The end of history and the last website

It was raining hard today, so I stayed inside and set myself to the task of redesigning my website. I did this with some relish. What a perfect excuse, I thought, to sit here and tinker. It was mid-morning. I brewed coffee. I merrily tweeted my intentions.

By mid-afternoon I was totally disheartened.

Over the past few years, the way we use the web has changed, and therefore the way we make websites has changed, and now… making websites is no longer fun.

The culprits are clear: the phone and the tablet. I look at my site’s analytics and I see more than a quarter of my readers using iOS devices. There are more on Android phones and Kindles. Probably a couple of internet-enabled rice cookers in there, too. So, redesigning any website—even my dorky personal website—means designing with those readers in mind. Already, they are a healthy constituency, and there are more on the way: more phones, more tablets.

And so the rhythm of web work, the not-unpleasant repetition of edit-refresh, has changed. Now it’s edit-refresh-refresh-refresh. And with all those refreshes, you’re not just making sure your single glorious layout looks right; no, that would still be tractable on a rainy day. Instead, you’re making sure the bizarro variant layouts you’ve cooked up for phones and tablets all look right, all unfurl themselves properly from within the same source somehow, the source that started out so simple, so elegant, but now it’s mutated, it’s full of special cases, because if the sidebar moves up to the top of the phone’s little screen, the buttons are going to have to line up in a row, but there isn’t room for all of them, and besides, it’s not really even a sidebar anymore, is it…

By nightfall, I had conceded defeat. It was still raining. The website I have works well enough, I told myself. It’ll get me through another year.

Then I came here and started writing this. I’d just contributed a short post the other day, so Medium was on my mind. In fact, the whole experience I’ve just described is part of the argument for a site like Medium. That argument goes: No writer should be in the business of making a personal website. They’re hard to find, readers rarely return to them, and besides—let me just contribute this last part myself—they aren’t even fun to make anymore.

Something else has changed, beyond the proliferation of screens.

Today, I don’t think—and I’m almost afraid to write this, because it sounds like the tolling of some great bell—today I don’t think the amateur’s best effort is good enough. We as internet users have less patience and less charity for janky, half-broken experiences. This is quite an evolution, because the whole internet used to be a janky, half-broken experience. And it’s unfortunate for me, and other amateurs of my approximate skill level, because that’s really the only kind we can muster.

But you know who can totally craft an experience that works flawlessly on a phone, a tablet, a laptop, and a rice cooker? The team that made Medium. Other teams like it. In a word: professionals.

Don’t get me wrong; the amateur web isn’t going anywhere. It’s just that, if it used to be the internet’s Main Street, it’s starting to feel more like the forest on the edge of town. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Sure, it’s a little spooky out there, but it’s also where all the adventures start. I hear there’s an old guy out there who makes robots out of car parts. Let’s go find him. The amateur web will always have that: the old guy, the robots, the car parts.

But now, standing here on the new Main Street, wandering among the shiny storefronts, I wonder if I’ve made my last website. I don’t know. Maybe another rainy day will come and I’ll give it another shot. Find some new tools, read some fresh tutorials. Maybe. Edit-refresh-refresh-fresh. That’s a lot of screens. But maybe.

In the meantime, I have to admit: it’s a comfort to write this here, using a machine made by professionals. And if this page doesn’t look exactly the way I want, doesn’t carry my signature in its source—well, that’s the tradeoff, I suppose. In exchange, I get the guarantee that these words will look good everywhere, all the time.

That’s a pretty fancy rice cooker you’ve got there.