The Story Behind GlobalThermonuclearWar.info

So, I was chatting with my college buddy “O-man” (yes his real name) over IM about the geopolitical aggression topic du jor: China vs Japan. We were both like “yeeeupp!?!?!?!” as yet another historically significant adversarial “top” goes spinning over the cliff. Here’s how that convo went:

NOTE: We typically prefer to speak to each other in movie quotes, internet memes and various other forms of media-based non-sequiturs. We’ve been doing this, effectively, for over 20 years.

OMan: http://freebeacon.com/chinese-general-prepare-for-combat/
OMan: awesome. no, really.
John McL: wow. right now, to me, it feels like a number of those scenarios from the global thermonuclear war scenes in war games
John McL: mid-east melt down, sino-shit show
OMan: http://www.11points.com/Movies/11_Weirdest_Imaginary_Wars_Dreamed_Up_By_the
_Computer_in_WarGames

John McL: fernando poo reality tv
OMan: the “Why You Throw Chip” Variant
OMan: FUCKIN COME ON THEN
John McL: lol
John McL: exactly
OMan: Japan “threw chip”
John McL: arabian light
John McL: polish decoy
John McL: these should be code names for my projects
John McL: ah, there it is
John McL: hong kong variant
OMan: “Gabon Rebellion” sure that would go nuclear
John McL: turkish heavy
OMan: “asshole uzbekistan”
OMan: “fargin iceholes”

As you can no doubt see, in this short span of chatter, a massive amount of useless and utterly confusing (to the layman) data was transferred.

However, that precious exchange set a ball in motion and about 3 hours (and $8 bucks) later, I ‘privately’ launched a new web site: http://globalthermonuclearwar.info.

Concept? Simple: capture any/all of the WOPR scenarios used by “Joshua” from the movie “WarGames” and use them as input for a random WOPR war scenario generator.

The funny thing is, I’ve been looking for an idea to help force me to learn Ruby. But recently, I’ve been struggling to complete some of my outside projects to a degree that made me feel satisfied. And, it’s easier for me to just GSD using what I already know: PHP & JavaScript.

And so, a new anti-productivity web site was born.

I showed it to a few friends/colleagues in it’s rough form and everyone was like “whoa! that’s awesome!” and their reactions caught me by surprise. I mean, it’s a flippin’ random jank generator! But, their reactions just kept getting more and more positive.

So, I tuned it up a bit more and instrumented it with analytics and some advertisements.

[Tangent]: if you have never tried, getting signed up and configured as a publisher in an ad network is annoying.

First, most of the recommended sites I signed up with were…creepy. I mean, these sites looked horrible, were confusing to use and led me to believe that my information was sold to the highest bidder long before I hit the submit button.

And what’s worse? Out of the 6 sites I signed up with, only 2 actually worked to the point of displaying ads. Out of concern for my own well being, I shall refrain from mentioning which sites were a pain in the ass, did not work or both.

I will name the ad networks that were the easiest to get up and running and actually displayed ads: Google’s Adsense and Chitika.

Why?

  • Ease of sign-up
  • Ease of setup

I know, seems obvious. Step through a cookie-cutter web 2.0 style on-boarding process, get the ad snippet code and paste it in – how hard can it be?

The reality is: the bar is really low for these networks. Here are the types of problems I ran into with EVERY ad network I tried doing business with:

  • Confusing sign-up process
  • Broken web forms
  • Account creation delays
  • Limited options for ad/asset customization
  • Confusing ad/asset management
  • Limited/no directions (especially for new publishers or n00bz)
  • Limited/no performance data within first few hours
  • Ads never showed up!
  • Ad networks were not compatible with others (but claimed they were)

With some of the lessor known networks, you might not be surprised, but, I experienced some of these problems with Google’s Adsense. Unbelievable. In the end, I chose to use Adsense exclusively. It works, I can tie it to their analytics and after HOURS of running through publisher gauntlets on these other sites, my GSD-mode was wearing off.

[/Tangent]

So, after 7 hours of setup and config (most of that time spent wrestling with the ad networks) it was time to launch this pig. It was approaching 6 AM Pacific time, which ended up being prime publishing time for 3 key web time zones: Greenwich Mean Time, Eastern and Pacific.

So, I popped over to Hacker News and published a very short but to the point item: GlobalThermonuclearWar.info – WOPR inspired scenario name generator.

And boom, it dropped. And BOOM! It immediately took off! Within a few minutes it was being picked up by nearly every continent.

Watching the hits in real-time on my analytics dash was also fun. The hits instantly spiked to over 20 active users, and kept climbing. First screen shot shows 40 active users. And it kept climbing. 50 active users. 60 active users. 70 active users…80…90…100! Eventually, it settled on a constant average of about 60 active users with spikes of over 100 happening periodically over the next 4 hours.

By the time everyone got back to work or stopped tweeting it or sharing it with FB friends, I had about 3,000 unique visitors and over 10,000 page views! I was giddy with the response. I mean, it’s actually not a HUGE amount (I wasn’t upgrading my host support due to performance issues or anything) but it was WAY more than I expected.

And, the feedback I got on Hacker news was almost entirely positive. My little post there stayed in the top 20 for a total of 3 hours and stayed on the first page of items for a total of about 4 hours. Of course, there were a few criticisms, some of them deserving (after all, I slapped the site together quickly). In hind sight, I now believe that the harshest critics were so because they liked the site but for the few obvious things I was doing wrong with it. Lastly, haters gonna hate, but, there really wasn’t any hate.

For an absolutely random rehash of an existing type of “toy” web site, this was a fun and ultimately rewarding (though not monetarily so) experience.

So, what did I learn?

  • When you have an idea, you have to act on it quickly
  • Go with what you know and ignore the trends
  • A majority of publisher ad networks are the suck
  • Never underestimate how entertaining your least “valuable” skills might be
  • Timing is still everything

Lastly, the real “experiment” here for me was setting up ad networks on this site (sorry WOPR-lovers). Oman later quipped “set up those ads and lean back, son!” which was of course a big joke. Thus far, I have likely “earned” a total of $.39 cents for my 8+ hours of research, development, maintenance and monitoring of this toy site. It’s not an exercise in commerce, that’s for sure.

For the record, I diligently represented every single distinguishable WOPR scenario in my random generator. The link that Oman shared did not include them all. I actually went through that youtube video clip, frame-by-frame in some instances, to make sure I accurately captured each and every scenario. I also spent a great deal of time looking for and comparing multiple fonts for the random scenario title that appears on the web page to make it look as close to the font used in the movie. There were some MP3 audio files too that brought the WOPR to life but a bunch of folks complained about them so I disabled them…for now.

Getting these details correct and accurate was how I reached my own personal degree of satisfaction in the effort. Insane? Most of my friends would say “ya dude, you cray.” But, I say, if you’re going to BOTHER to do something: do the hell out of it!

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