Why to Host Your Own Stuff

Recorded on February 9th, 2016

books in Certaldo hostel

[old books in a reading room in a hostel in Certaldo, Italy, 2007]

Back in 2013 at An Event Apart in Washington, DC, I saw Jeremy Keith give a talk called “The Long Web”. I still sticks with me, because it made me think differently about how to put stuff on the web and why to do it in the first place. Here’s Jeremy’s page with the video and notes from a 2015 version.

He said of his then-recently redesigned website, The Session, in these transcribed lines from the video:

“And this is the site I wanted to look at, is how I approached that from the long-term view as in, it’s a site that’s been online for over a decade. It’s a site that will be online for hopefully much longer than a decade. And how I evaluated technologies and how I evaluated approaches to building a site for the long term, not just for the here and now.”

It is absolutely depressing that that is such a radical concept. The common practice in the web industry is to think in terms of the next year or two, and spin your wheels periodically rebuilding designs and CMSes. It’s like as if every few years, architects tore down the libraries they designed and started over. We should slow down, build things right in the first place, and stop knee-jerk installing the latest JavaScript frameworks constantly.

I love the idea of making things that you expect to survive for a decade, or decades.

Keith thought through things like the structure of the URLs on the site; not relying on external services to be running for the pages to render; and not being utterly dependent on JavaScript, but using it to enhance the page when it is available.

I remembered “The Long Web” when Dave Winer wrote Anywhere but Medium, where he implored people to consider other non-Medium destinations for their writing. Medium is beautiful, but because is it so wildly popular, gets good traffic, and is easy to post to, it’s where seemingly everything goes now. It’s like YouTube for blogging.

I know Medium does a service by giving writers a potentially bigger audience, but it all feels like the same person writing, only because it all looks the same. And it may not always be there anyway. Then what happens to all the great things you’ve read on it that didn’t get cross-posted anywhere else?

Facebook feels even more ephemeral, and while it’s here, you can’t get to all of it unless you’re a user, or the creator is a friend and has deemed you worthy of being in the audience.

Thinking about what Keith said in his talk, the much more robust, solid – though harder – alternative is to host your own blog, website, portfolio, or whatever on your own server. “Own server” is a loose term, because hardly anyone hosts websites from a physical server in their closet at home. We outsource that to others like Dreamhost, HostGator, Bluehost, etc. But the philosophy is the same. You have your own slice of a server somewhere, with a bunch of files and folders you control. You can run WordPress or similar on it, or any number of non-database-driven, static-HTML-generating CMSes. You can decide how bloated or skinny you want your code to be.

Also, for me, if a process feels too easy, it cheapens the resulting output. Naturally I’m going to go full-nerd and want to use Statamic PHP templates to render a bunch of Markdown-formatted text as HTML. (People are totally beating down the door to do that.) It’s more of a pain, yes. But if I keep this going for years, the initial investment in setting it up works out to peanuts. Mmmm. Peanuts.

I want the stuff I put here to be around for a long time. Sure, I’ll link to it on Twitter or Facebook in the short term, but it’s a lot easier for me to get invested in it if I know the actual pages will have a permanent home. I need to adjust some workflows to stop hosting some images on a public folder in Dropbox. (What a short-term-obsessed cheater. I thought it was such a good trick when I first learned it.) Everything needs to live on my server, even though “my server” is Dreamhost.

When you’re making something where you’re in control of the time horizon, take every opportunity to keep that horizon long.

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