Daniel Eden, Designer

Building My Own Meme Server With Dropbox, Netlify, and Zeit Now/Next

In my personal Dropbox, I have a folder with almost 1,000 files inside—gifs, pngs, and jpeg images. It’s far from a comprehensive collection, but it’s mine; my preferred reaction images, inside jokes, and dumb memes.

Having this Dropbox folder in my Mac’s Dock makes them easy to grab and upload somewhere, but I’ve also always wanted an easy way for other people to browse the collection and share the ones they like. I basically wanted something like Giphy, but with the curation of Ethan Marcotte’s bukk.it.

I’ve had two major milestones in making this meme server real, and this post is the story of both of them.

Attempt #1: Ruby

The first version of the server took the shape of a Ruby app, based on Sinatra. The actual Ruby code was pretty simple: its only job was to route requests for specific files, and to return a list of available files.

Because I didn’t want to check over 1GB of images into a Git repository, I stuck with Dropbox for storing my images. This presented the first hurdle: I needed to sync the Dropbox folder to a directory where the Ruby app could reach it. Because of this, I couldn’t host my Ruby app on Heroku or other managed servers, since they don’t allow arbitrary file system access.

So here’s how the setup ended up:

  • The Ruby app ran on a VPN server of my own
  • Dropbox has a Linux runtime, so I was able to have the Dropbox folder sync to the VPN server
  • The images folder was symlinked to a location inside the Ruby app
  • On every HTTP request, Ruby would check the symlinked folder, return the list of files, and fulfil the request

This setup worked reasonably well, but it also came with a lot of problems:

  • The Ruby app was eating my VPN’s memory up, to the point where more than a few concurrent requests would totally crash my server
  • It required a lot of manual labour to ensure the symlinked folder was set up correctly, the Dropbox instance was running on my VPN
  • Putting these problems together meant that almost every time I added an image to the Dropbox folder, I’d have to SSH into the VPN, make sure the Dropbox instance was running, and almost certainly restart the service after crashes

All this to say, it was less than ideal. But the final nail in the coffin came when I decided I didn’t want to pay for a VPN that required a lot of manual maintenance, when so many newer services (like Netlify, which hosts my current site, or Heroku, which hosts Brills and some other projects of mine) took the pain out of running websites.

With the retirement of the VPN in 2017 came the initial retirement of gif.daneden.me. I always planned to try another approach, but didn’t find any clear avenue until December 2019.

Attempt #2: Netlify and Zeit

Two years after shutting down the first attempt, I saw a blog post from Jim Nielsen that outlined an approach to recreating the Dropbox Public folder. If you don’t know about this old Dropbox feature, Jim Nielsen’s description of the Public folder should suffice:

It was a beautiful idea: you put files in a folder, they sync to Dropbox, then instantly become available on the web (via a URL that matches the structure of your folder). It was like a modern take on a FTP server, with Dropbox solving a lot of the ailments of FTP (security, credentials, file syncing, etc.) Just move, copy, or rename some files on your local computer and boom, they’re on the web (plus automatically backed up in Dropbox!)

This immediately piqued my interest, since it was pretty much the ideal workflow for making my memes publically accessible. Jim’s post goes into a lot of depth about motivation and his eventual solution. To summarise, Jim ends up using an app called BitBar, which lets you display the output of any script in macOS’s status bar. Jim kindly shares the source code for his BitBar script, which served as a great starting point.

After some minor changes, I was able to get my Dropbox folder syncing to Netlify—the first step was complete! Adding an image to my Dropbox triggered a new upload, and moments later, I could access it on the web via Netlify’s CDN.

Now that the files were up on the web, I was faced by a new challenge. While I wanted to have a friendly interface for searching for and displaying previews of the images, I didn’t want to clutter my images folder with source files for HTML and JavaScript. I didn’t want to change the folder structure at all, so even adding a package.json to run some script once the images were on Netlify’s network irked me.

Thankfully, I discovered that Netlify’s API makes it possible to get a list of files for a given site. With the images uploaded, and a list of files generated, I could easily create a separate application to connect everything together.

I chose to use Zeit’s Next.js and Now, since they offered the easiest way to fetch data from a server, render React on the server, and deploy a React app with a simple command.

Altogether, I’m really pleased with the end result, and will probably have fun making incremental improvements over time. The source code for the JS client can be found on GitHub.

Written, designed, and built by Daniel Eden, a designer who you can find on Twitter, GitHub, or good old-fashioned Email.