Just a @%$(* website

Posted by Nick Jones May 13, 2020

I've redesigned this, my portfolio website, maybe twenty times. I tend to use this exercise as a way to learn a new technology or framework or as a creative outlet. The last time I did this, it was a way to learn more about React and begin creating my (ever nascent) Yarb framework.

I've been at this for a long time now. I've seen several epochs pass in terms of technology, as well as dozens of other smaller shifts in the way this work gets done. My brain is a catalog of minutiae: buying Connectix Ram Doubler through the mail and waiting for it for weeks just so that I could install the Apple Internet Connection Kit on my Performa 6205CD; the place to go to turn on virtual servers at Media Temple; calling Be on the phone and getting lessons on Bash from a saintly customer support rep that I would give anything to talk to one more time. From PHP, to Rails, to React and all the intermediate steps in between. At forty-one years of age, I'm one of the old men of web design—not as good or as famous maybe, but I've weathered the same shifts both galactic and minuscule and come out the other side mostly unharmed.

I'm one of the old men of web design—not as good or as famous maybe, but I've weathered the same shifts both galactic and minuscule and come out the other side mostly unharmed.

A few weeks ago I had just completed a major project, and I had some ideas for blog posts. I really wanted a place to write. Looking around I found all the usual suspects—Medium, Tumblr, more nerd friendly options like Ghost, or all-in-ones like Squarespace. Everything just reminded me how nice it was fifteen years ago to not only blog myself, but to read page after page of other blogs. Before Twitter cornered the market on quick hits of anxiety and blogging became social media, there was a whole world of content out there. It was weird and varied: fanpages, webrings, exhaustive Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode guides, failed and not-so-failed cooking experiments. It was the promise of the early internet made real—a patch of ground on which you could build whatever statue to whatever deity you liked. You could build your very own Close Encounters style mountain right there on your living room floor, and all that was standing in your way was some HTML and double-clicking CyberDuck.

Facebook ate it all. And what it didn't devour, Twitter happily gulped up. By 2009 most of that old internet was behind one paywall or another. The internet was the place to buy things, or watch TV. And after it got boring, the internet got terrifying. There was cyberbullying, and cyberstalking, and catfishing. There was the alt-right, and trolls. The internet was just another weapon, like all the other DARPA projects it grew up with. It was just a big computer network after all, and it could be pointed at your enemies with deadly precision and—well, /b could be your personal army.

One by one, almost every blog I read with devotion shut down. Soon only a scattered few remained. I still read Jason Kottke every day and even dutifully send $5 his way every month. But some of my very favorite writers in any medium—people like Paul Ford—pulled up stakes long ago.

So when I rebuilt this portfolio site, I made a few promises to myself. First, this is not a technology demo. Yes, it's a portfolio—but of my work. The site itself is not a monument to all the React and SASS and arcane Netlify knowledge I posses. Second, this site needs a blog. An old fashioned, time-stamped, text wall blog. Like the old days. This is a bunch of custom SASS and some Rails scaffolding and that's it.

As it turns out, all that democratizing the internet was supposed to do may have been another example of a real fine mess. It was beautiful from a distance, and it sounded nice in speeches and sold a ton of MacBooks. But from my vantage point in 2020, the paywall internet is narrow and mean-spirited. Here we all are, connected full-time in a way that we could only have dreamed of when we watched Steve Jobs unveil the very first iPhone in 2007. He didn't know, and neither did we, but being Very Online has made a lot of things Very Crazy. We used to have to just guess how mean and racist and stupid our relatives and co-workers are. Now we totally know, and we know all the time and our wrists go 'ding!' to let us know right now how aunt Cassie feels about a guy who hasn't even been president in almost four years.

I still want to be Very Online. I watch Steve unveil that goddamn iPhone once a month in a YouTube video I have lovingly bookmarked. When the copyright police take it down because it includes a ten-second snippet of a Beatles song, someone else puts it up—seizes the fallen banner—and I bookmark that one. I still feel like the kinder, gentler, progressive internet that teaches kids to code and connects the lovelorn is a dream that will never really go away. I watch my daughters use FaceTime as a way to just be in the same room together during this ludicrous pandemic and I think maybe they'll make good on the internet the way we could not.

Until then, I'm going to build my own mountain in my living room and this is it. It's just a website.