On Websites (Part 1)

When I decided to remake this site, I had a clear vision in mind: Captivate huge audiences, using any words that came to mind, magically uniting concepts and eliminating obscurities. (Ha!)

I visualized a series of articles – carefully timed and expertly written – that tactfully built tension and drove readers to edge of their chairs. The wave of content would crash against the soft minds of my readers, numerous as the sand on the shores, and the fading crescendo would trigger a wave of applause louder than the one receding back into my vast ocean of intellect. (Right!)

tl;dr Makers, this game is all about perceptions and choices. Read this, take a couple notes, but mostly just get back to work.

Over the last few months, I made the hard decision to change the way I use this site. If you don’t work on the web, this may seem like a trifle, because you see websites as ways to consume information. You probably don’t think of them as living organisms, wondering what they might do if you push too hard or ask too much. You probably think that’s crazy talk.

I think you’re right.

From a mechanics point of view, making things on the web is no different than writing a long letter. You spread out your notes, select a few things that you like, assemble them properly, and re-assemble them into a more “polished” form. It seems so simple…because it is. There’s an extremely heady aspect to our jobs (see: “knowledge work”) that is hard to explain, but the core concepts are plain.

Seriously: We aren’t remaking the wheel or curing cancer, we’re making websites.

I think it’s important to know where you stumble in the process of making things online. My struggles generally center around layout and responsive design, even though those are things that I notice right away when I visit a site for the first time. In refreshing this site, I wanted to use adaptive mindsets, fitting the content into whichever context was required by the user. What I found, was a bigger issue with wanting to please people and make great stuff that anyone could use; I didn’t think about my target audience as any less than 7+ billion beings.

In some ways, I believe writers/coders have to be haughty enough to think that everything makes sense to them – that’s how they can tell you what they see. Those are good character qualities for someone in my field, but it makes my life a living torture chamber and labels me a masochist by most of my closest friends. Seventeen redesigns later, I’m still finding things wrong with this place.

“In order to post something, I felt it couldn’t be short or just a quip on a topic, it had to be substantial. I fell into a design trap I unknowingly set for myself. I decided to revise my thinking. I’d keep the theme of custom designs in my articles going, but set things up so that posts on any length or scope could live together in the same stream of content. What’s more, I decided to not let the design of my site become a barrier to writing here. The most important thing this site does for me is give me a creative outlet to play and write. Anything that gets in the way of that needs to get the boot.” —Jason Santa Maria

There’s something to be said for slogging through the mess, seeking clarity among the chaos. I fully believe that every great idea has been iterated several times – only Divine inspiration penned something completely brilliant on the first try – so we do need to spend time “cranking.” Unless you spend that time clarifying your mission and your audience, however, you may find yourself back where you started, your notes having been transcribed onto new less-messy pieces of paper, your thoughts now on a new set of tasks unrelated to your original goal.

See? I’m not perfect – this stuff kills me.

It’s a real shame that web trends focus on arranging content, not consuming it. Things are finally reaching a point where the content itself can shine, but the mindsets surrounding the curation and creation don’t always remain dedicated to that goal. Everyone will tell you that they have a website so they can showcase their work, but that’s exactly the problem:

“We don’t make movies to make money; we make money to make more movies.” —Walt Disney

Whether you’re writing, coding, thinking out-loud, podcasting, video blogging, singing, or otherwise, you need to think about this quote. We’re all in the same boat: We do things to get our brains in order, which is where we need to be where you spending our time, not organizing them into better rows and columns. I implore you to consider this before you spend any additional time crafting things for the web. Don’t get lost in the slosh of creative juices – pick a simple heuristic and run with it; start simple so you can add detail later.

I’m reminded of a dog my family used to have – she was extremely excited about everything. That’s how I feel about each iteration here, like I finally know what I would like to do with this site…every time. Things that are attached to our names should mean a lot to us, but they also shouldn’t take up the time we spend actually doing things.

For me, this all comes back to storytelling.

Developing sites is something that I do because I love to solve problems. Yes, it’s what pays the bills right now, but there are lots of ways to pay bills. I recently wrote an article that really expressed my frustration with living alone and working alone; to be honest, I’m really tired of both. After I wrote that, however, I felt like the only thing to do was get back to work.

When you make things for a living (hint: everyone does) you don’t always get to pick and choose your flavor of Kool-Aid to sip on a daily basis. Instead of focusing on my frustrations, I’d really like to focus on making the clackity noise. One of those leads to enlightenment, the other leads to enlightenment AND something to show for the time spent staring at the same spot on the wall.

IMHO: The key here is to stop fiddling with the fine details; live with the first draft and push it out the door.

Even though I’m trying to scale back my approach to content curation, making websites is my full-time gig right now. Every time I finish a project, I find that I actually want to make websites because I get to tell a little story. I have a lot of stories I want to tell through prose, but I don’t feel like I can publish them just yet. for now, every website I build is like a small breath of fresh air; something I can hold on to while I wrestle with the stories I want to tell. Until then, I’ll make stuff, line by line, wherever I can put the next character.

Websites should be simple tools that illustrate what we do. If we need them to tell a story because that’s part of our message, so be it. If you need a place to put a few things, I encourage you not to over-complicate the process. Make great stuff, then put it somewhere; don’t spend too much time in that middle-ground unless that’s your job, and even then know enough about what you make to check yourself for why you are here in the first place.

Part two of this post will ask some key questions about making those choices – stay tuned!