Society The Internet Websites

Build to last, or move fast and break shit?

Replied to How Websites Die (Wesley’s Notebook)

I’m frustrated by so much of the short-term thinking I see in the world today, and the way we think about websites is a part of that: it’s “normal” for them to just go up in smoke as soon as their authors stop paying attention. People switch platforms and providers and break links without a second thought. It pains me to see people build websites with no feeling of obligation to them — when you put something out into the world, it is your responsibility to care for it.

At the same time, I wonder if this obsession with permanence is misplaced.

This goes back to, what does a writer owe their readers? Nothing.

But what does a publisher owe their readers — because when we self-publish on our own websites and the material is available nowhere else, that may confer a greater obligation to preservation.

If nothing else, it is thoughtful and kind to consider your readers. To dismiss that your words have any carrying value may be a reflection more of poor self-worth or self-confidence.

Yet… even books are not so long-lived as we may presume. Most (?) books don’t get multiple printings — they have a limited lifespan, and that is just fine. To achieve cultural relevancy, works often lock themselves into a limited duration of relevance, some shorter than others, depending how close they hew to pop culture. The genre and readers’ expectations shape a book’s cultural durability, too — romance books seem to have a ten- to twenty- year limit currently, as the cultural mores around relationships and feminism are deeply ingrained in the stories. Bodice rippers were apparently important to the formation of the genre, but are no longer relevant — clear on-page consent, and usually explicit mention of protection, is a vital element of the genre today, and “dubcon” (dubious consent) is a specific niche market. I suspect most non-fiction writing is the same as fiction, in that it reflects the current knowledge, thinking, and cultural context when it was written.

[M]aking things last on the web is hard because the web was not made to build things that last.

This is an interesting observation I haven’t really considered before.

For my part, I try to think as I’m launching things about what my commitment to them is, and to be explicit about that.

I also like to consider my intent upfront: is it perennial or annual? In general I’m a fan of “build to last,” but sometimes that doesn’t fit the form or purpose of a project. I have run a time-constrained art project with a fixed duration, as well as a short-term art activism web-based project. From the start, I knew they had limited lifespans. I’ve left the time-constrained project online as a “magazine,” but it may not last forever — because of the personal nature of some of the reflections, there may come a time when I no longer feel they accurately reflect my experience, and could take them down.

I also don’t want to lock myself in to preservation when it no longer serves me; before this mind garden, was a portfolio website I hand-coded in 2011, which wasn’t responsive so Google penalized me for being bad on mobile. It was a sunk cost that I lived with for years because I felt bad destroying something I’d made, even though it was a pain in the neck to update and no longer reflected my visual preference or served my needs.

Sometimes, ephemerality adds to a work. Mandalas are destroyed as soon as they are created, their temporary nature inherent to the value of the form. Craig Mod recently ran a one-week email newsletter about walking Tokyo. He noted that knowing the newsletter wouldn’t be publicly archived anywhere made him feel more comfortable going in without a plan, letting each day’s subject come or not, and allowing himself to “publish to email” his inchoate, unfinished, unrefined thoughts.

During the early web, redesigning my website was part of the fun for me. A way to reinvent myself through new organization and style, and learn how to use my tools better. The internet is a sandbox, and we all play here a different way.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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