especially since I already had plenty of experience with SQL. At the time, the reviews where still hardcoded in static PHP pages, so Tempest asked me to create a database-driven review script which would simplify the task of getting reviews online.

So I took a look at the existing reviews, and figured how to best get that content into a structured database. At the time, it was standard practice to have a list of the main creative staff in each review. As a database programmer, it was instantly a reflex for me to separate the staff information from the review, subordinating each of them to an anime title. That would allow to enter the credits only once even if multiple volumes of an anime were reviewed.

And that was the beginning of the Anime News Network Encyclopedia.

This first design decision was quickly followed by the realization that the list of anime releases could — nay, should — be integrated into the new grand scheme of things. After all, we already had reviews for some of those releases, so it made sense to integrate all of this, allowing visitors to go check the release info for a review, and vice-versa. It was just like blocks of a puzzle clicking together. All of this fits into what I like to call the Phase 1 of the Encyclopedia, the consolidation of the pre-existing ANN database into something more tightly integrated. This proto-Encyclopedia was managed through a staff-only interface very different from what you see today. It was oriented more towards the goal of displaying the main creative staff in reviews.

From the moment I started integrating the various independant parts of ANN, it didn't take long for my instincts of database programmer to take over and go completely wild with the idea of an all-inclusive far-reaching super-database of anime. From the very onset, it was obvious to me that this database should be driven by user submissions (somewhat like the IMDb model). The goal was to store every significant information known about every anime and, even though at the time I didn't fully grasp how big this was, I didn't think it could be done by the ANN staff alone. So even while I was still consolidating the ANN database, I started work on Phase 2: building an Encyclopedia worthy of that name, with a data-submission system that would allow easy participation and easy management.

The interface was designed to (or at least meant to) make it as easy as possible for anyone to simply jump in and start contributing information. Instead of creating an all-new user system, I figured it would be simpler for users if they could just use their forum account. I've tried to make the interface as intuitive as possible and, for the non-intuitive parts, to incorporate the instructions into the data-submission process (instead of putting them in some help file unlikely to ever be read).

Over the course of several months I slowly built layer upon layer of the Encyclopedia, merging the distinct and independant parts of ANN into one integrated whole, adding features, types of information, as well as many behind-the-scenes administrative tools that you cannot see but are invaluable for the management and the smooth running of the Encyclopedia. The interface and the underlying database structure matured together, slowly growing more intricate and more organized. There were countless little tune-ups, so many that I cannot recount them here — or even remember most of them.

By then, the original concept of the Encyclopedia was all but forgotten — even though the scripts for it had been completed. But one part of the original concept remained: the idea to link from the news articles to relevant entries in the Encyclopedia. So I added an automatic process that would search for the names of people and anime in news articles, and transform them into green links to the relevant parts of the Encyclopedia. Why green? Well, apart from the need to distinguish those links from regular ones, I chose green because it's the color used for links in Windows help files; I thought it was a good idea to use a standard color that everyone (hopefully) could recognize as meaning "more info".

Finally, just before the launch — almost as an afterthought — I added the lexicon... which was essentially the same as the initial concept of the Encyclopedia hatched almost one year before: a bunch of anime-related words with definitions. It took one day to add. I still wonder if that reflects more on how small the original concept was, or on how much this whole project allowed me to learn.

At long last, after months of keeping it hush-hush, we were ready for Phase 3 of the Encyclopedia: going public! We launched the Encyclopedia on June 30th, a few days before Anime Expo. Not only did we figure it was getting good enough to be presented to the public, but we wanted to use the upcoming intensive AX news coverage to showcase the Encyclopedia. We would doubtlessly hear about many new series at AX, so the idea was to have Encyclopedia entries filled with extra information for the anime titles green-linked in the news. Unfortunately, technical problems at AX prevented us from taking full advantage of this opportunity. Nevertheless the Encyclopedia was now public and there was no going back.

From that moment, the focus of my work changed a little. It was no longer about developping brand-new features but rather about smoothing out the rough edges brought to light by interaction with the users: fixing problems when they arose, making instructions clearer and more helpful, adding little things that people requested, adding features when it became apparent there was a need for them, etc.

Up to now I've been talking about how the innards of the Encyclopedia work, but all that system would be entirely useless if it didn't contain any data. Here my thanks go out to all those who have contributed their time to add information to the Encyclopedia. In particular, I wish to mention the exceptional performances of Phoenix, Tempest and Miagi. Good ol' Tempest, of course, has been there since the very beginning, supporting me with this project all along. Phoenix came along just a bit later, around the end of 2001. Both of them were wonderful beta testers as I developped the Encyclopedia code. Then, at the end of July, I got myself an "assistant Encyclopedist" as we welcomed Miagi to the ANN staff. And in August, Miagi and Phoenix apparently went on a data-entering war to see who would get the biggest score in the contributors page.

Interestingly enough (and somewhat frustratingly enough), I started to learn about good encyclopedic-type ressources on the web only AFTER the Encyclopedia was launched! Oh, I knew about a few good ones before, but all of a sudden it was like everyone had a big database somewhere. One of the reasons for creating the Encyclopedia was that I felt there was nothing like it on the web. If I has known about all the great ressources out there, things might have gone a different way.

Nonetheless, I'm still convinced we have something great and unique in the Encyclopedia. There are websites about seiyuu, about english voice actors, about TV series, about Japanese cast/staff... but none to my knowledge that attempt to regroup all the information in one place. And the #1 advantage of the ANN Encyclopedia remains the ability for anyone to submit any information. I do not believe that any single-man or single-team project can compete with that. I really look forward to the coming year and to see if we really can, with such a group effort, become the IMDb of anime.

- Daniel DeLorme, Encyclopedist

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