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

March 21, 2018*: Still the way we were?

This past month I did something that even by my somewhat out of sync with the times standards was more than just a bit strange. I purchased an internet domain and moved pretty much all of my various web presences to it. I had a few reasons for doing this. Though the Boidem, housed since its inception on the servers of the School of Education of Tel Aviv University, has been in hibernation for a bit over a year I haven't fully abandoned it and have continually thought of resuscitating it. But it had become harder and harder, and thus unnecessarily frustrating, to beg for uploading help from people who really do have more important things to attend to. And frankly, though I'm eternally grateful for that hosting (and the offering and even the urging to start this project many years back), I have to admit that it hardly reflects anyone beyond myself. It made sense to make this an independent, personal, project. And since the Boidem wasn't my only web-based project with hosting dependent on various sources, bringing all of those (or at least what still merits being saved) under one roof became a logical and desirable move.

Making this move corresponded with another significant event - going into partial retirement. Purchasing a domain and moving things to it had been on my agenda for at least a couple of years, but even if the move itself proved to be considerably easier than I'd feared, it also demanded more time than was readily available to someone with a full-time work schedule. So now, with time to read books, and maybe even rummage through and throw out a vast amount of paper that's accumulated over the years, I was able to set up the Luftmentsh web site which the Boidem is now a part of. But all of this still skirts the major question that can't avoid presenting itself: Today? Who needs a website today?

Social media, and the seemingly unceasing desire to report on what's happening by us, have taken their toll on the static website that once served as a repository of our thoughts and actions, or at the very least proclaimed "Here I am!". It's considerably easier to post an update to Facebook than it is to prepare a page that we fret over, editing until we get it just right, or at least close enough for us to think that it really represents us. With the stream of information (or what passes for it) continually pushing the no-longer-immediate into the simply old, very few are going to find much value in devoting their time to finding something from even a month ago, let alone a year or a few years ago. And that being the case, continuing to maintain a personal site (much of which by definition is archival material) not to mention one you place on a domain you've purchased (though that does have at least one definite advantage), seems to be an ultimate anachronism.

One ultimate anachronism, however, seems to demand another. One of the sections of my new site is a WordPress blog to which I moved all of my Hebrew blog that deals with internet and learning from its previous home on Blogger. Being a long-running blog, it was housed on an early Blogger template that didn't have a workable plugin for "subscribing" - getting email updates on new posts. This didn't particularly bother me, but more than a few people had asked me for such a feature, and didn't appreciate my answer of "you should use an RSS reader". Plugins for a subscribing feature are now available to me, but as I quickly discovered, they do much more than I need or want. That's because these features are designed for sites that seek, in one way or another, to make a profit. They seek to maximize reader presence on the site and among other things want to know how their readers got to the site, and what they find most interesting once they are there in order to better meet reader expectations. These tools allow me to fine-tune my outreach, sending different newsletters specially designed for readers of different topics on the blog. With all this customization taking place, it turns out that the cherry on top of the ultimate anachronism of maintaining a personal website is lacking any expectation, or even desire, to make money off it. I imagine a random reader, arriving here via a search for some product that somehow shows up in these pages, exclaiming out loud "What sort of website is this! It's not selling anything!". And in a somewhat roundabout way pretty much the same goes for what used to be called "user generated content" on various social networks. Though users who upload "information" to their accounts may be doing so as a positive act of sociability, the interests of the networks themselves are primarily geared toward keeping those eyeballs glued to the site.

An inherent problem with a static website is that it's ... static. Unto itself that's not necessarily a problem. Nobody complains that the content of a printed book stays the same whenever we open it (and the complaints would no doubt be plentiful were the contents to be continually changing). The problem is that we expect the website to reflect a current reality, while more often than not reality has continued to move on while the site stays the same. The simplicity of updating probably explains much of the success of blogs when they first appeared. The newest material was clearly visible at the top of the blog, and the old stuff was accessible to the few who for some strange reason may have wanted to delve into the past (and with the world changing so quickly, who would want, or need, that), and there was no need to learn HTML. But blogs, that for a while had a way of straddling both the old and the new of web design, couldn't continue to hold the middle ground. As I looked for a template for the two blogs I've moved to the new domain I knew I was looking for a pretty basic model - a large section for new posts with a narrow column for some basic identification and navigation. Basic, vanilla, templates of this sort were hard to find. New templates seem to suggest that the post, once the central character of a blog, has become less important than the add-ons that make the page busier than called for, and offer me more and more opportunities to sell things (if not myself).

To a certain extent, of course, a "personal website" is an oxymoron. Posting words to a public media without any intention of being read certainly doesn't seem to make much sense. If you don't want anyone to read what you write, keep a diary and lock it inside a drawer. If you have only eight readers, you might as well use email. Though many blogs have been built for internal classroom use (and even family use) without any expectation of achieving wide circulation, the desire to be read by a wide audience is probably by definition hardwired into the decision to start a website. It's an issue I alluded to in the very first edition of the Boidem.

So if at some point in our distant online past we viewed cyberspace as an exciting and captivating new territory that gave us access to worlds we couldn't otherwise reach, a place where it was possible to experiment with issues like the presentation of self, for too long already we've seen that what was once terra incognita has been converted into terra consumeria. It shouldn't seem at all strange that blog templates are oriented more toward selling rather than simply offering. While preparing this column Lisa Lane, whom I usually quote in a different context bemoaned the closing of the electronic frontier. Lane took the opportunity of John Perry Barlow's death to reflect that:

I still believe, like Barlow, that the freer the space, the less opportunity there is for abusing our fellow human beings. But all that has passed. It is time now to write the history of the web that was open to all, when everything was possible, where the disembodied voice spoke to a world that wanted to listen and learn.
Like Lane, I still adhere to that earlier vision. Even if the evidence suggests otherwise, I'm still convinced that the web offers us the opportunity to listen and learn, and I savor that opportunity. No doubt that belief makes this space more a part of history than of the future, but be that as it may, I'm happy to try and contribute my small part to others who feel the same.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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