Creating this personal blogsite using R

Creating a personal webpage was a long overdue item on my list. Some years ago I tried a Google hosted site which was good enough at the time, but never got to update it since it was just too tedious to work with the low level HTML code. In addition, it missed all the nice features of the modern web: a responsive page to render on desktops, tablets and mobile phones, sharing a post, commenting on it, etc.

I have been looking for various alternatives ever since, but not completely convinced by any one. Until a few months ago, when Yihui Xie announced the creation of the blogdown package in R, designed specifically to create a website (or a blog) in a matter of minutes.

Fantastic, I thought. And the result is truly spectacular, thanks to the close interlink between this R package (I use it with RStudio), and some other frameworks like Hugo (the workhorse behind the automatic creation of the website itself), Markdown (a lightweight but powerful markup language that complements $\rm \LaTeX$, for the geeks among us) and a Hugo theme called Academic.

All of those are pretty automatic and do not require a highly sophisticated level of computer literacy. There are numerous step by step tutorials, starting with a complete book about the blogdown package (the book itself being written with another amazing R package by Yihui Xie called bookdown), and Googling around I found Alison Hill’s how to with blogdown that further points to three other tutorials, as well as this very useful documentation.

This post is not not about duplicating the information from those tutorials (those links should be enough to get you going), I just wanted to spread the word.

A webpage of any kind needs a server to host it. Thankfully, reading all those tutorials I learned about Netlify, an amazing free webhosting platform with tons of automatic features that makes my life a lot easier. For those with a basic computer knowledge about HTML and what a webpage is, having a website hosted by Netlify is as easy as creating one (using their highly intuitive menus), then simply dragging the public directory (generated for instance with the blogdown package in RStudio) of the website, on the dedicated area.

But Netlify can be of a much more help. Instead of building the website locally, it is a whole lot easier to host the Markdown files that generate it on a GitHub repository such as mine in this link.

Alright, something like GitHub required a little bit more about computers and programming, but there are tons of tutorials out there as well. It also involves a versioning system like git (which, if I am not mistaken, was created by none other than Linus Torvalds, the father of Linux).

Combining git (natively supported by RStudio) and GitHub can be life saving. I found myself hopelessly looking at the Markdown files, not knowing what I did wrong, to find grace in reverting to a previously working version. And Netlify is very happy to work with a GitHub repository and re-deploys the website with any change in the GitHub repo. It is now as simple as creating a Markdown text file (there are templates for publications, posts, projects, talks etc.), commit and push to GitHub… and enjoy the benefits of the automatic deployment on Netlify.

Best of all, the Netlify deployment system logs every possible problem and tells you why the deployment failed (something that RStudio doesn’t do yet).

Some more fine tuning was needed to add comments to posts. Hugo is happy to work with Disqus, another highly intuitive framework that I like, and readers are welcomed to authenticate themselves with a multitude of choices (Gmail, Facebook etc.) in order to post comments.

And the icing on the cake, for those aware it is also possible to allocate a Google Analytics ID to track how many hits the website attracted, how many reads and so on. All of those, in a matter of about two days of effort, but it is well worth it.

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