Manuel Moreale recently wrote about the personal website, and it struck a chord with me. I’ve had my own website since 2014, hand-coded from the start, but I am in the vast minority of internet users.
I’ve made maybe a dozen websites for non-technical friends and family members. For each site, if I were to code something, even using the lowest common-denominator, plain HTML + CSS (Jonas Downey said “it’s okay not to use tools”), they would never be able to make changes without asking me or learning to code themselves.
So instead, I use Squarespace. I can get a customized Squarespace template with their materials up in two hours, the site will never go down, it will work for many years into the future with Squarespace’s constant updates, they can make quick edits, and I have nothing to worry about. We can upload their iPhone photos and someone else deals with resizing them.
But it’s a Squarespace site. As a designer, my options are limited. If Squarespace shuts down, or they ever want to switch providers, they have no option but completely recreate the site some other way. They’re fully locked into the Squarespace service.
I so wish this wasn’t the case. I wish there was a smoother gradient from setting up a simple portfolio/blog with no code to editing it manually. Of anything right now, Gatsby gives me the most hope—there’s certainly a promise of a future with a CMS, a Gatsby Theme, and simple hosting.
But that is not the present reality whatsoever. A website I developed in Gatsby even a year ago is majorly out of date now—packages need to be updated, APIs have been deprecated, everything is dusty. Setting up a CMS requires choosing between a variety of services and their respective, often-unreliable community plugins. Last I used them, Gatsby Themes are unreliable, sparse, and poorly-documented. I’ll need to make them an account at a domain registrar, a hosting service, hook those things up, maybe a GitHub too. In two years, most parts of this system will probably have completely changed.
I don’t know if no-code tools are even the dream here. At least in our present, where no-code tools can accomplish only a fraction of the (admittedly unlimited) possibilities of custom code, there is limited agency to come with setting up a no-code tool. It’s hard to see that changing significantly soon.
Everyone I’ve made a Squarespace site for—even with the tool’s fairly constrained capabilities and tutorials—finds even that level of control of a website intimidating, and they rarely ever edit the sites without me. The promise of learning to code through a community like Glitch is nice, but few have the time or commitment for that. So right now, social media profiles are the extent of web publishing for the vast majority.
We need to take the power back on the internet. People should have their own, non-corporate spaces on the web. But two decades in, we still haven’t built tools nearly accessible and extensible for the masses to truly utilize it.