This title might be due to unknowingly plagiarizing dejavu.org – The web as we remember it.
I haven’t visited dejavu.org in years, but I did now as I felt I need to wax nostalgic. This might be due to my recent tinkering with my websites‘ layouts.
As a child I crafted 200-faced paper polyhedra whose plans I developed from images of crystals in mineralogy books. I am maybe in the same state of mind today when I am moving around pixels, editing style sheets or debugging my home-grown content management system for these sites. This is raking my virtual Zen garden.
It is an anachronistic approach to what should today be interactive, responsive and created from templates. However, it really reflects some doubts of mine about what the web has become.
The web has been a quiet place. My sites have always been my secret fortresses on the web, only known to the most persistent stalkers. A new colleague in a project greeted me once appreciatively with You are The Subversive Element, aren’t you? As an aside: I have found that so-called personal websites – that ought not to interfere with business according to common wisdom – are perfect filters to single out people who are fun to work with.
I think there is no better exercise in becoming unimpressed by feedback, likes and comments than authoring a non-interactive website for years. The fact that somebody could read it provides just enough sense of accountability for the content. I wonder what it must feel like to grow up today, immersed in a web culture that fosters craving attention.
But what is more important:
We have given up on the noble notion of a page.
Today’s sites are frontends to applications that create a dynamic dashboard of widgets, thus dynamically re-arranged snippets and tidbits of information – very often ads on many popular sites but this is not my point.
I noticed this when mulling about responsive design, that is: making websites compatible with the limited display options of different devices. The main content – usually presented in some main reading pane should probably be created in a way suiting this presentation: Chopped to digestible tidbits instead of walls of text.
But guess what would be the perfect responsive design: The most ancient, 1995-style html page, consisting of header and body, and some paragraphs contained in that body. As long as you don’t start to create containers or columns in order to organize the content and/or make it appear more appealing, you will see the text flowing nicely from left to right on mobile devices, too.
I am just a dilettante web developer so please go ahead and prove me wrong. You can use this perfectly straight-forward (and interesting) website for testing.
Quite ironic in a sense that we tried so hard to layout our pages: First using these now abhorred frames, then tables (I killed my most obnoxious ones recently), and div containers controlled by CSS. Now we have a difficult time in letting all that nested automated stuff flow again from left to right.
I have found another, equally ingenious way to make a site responsive without actually doing so technically. I randomly picked Brain Pickings as it is very successful website. The site is the whole business – so it has to be user-friendly. Again I would ask the professionals to debunk my theory. Checking the code and using tools such as ScreenFly the site is not responsive in terms of adapting the presentation to the device. But the content pane is just 500px wide and thus fits into the width of many smart phones when those are rotated by 90 degrees.
What I like best: If you scroll down – everything moves! On many really responsive sites elements jump or stay in place when I did not expect it. And some of them simply do not work on desktop PCs as if they were designed having only the target group of 15% readers in mind.
It is exactly that anything-moves-when-scrolling that gives pages – including mine maybe – a dated look now. Do we expect to have different elements on (what was formerly known as) a page a life of its own?
I am reminded about what Nicholas Carr said about the emergence of eBook readers in The Shallows: He is not so much concerned about feeling and smelling physical items – an argument I could never understand anyway. But as soon long-form texts formerly known as books become available on eReaders, their content might get splintered into sharable little pieces. Readers might rather look for share-worthy snippets instead of reading the whole content.
Giving up on the ancient concept of a web page and replacing it by a sequence of twitter-like pieces presented in an intriguing way is probably the next stage in content evolution.
We have come a long way – since Tim Berners-Lee had run a workstation as the first WWW server on his desktop, with a sticker on it that says: This machine is a server – DO NOT POWER IT DOWN.