Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Death of The Personal Web Site

The Web has come a long way since the mid 1990's and for many people who have created their own sites, they can remember each of their own major design iterations. People with enough technical skills could create a Web page with a text editor or visual tools like Frontpage and Dreamweaver. Other experience with related technologies such as FTP and Photoshop were needed to be successful and there were a wide array of design practices.

Another hot item was to register your own .net or .com Web site, find an ISP, and host everything. The best Web designers and developers went this route because it gave them complete control, but it came with sometimes expensive hosting fees. Designers and developers were experimenting with different layouts, animated GIFs were used quite a bit and usability was an unknown word.

With the advent of newer and faster technologies, ISPs lowered their hosting fees and almost anyone with enough technical experience could have their own .com custom Web site. Most people created their Web sites as a reflection of themselves. Often times, the content was their interests, pictures, friends and related links. There were not a lot of great Web sites thus with a little planning and work your site could generate a lot of traffic. From 2000 to 2005 creating your own personal Web with everything about you was the best approach.

So what happened in the past few years? Why are these type of Web sites losing popularity and relevance?

The quick answer is social media and the maturity of browser-based technologies killed the need comprehensive personal Web sites.

A lot of the tools that we have today like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and LinkedIn were not all created or mainstream from 1995 to 2005. What is possible from within a Web browser today along with broadband Internet was a pipe dream back when everything had to be done by hand. Many Web developers who started their career in the 1990's knew that we were all part of this revolution. We saw the need for dynamic technologies and we were writing Perl, ASP and ColdFusion scripts to create one off content management systems and other applications to allow non-technical people to manage Web sites.

Web developers had job security because they could charge per hour for writing small Web-based applications to do a wide array of tasks. As hosted and free Web applications and frameworks started to emerge, many Web developers blew them off because they felt they could not be as flexible and robust as a custom application. In the back of our minds many of the developers felt slightly threatened and wondered what our jobs would be like if all of our clients just used free and available technologies.

Well that day has come and many Web developers are still employed and productive but our jobs have dramatically changed. Personally for myself and my Web team, we are no longer pure "developers" but instead I feel we are more "integrators". We still program but instead we use as many open source technologies and write code to create interfaces between them. We take the best of available technologies and put them together to create something new with limited development.

What was originally fueled by fear created something even better: Web standards and interoperability. All along Web developers were pushing for standards to make their development easier and allow for easier communication between systems. Even though differences between browsers still exist, we are light years from the 1990's.

I feel this new way of working is much more gratifying, efficient and team oriented.  Instead of Web developers recreating the wheel, we are now collaborating together within open source tools, sharing code, building widgets, and as Tim O'Reilly says "do what you do best and link to the rest."

Instead of writing code for a single client or project we now focus on the greater good and we get satisfaction from our peers. Many of us are not only internally fueled by client satisfaction but by gathering feedback and praise from the Web community on our latest "invention".

So how did this big happy family of Web people kill personal Web sites?

As Tim O'Reilly said at the Web 2.0 Expo in NYC in 2009 "To be successful in today's Web - go where the party is at." Building stand alone Web sites focused around "you" just won't cut it anymore given all of the Web technologies and social sites that exist.

Think of it this way...say you are having a garage sale at your house and you have a lot of items you wish to sell. On the same day of the garage sale all of your neighbors get together and have a combined garage sale at the new community park. People looking to get a good bargain could either go to your garage sale or go to the community park to get a much bigger selection and socialize. Plus when everyone comes together they can share resources like tables, helpers, and signs. Before the community park was created, all the garage sales at people's house were on a equal playing field. Now that there is a place for everyone to congregate together it is advantageous for not only the buyer but the seller. The efficiency and community aspect of social interactions often times benefits everyone involved.

The same can be said about social communities like Facebook and MySpace. The information that is being presented on these social networks could be created independently and there is nothing completely new being presented. Again, people are sharing their stories, pictures, videos and topics they are interested in. The big difference is that now you can do all of that without having to know any Web technologies and it is generally all free. You no longer have to program or maintain and host these technologies and age or technical experience is not so much a factor.

While the word "death" seems very negative and depressing, it is actually where the Web needed to go. It is no longer being ran by Web developers, but by people at large who are sharing their lives with people who care or around specific topics. When the Web was getting bigger in the 1990's, many mainstream people felt it was a hang out for introverts and for some this probably was a partially true statement. For a good decade Web developers around the world locked themselves into their rooms and through evolution of code and technologies were born Web applications that touch our every day lives.

Many technologies came and went very quickly but the ones that have lasted are the social Web sites and applications. What is interesting is that the most important feature of the Web in today's world is the ability to connect and share information with people more than the technology itself. People and communication is what is behind the Web now instead of the previously perceived anti-social hangout.

The Wisdom of the Crowds is what now drives the Web and has killed the need for a personal Web sites. You can still have your own .com Web site but it should be nothing more than a blog and an aggregate of your Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media presences. To be most successful today with your own blog you should focus around specific topics instead of a general stream your thought at any given moment.

Each of the social media and Web 2.0 technologies have their defined pros and cons. For example, use Facebook to share information with people you know and use Twitter/blogs to connect with people around topics. Put your photos on Flickr and tag them so others interested in similar photos can benefit from your experiences. Upload your videos to YouTube and embed them into your blog so that you draw visitors from not only your site but also YouTube's search engine.

It is a brave new world for the Web but it is where it needed to go. Behind all the transistors, servers and cloud computing models are people. The more we can obscure the technology and connect people, the more powerful and useful the Web can become. The need for a personal Web site died when free to use technologies and Web sites were created to connect and communicate with people on a large scale. This is the same idea in our non-electronic world as most of us live in communities, cities, states. We meet and interact with people through sports, clubs and enjoy the daily "water cooler" talk at work.

I welcome your feedback and thoughts if you have seen and experienced this same transformation of the Web.

2 comments:

Jim said...

Chris,

Nice post!

That the social media aspect has changed Websites, that appears a given.

I really liked your insights as a developer, which I hadn't thought of in that way before. The use of Web standards.

It will be interesting to see the new role of Websites, as old communication technologies seldom "go away". There role just gets redefined in the new communication mix. (the telegraph is still around! for example!)

Good posting!

InnomaxMediaLLP said...
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