Chris Zarate

Tinkering, tools, and ownership

There’s been a growing call for a renaissance of personal websites and a return to RSS as an alternative to algorithmic social feeds. In an age when conglomerate-owned platforms control access to and exposure of our content, this is very welcome news for personal publishing.

This movement is often led and championed by those of us who were present during the Web’s ascendance in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, there’s quite a bit of accompanying nostalgia for those early days. In particular, we hear tales of lost treasures from bygone communities; we exalt the culture of experimentation and tinkering; and we mourn the long-lost small-town feel of the Web.

That nostalgia does us no good, though, because that version of the Web is long gone. (Heck, outside of some stubborn house style, capitalizing “Web” is long gone, too—not even CERN capitalizes it consistently these days.)

That’s not to say that new treasures aren’t being forged daily or that experimentation is a thing of the past. Quite the opposite: The web is a far more vibrant and diverse place now than it was then. That’s the first disservice this nostalgia does: To elevate that early, primitive version above this one simply because it was easier to get to know and understand.

The second disservice is much bigger: a failure to recognize that the stakes are so much higher now. The web is now a place that is so integral to everyday life and economic mobility that all of us—literally every human—may soon need to publish on the web in a way that goes beyond tweeting, sharing, or liking. We aren’t ready.

We programmers have had enormous head starts in this land rush. The smartest among us saw this future as an inevitability, decades ago. (I assure you: I was not one of them.) Many were clever and built evil empires platforms and invited people in to homestead—then slowly indentured them. Then the platforms started to eat each other until only a few were left. These platforms are way, way, way out in front. Only the truly delusional think they can compete with them (or want to).

Others from that early time built open CMSes as a way to empower people to make their own claims on the web. These projects came and went as they took on the imperatives of the day. Often they collapsed under their own weight, sometimes they died with their creators, and a rare few found modest success. Usually, though, they too were eaten by the platforms. In many ways, this is the entire story of the web so far.

While all this was going on, most of us just continued tinkering around personal publishing, oblivious and confident that we were still embodying the spirit of the open Web. Maybe we supported the CMSes at our jobs or in our free time (or both), but we had accounts on the platforms and we not-so-secretly delighted in them. We empowered them, enriched them, and gave more of our time over to them. We referred to them as “ecosystems” and “corpora.” We built libraries and tools and bots that consolidated their control over us.

As we realized our mistakes, we took too much time in acknowledging them. We debated friends, we made resolutions to quit, then we broke them and remade them and broke them again. Then we finally quit—or made plans to quit, right after we could get our blog up and running.

Right back to tinkering.

As programmers, I think we missed a lesson the first time around that there is serious work to be done. We shouldn’t miss it again. Experiment, yes; tinker, sure; but put serious effort towards distributing the ownership of the web.

Tools and ownership

The nostalgia many of us have for the early web is really just nostalgia for being early to the web—to a World Wide Web without any expectations attached to it. It was a special place, but not much about the medium has fundamentally changed. Many think it was ruined shortly thereafter and point to corporations or politicians or liars or nihilists as bogeymen. I happen to think that, if anyone ruined the web, it was us early citizens who seemed certain that the web was a utopia that welcomed everyone equally. It wasn’t and it isn’t.

In the early days, there were few tools and we did many things by hand. As a result, we tend to ascribe far too much importance to having had dirt under our fingernails—which had absolutely nothing to do with why the world saw our work. More often than not, we uploaded that work to university servers or to a site provided by our ISP—which had everything to do with why people saw it. Being early to the web usually meant you were handed a good, cheap (sometimes free), parcel of prime real estate.

Nowadays we have lots of fancy tools and we pride ourselves in knowing how to use this one or that one. We almost always have to lift hundreds of tools in the process of making a website. Some programmers like to gripe about that, but I think it’s fine—after all, we’re programmers. We have AWS accounts and Kubernetes clusters and operations budgets at our disposal. It would be a shame not to use them.

What was missing then and what is still missing now are tools for non-programmers that speak directly to ownership. We haven’t simplified any part of the publishing chain for regular people and, as a result, we’ve seen one platform after another do it for us.

We can make Markdown-powered static site generators until we’re blue in the face, but we will lose to platforms until we can empower (1) non-technical people to (2) securely (3) put content into a stable CMS (4) in every language (5) in every country (6) on their underpowered phone and (7) host it (close to) forever (8) with no money changing hands and (9) with no commercial ownership.

That may sound impossible. Maybe it is—but we haven’t even been trying. Instead of tinkering around personal publishing, let’s build tools that work directly against the ills of platforms. Let’s build tools that create ownership for the people that use them. The tools we choose for ourselves matter; the tools we work on matter more; but the tools we share with others matter most.