Plain old webpages still matter

You've heard of WordPress, right? You've certainly seen it many times, even if you don't realize that: WordPress powers over a quarter of all websites — a literally astronomical number. It's a fairly large and complex piece of software, relying on even larger and more complex infrastructure, and only getting moreso with each new release.

You might think that's normal given the needs of modern websites.

It's not.

Oh, sure, we do a lot on the web these days. Too much, arguably. We shop and socialize; we learn, work and play on the web. It has subsumed other aspects of the internet to such a degree, younger people no longer know e-mail and chat exist outside the browser.

Given how important it all is, you'd expect people to talk a lot about the act of creating a simple webpage, never mind more. But if they are, it's not showing up in searches.

Which is odd, because people still talk a lot about the act of writing books or composing music, and we've been doing those things for centuries. The web is a lot newer than that — newer than videogames. Yet the last time I've heard people talking seriously about how to work with this young medium was at the turn of the millennium or thereabouts.

The second coming of the printing press has been here for less than a generation, and already people are being taught they should leave it to big business. Free speech for sale!

Worse, we techies carry most of the blame for it.

Here's an exercise: what do you think is the smallest amount of text required to make a valid webpage in 2017? Take a guess if you're not "in the know".

Ready? Here's my answer:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<meta charset="utf-8">
<title>My first webpage</title>

Hello, world!

Yep... you only need enough text to fit on a single line. How much bigger was your guess? Because the average web page today is several megabytes in size — equivalent to the text of like three novels, last time I checked. And the average website isn't some news portal or e-commerce giant; most likely it's some blog or corporate "business card".

When I first got online in 1999, one of the first things I did was learn how to make a website — my way of taking part in the global conversation. First from a thin book with little text and big colorful pictures, then by peeking at the code of other websites to see how they achieved various effects. (You can still do that on most websites: try hitting Ctrl-U. Too bad all you're going to see is a big jumble of cryptic code that pulls in even more code from who knows where, and makes everything confusing.)

By the time I retired it, seven years later, this first website could still fit on two floppy disks. (Remember those?) Yes, the whole website, including some of my early digital artwork. Those 2.8 megabytes, a mirror of my youthful naivety, will remain forever easy to read, or at least until civilization collapses and the last computer winks out. And I didn't have to do anything special to make it happen.

Then again, we're talking 19 webpages. In just as many years, my third website accumulated nearly 400. It was easy, you see. Seductively easy.

But when the need arose, it took nearly two months of hard work to get them out of the gilded cage that is WordPress. And not for lack of the original manuscripts, either.

You see, our tools can make us complacent. Where does this page go? Dunno, the app takes care of the navigation. How big is this picture? Dunno, the app takes care of resizing. Then, a few years down the road, it turns out the site you worked so hard to make isn't really yours anymore, but the app's.

Worse, such a content management system (CMS for short) often breaks its promise of making your work easier. Twice so far I found myself fighting a web app to get the desired result, only to give up and leave old content become obsolete instead. And once it was with my own software, tailor-made to my needs at the time. Or rather, what I thought my needs were.

People can be very wrong about what will do them good, even if they didn't change with time. And time always passes. It can't be helped.

Twice already I had to redirect my entire creativity in one big effort to reimagine a website from scratch, because nothing less would suffice anymore. And twice I ended up with a static website, like those I used to make before accruing fifteen years of web development experience.

Did I worship a false god all this time?

More and more people appear to think so. Just in the past few years, static websites — as we call those not driven by software on the back end — have exploded in popularity again. You wouldn't know it however, because people want to have their cake and eat it too; hence the proliferation of tools intended to (where have we heard that before?) make it easier to create them. But hey, it's a step in the right direction. At least these new websites, once compiled (or rendered, or baked, or generated — choose your buzzword) stay put; like my old one, they never again become hard to read or modify. Unless, of course, you want to make big structural changes.

And so we come full circle.

Making websites is an art, and it's not just about peppering your text with little codes in angle brackets that make every page sing and dance (literally nowadays). It's also about structure. Used to be, most people considered themselves lucky to have even one webpage to their name, hence the term "personal home page", that still persists. In fact, maybe you've noticed many websites are nothing more than one long page divided into sections and with a table of contents at the top. There's no shame in it, either, if you can make do with so little.

But if you have more than one, you probably want them linked together, and how you do it will shape your website. You can have a haphazard mess of links from some pages to some of the others. You can have a long sequence of pages listed in a table of contents as above, and chained with next/previous links. Or you can have a menu with multiple levels, where each page has a parent and children, but no particular ordering. The latter is what a CMS will usually offer — the only option it will offer. And the danger is, you might spend a lot of time building the entirely wrong website.

Ultimately, that may be the best reason to make webpages the old fashioned way. Maybe you don't need them completely future-proof yet. Maybe you don't need complete flexibility in how you lay out each one. But starting from a blank slate forces you to think about all these issues, and figure out real answers.

Besides, it's empowering to see just how far you can go with a website you can, in a pinch, create or modify with nothing more than Notepad. Not to mention all the new people it can reach without the overhead of bloated server software slowing it down and inflating the code.

Don't let others speak for you on the web. You deserve better.

P.S. See also My Website is a Personal Museum: the creative freedom we lost in the age of social media.