Matt Pierce

Web Developer

Sir Tim Berners-Lee poses in front of a series of tubes

Some Notes on the Personal Website Revival

May 15, 2024

Recently, chatter amongst some of the people I follow on Mastodon has centered around personal sites and a return to the "small web" of the older pre-social internet and I wanted to jot down some thoughts. However, I make no guarantees that these thoughts will be coherent ones.

A lot of this is just a crush of ideas and impressions from Rachel Kwon's the internet used to be fun, a living repository for articles about the small web that she updates as things cross path.

What exactly is this thing?

So there's obviously something in the air at the moment. A lot of people are dissatisfied with the way things are and have been for quite some time. It's just not really clear whether or not any of them are on the same page. There's no real solid consensus on what's wrong or what we can do to fix it - but there's this unifying sense that things were just better before feeds and social media. So, at the very least, these people have landed on the notion that we should try to revive personal websites.

Now, of course this isn't a panacea - and I don't think anybody's implying that it is. This is specifically focused around the enshittification of social media that's been anecdotally accelerating toward Ludicrous Speed in recent years.

Dark Helmet holding on for dear life as Colonel Sander straps in for Ludicrous Speed

This is where things start to get a little fragmented, though. What the personal website revival means to you depends a lot on what you were getting out of social media - what you had ripped away from you when the system failed.

If you were using social media as a way to express yourself, your goal in creating a personal website will naturally be different from somebody who used social media to draw in potential clients for their professional work. The sites you create will be pretty divergent.

Even if you're a part of the same movement, you might not feel like you have all that much in common.

I don't know who to follow, or even how.

Once you start hearing the whispers on Mastodon about the personal website revival it's really only a matter of time before you stumble upon Rachel Kwon's list. From there it's very easy to find a boat load of articles and thinkpieces about the movement.

But then what?

Very few of the authors on that list are people I recognize. I don't know who these people are, or what they normally post when they're not talking about this topic. And, to be blunt, I'm barely making time to chew through this list as it is.

An old-school model of content hosting demands an old-school model of content consumption - to bookmark their sites and check back periodically whenever I sit down to read the web. That doesn't sound like a bad thing but first I would have to revive the old-school habit of setting aside time just to read shit on the internet.

Grandpa simpson saying which was the style at the time

This, I think, is a huge missing component in a lot of the discourse I've been reading. It's trivially easy to go back to an earlier model for building and publishing websites. Learning HTML isn't hard, and it doesn't cost anything to put up a basic HTML website these days. Hell, my daughter is 12 and she has her own Neocities website.

And she's a pre-teen so she managed to do so while adamantly refusing to let me help her with the code.

What's insurmountably difficult is training users to adopt the old habits that made those websites work. We used to click around on unfamiliar websites just to "explore," not even looking for anything in particular. When we found something we liked we'd bookmark it in our browser so we could come back later - and we actually would come back from time to time and see if anything updated. Hell, if we really liked a site we'd share the URL with our friends so they could explore it and bookmark it too.

And if the people in your community aren't interested in bringing this all back, you're going to get some pretty strange looks when you start passing around bookmarks.

About that community …

So here's the thing - I've read a bunch of articles and a I've spotted a few names that come up over and over again. There are people out there writing about the topic and linking back and forth to each other. I know the community exists.

But I'm not a part of it.

I'm reticent to seek out the community or to make any sort of impression because I'm sure I'll be seen as a poser. And that notion is a load of bullshit for certain. First of all, from the outside looking in at least everybody seems to be pretty welcoming. But also I've had personal websites on and off since 1997. I built an Everything/Nothing site (without ever having known the term) on GeoCities, turned it into a gallery for me and my friends, then a place for my programming projects, then a webcomic, then a WordPress blog, and now back to an E/N site with static pages (sorta).

Hell, I even wrote on a topic extremely similar to this (specifically about dealing with the web on ethical terms and fears for the future of the web) more than 5 years ago. (It has not aged particularly well.)

Dan Olson saying Cringe there's no other word for it this makes me cringe it's embarrassing

Nevertheless, when I see the discourse about the personal website revival I feel like I'm at a party standing at the edge of a circle of guests I don't know - people who are too polite to ask me to fuck off outright - while I smile and nod because the speakers all deserve my good-faith attention but also I'm a little lost and have nothing to contribute.

You see, my friends left this party long ago.

Most of them just stopped having a personal website. Even the most tech savvy just have profiles on social media. If they link to something in their bio it'll maybe be their workplace, a linktree or carrd, or other social media accounts.

On being unsuperlative

One supposed upside to making a personal website is that it's personal - the whole website can be an expression of who you are, what you love and what you stand for. But what if who you are is "nobody special?"

Street vendor selling Nothing

I feel like I'm a pretty smart person - but there's no one topic on which I'm an expert and there's definitely no industry in which I'm a thought leader.

I'm not hanging out a shingle as freelancer, and I'm not looking for a new job. I work in web development but I don't particularly care enough about it to stay up-to-date on all the latest development trends. (Hell, I still haven't learned how to use docker, my grasp of git is rudimentary at best, and I've never built a site with CSS flexbox.)

I'm definitely not an attractive person leading a life of glamor. Hell, I'm not even all that good at being an average white suburbanite slob. So from either side of the spectrum I'm not going to be writing a lifestyle blog.

Politically I'm far left for the US, but I'm not all that active or involved, nor am I all that well-informed.

I play (or at least know how to play) guitar but I have no interest in performing.

I like retro computers, but the only one I own is a little MSX and I can barely do anything with it. I don't own and have never held a soldering iron.

This may seem like I'm wallowing in self-pity but the point isn't that I'm trash - it's just that I'm not superlative. I'm not the best or the most at anything. And that's not a statement about measuring up. It's that if this is an Everything/Nothing site, a site where I post about the things that "mean everything to me," well then I have no idea what to put here because I just don't feel that way about stuff, ever.

The funny thing is that I don't think I'm the only one. Did you ever wonder why so many E/N sites are so sparse and monochromatic? Maybe the people building those sites are expressing themselves as they see themselves - unremarkable.

What do I do now?

In the end, this week has shown me that there's a large community of people ou there who, at the very least, share my apprehension about the future of the web as a medium and who think that getting away from social media is the best way to mitigate some of these problems. It's nice to know that it's not just me.

These people seem to think that moving away from social media means moving toward maintaining personal websites. I don't know if I'm totally convinced on that one but I also don't think it would hurt to give it a try.

If I want to be a part of this movement I should probably just throw myself into it and fake it until I make it.

steve buscemi saying how do you do fellow kids

As far as I see it that boils down to a few concrete steps.

Start writing. Even if it's ponderous and meandering. I don't have any cool projects for anybody to follow and nobody's interested in a site that serves as my business card because I'm not a person you'd look up unprompted. The one thing I do have the ability and time to contribute is some writing.

Add an RSS feed. This site is powered by static markdown files and an extremely simple renderer. It's not a fully-featured CMS, and that means there's no RSS feed of updates. There would be no easy/automated way for anybody in the community to follow me even if I had regular updates to follow.

In the short term I don't mind getting my hands dirty with a little XML. In the long term, I should maybe look into extending my tiny renderer/CMS so that I can attach some metadata to these posts and have it build the XML for me.

Follow some personal website revival folks. A bunch are on Mastodon but for those who aren't there's always RSS. If I want to be a part of the conversation, it doesn't hurt to start by listening.

Bookmark and read personal sites. The tragedy of bookmarks is that with cloud storage and sync they're incredibly powerful, but the way most web browser interfaces are built they're almost unusable (and because of that, we've all fallen out of the habit of using them, instead relying on session restore and keeping hundreds of tabs open).