Academic web design

January 09, 2023 — Asher Wycoff

The shape of the Internet seems once again poised to change as every major social network hemorrhages money, employees, and users. This may be a transitory phase, a market correction after these firms' myopic expansion during the pandemic, but it may also be symptomatic of longer-term trends. Perhaps text-based social media are out, and infinite feeds of algorithmically-served vertical video are in. In any case, 2022 revealed the untenability of basing one's online presence on large commercial platforms over which the user has little to no control (e.g., Twitter). And whether Web 2.0 is imploding or simply starting another "pivot to video," for those of us whose life and work revolves around text, 2023 may be the year to return to the personal website.

A personal website, of course, does not mean that you are free from dependence on others. In the grand American tradition of Thoreau, Emerson, and Kaczynski, you will still depend on goods and services supplied by others as you set out on your rugged individualist journey. Finding a reliable, reasonably priced host is the first step. For blogs (or "newsletters," as some people have now decided to call them), there's no shortage of free* options, including mainstays from Blogger to Wordpress. For more versatile static sites, it's easier to get suckered. Squarespace, for instance, is a tremendous waste of money for most uses, its "award-winning content management system" is a mess, and it spits out bloated, generic websites. These are ugly, they suck, and you should not spend $16/month on them. If you must have a bloated, generic website with a terrible WYSIWYG CMS, stick with Wordpress and save yourself the money. If your university offers web hosting, as many do, consider taking advantage of it if it meets your needs. It will probably be free (or if you're a student, included in a fee you're already paying).

If you're comfortable with HTML/CSS, you have more options for building your own site. For a balance between the world of WYSIWYG CMSes and writing a website from scratch, there are plenty of static site generators out there (I've heard good things about Hugo) that won't overcomplicate things but will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. I use Bashblog for the blog section of this website because it's dead simple, lightweight, and easy to customize.

It's important to remember that web pages are just text documents, and they can (I would say should) be treated as such. Computer scientists are some of the best examples of this (ex: Brian Kernighan, Donald Knuth, Jennifer Hackett), with websites that are usually little more than text on a flat color background, with maybe a few images. These are simple to write, quick to load, and they get the job done. You don't have to approach your website in the same strictly utilitarian way, but such examples drive home a few good principles of web design: use as little code as possible to do what you need to do, keep the format simple, and prioritize quick loading and legibility over large images and fancy effects. As stripped down and old fashioned as these mostly-text websites might seem, they are easy to read and to navigate, and they load well across browsers, platforms, and connection speeds. These are priorities worth reasserting in the window of opportunity Web 2.0's possible implosion affords us.

tags: web