Website Notes

March 2024

Much of the impetus behind my return to a static, hand-coded website after two decades on dynamic Web 2.0 platforms is a desire to reclaim more direct ownership of my writing. Like many people, I got into creating websites as a teenager in the early 00’s as a way to share my interests and writings with others. I have always been a pretty marginal HTML and CSS coder, as I have no general background in coding. Only a few years after I started creating websites, it became clear that I did not have the chops to keep up with the internet as it was evolving and I would need to migrate from self-hosted websites or platforms like Angelfire to places like Blogger and Wordpress. And at the time, it felt (and was!) revolutionary to just plug my content into a text box and have someone else create a website for me. It would take a number of years before I would come to understand the true trade-offs of this arrangement.

In late 2023, I made an effort to get back into writing more regularly, but I didn’t have an interest in blogging, per se. Instead, I wanted to write short, self-contained essays to reacquaint myself with the rhythm of starting, finishing, and sharing a piece of writing. I did not particularly care if these pieces were dated, as they weren’t really “web logs” of my life. My model in this project was Michel de Montaigne’s Essais: prose pieces with few generic conventions, allowing them enough elasticity to include any topic in the universe, and which are not bound to any time-based presentation.

As I began to write these pieces on my computer and shared them to the internet, my old Wordpress domain felt lacking. I found a text-based, bare-bones template and deleted all tags and categories. However, as Wordpress is a blogging platform, I was still bound to the distinction between “pages” and “posts” and the reverse chronolgical order of content. This arrangement wasn’t ideal for me, but it was good enough that I began uploading the essays that I had been writing offline to my site.

Then one evening by chance, I came across a reference to Neocities. It struck me that even though I hadn’t hand-coded a website in 20 years, an old Web 1.0 site was exactly what I had been looking for when I made those modifications to my Wordpress site. My content, arranged on my terms, hosted without ads. This concept, even though it felt outdated and naive to me by the time I turned 20, suddenly seemed like the true revolutionary promise of the internet.

Fulfilling such a promise also meant, of course, re-learning HTML and CSS, both of which had changed a lot in the intervening decades. But I came to find that, not only did I remember a lot more than I thought, but I also reconnected with my enjoyment of hand-coding websites. For the first time in years, became excited about having a place to document my writing and other interests because I knew I was in control of the process.

I do recognize that there's a certain privilege to web spaces like this. Not everyone has the time or means to learn to code their own websites, or to find ones outside of easily accessible networks like social media. Web 2.0 opened up the internet to a lot of people who wouldn't have access otherwise, for better and for worse. I have had and witnessed many life-changing conversations precisely due to the features of Web 2.0— conversations that never would have been able to take place in real life. I'm not so much turning my back on Web 2.0 as a whole, just remembering all of the options available.

I know I’m not alone in this—I see a lot of people on Neocities who have similar narratives. However, I am not motivated by nostalgia for turn-of-the-millenium web design and site formats. You won’t find this website covered with pixel art and scrolling text. I do think the late 90s website aesthetic can be done well, but it’s just not my style. Even when I was 16, my websites tended to be minimalist and had a small footprint, but unlike then, I am designing with user-friendliness in mind. My intention is to learn the semantic elements that were developed for HTML5 to make this site accessible to screen readers. I also want to make sure that this site is mobile-friendly. Perhaps not optimized for mobile, but usable to someone browsing on a phone.

At some point I will remove this website from Neocities, once I take the domain name that I had been purchasing through and set up this site on my own server. (Or rather, my partner will do it—I don’t now how to do any of that stuff.)

Returning to a static website also means re-thinking how I take up space on the internet. Because I am entering a space that is completely un-networked on its own, I have to remember how to share the works and ideas of others without the help of social media or newletter platforms. That means I have to re-learn how to value things enough to share them without a friction-free means. I also have to reconsider what sharing personal information and thoughts means in a place like this. When I was making websites at 15, the internet was not a safe place, but it is less so now.

April 2024

So about a month ago I created my Neocities site. The prospect of hand-coding my own website for the first time in 20 years has been very exciting to me. And yet, WOW how much has changed in the last 20 years!! Back when I was a teenager, it was just you, Notepad, and your browser. By contrast, I coded my very first page in VS Code the other day and it blew my mind. (Also, if you’re wondering why this Neocities site has hundreds of updates, that’s because I’ve done everything thus far in the Neocities editor but I plan to switching to VS Code or something similar shortly.)

I’ve also been made aware of static site generators that can create website pages from templates after you do some coding to set them up. I don’t know if I’ll ever switch to a static site generator for a couple of reasons, though. The first is that several of them seem to require knowledge of programming languages that I don’t know. I don’t have any computer science or coding background aside from HTML and CSS. I also don’t have a particular interest in learning new languages (including JavaScript??) But more importantly: I don’t think the website itself is my goal. I think *making* the website by hand, page by page, is my goal. That’s why I have been so uninspired by my Wordpress sites for years and why I became so excited when I realized that I could just make my own: I’m a hobbyist website builder. I always have been. It’s just that I forgot for 20 years that this is something I enjoy doing.

One thing that distinguishes hobbyists is being able to choose at which point in the process they engage with the craft. For instance: I am a knitter, which for me means that I like to buy yarn and follow patterns that other people have written to make a finished object. That is vastly different than doing every part of making the garment by hand. There are a few people out there who are really so in to fiber arts that they raise and shear their own sheep*, scour, card, and dye the wool, spin it in to yarn (a single ply at a time, and then you spin the plies together), and THEN knit with it. Historically, these tasks have always been done by different groups of people. The physical labor, skill sets, and equipment required to go from sheep to sweater are just too large for all but a very few individuals to master. (And we’re not even getting in to the specialized woodworking required to make spinning wheels, knitting needles, and other tools.)

As a person who spends money on knitting, rather than making money from it, I have the luxury of choosing which of these things interest me and buy in from there. Over the years, I’ve realized that I’m quite happy as a knitter. I am not interested in spinning, dyeing, drafting patterns, or animal husbandry. I really just like to pick a pattern, buy some yarn, and spend some time making an object that I will find beautiful and useful. And that is nothing to sneeze at! Becoming a good knitter takes years of practice. My goal in knitting is not simply to obtain the knitted object. If that were the case, it would be a lot faster and cheaper to just buy a machine-made sweater. But neither is my goal to do everything by hand from scratch. I’ve found my happy medium: the place where my skills, joy, and expendable time and income meet.

Getting back in to creating my website after 20 years away, I’ve realized very quickly for now that I’m taking a similar tack. Let’s say Wordpress is the equivalent of buying a sweater off of the rack: it’s cheap and fast. You don’t necessarily get to customize it the way you want it and it’s not really meaningful to you because you didn’t make it, but, hey! you have a website now! On the other hand, there’s the sheep-to-sweater version of website building. This would involve understanding lots of things about how the internet works as well as a number of programming languages in addition to HTML and CSS. Like, not only knowing how to build a website on Neocities, but knowing how to build Neocities itself and host it and all of that. Obviously there are lot of people who can do this (more, I think, than can shear their own sheep and process wool and knit) but I do not have the time nor the interest to invest in figuring all that stuff out. I am just a website-knitter.

So it’s not the case that I have a purist attitude toward hand-coding my website. Only that I prefer to do it by hand because I enjoy it. I don’t want to use any software that would remove part of it that I really enjoy: writing the HTML and CSS, fiddling around with it and watching my skills develop.

* Gargantuan tasks in and of themselves. If you’re curious about what it takes for a desk-job-type person to become a sheep shearer, I highly recommend Stephany Wilke’s Raw Material: Working Wool in the West.