From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

November, 27, 2004*: Templates from hell

Back longer ago than I almost want to remember, when, for instance, Mosaic was still around, and the release of Netscape 2.0 was a cause of great excitement in the computer rooms of the School of Education of Tel Aviv University, designing a web page (and a web site) was a relatively simple task. This simplicity wasn't the result of the web building tools we had available to us. These were still very primitive. Instead, it was because we were more than happy to make do with a few paragraphs of text with a photo or two interspersed here and there. The photos could easily be placed to the left or right of the text, and deciding where to place them was pretty much the extent of the design process.

Since then I've had the honor of being part of the construction of numerous web sites. Most of these have been educational, though their foci have been different. The construction of these sites reflected my different places of work, and the tools available at the time. Some of these were built with textual HTML tools, some with graphic HTML generators. Some I built myself, while others benefited from the services of professional web builders. And some were generated by primarily automated web building tools that take texts and pictures and convert them into web pages, or even into entire web sites. I enjoy playing around with HTML and am pleased when I'm able to build something that becomes a finished product. But I have to admit that if I'm offered a tool that allows me to prepare a site with a minimum of effort (and editing) I can't object. There's nothing wrong with saving quite a bit of time and effort. And that being the case, it would make sense that I'm happy to have a chance to use tools of this sort. In theory, I am. In practice, however, I most certainly am not.

Tools for generating a web site should allow us to build what we want. But they don't let us do this. Instead, they insist upon telling us what it is we should want. At the most fundamental level, the problem is that these tools (or the people who create them) have a very clear idea of what a web site should look like, and they offer us tools that are designed to build just that, and only that. It's when we ask for something a bit different that we learn that "you can't get there from here". They seem to be constantly involved in defining our possibilities, or the impossibilities. They're constantly telling us "Thou Shalt Not". They tell us how many sub-layers a site can have, what the best way to reach a particular page is, how long a title can be, and much more. They don't suggest to us a preferable font size, they standardize it - whatever gets placed inside the main text box gets posted at a particular size, while what's placed in the title text box gets a larger, and also set, size.

Of course today's web is much more standardized than it was only three or four years ago, and any self-respecting web site (and particularly one that represents an official organization) can't look as though it was put together by three sixth graders in their free time. Even a cursory glance at a cross-section of sites from the past reminds us that there was a time when a much wider range of "permissible" styles existed.

And even if this created unbearable graphics, there was a palpable feeling of freedom that reigned. But these automated tools don't only want to help us get impressive web sites. They also want to make life easier for us. Learning HTML isn't for everyone, they tell us, so instead, if you'll just use these simple templates we'll have your site up and running in a few moments. And there certainly are many templates to choose from. All you have to do is find the one that suits your needs, pour your content into the proper categories, and voila!, your page is ready. You have two photos that have to be placed on your page? Here's a two-photo template. And what happens when you decide that you want to add a third photo? Well, you can move your content to this other, three-photo template. Plain, simple (and open) HTML doesn't need templates of this sort. Changing the page to include an additional photo is a very simply process. But with templates it doesn't work that way.

As this column winds down I find that it's fair to ask whether there's been method in this madness. Why have I scattered so many seemingly irrelevant links throughout this column. Why has the structure of this column been almost flaunting in its anti-structure. And of course there really is method in this madness. I'm trying to do my small part in the ongoing struggle to show what the web might be, instead of what we're continually being told it should be by the templates that seek to define, and constrain, us.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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