Getting my time back on the Internet

Part 2: Does your website have a soul?

Defining a 'soul' is tricky1. The closest definition I can come up with (for the purposes of this article, anyway) is that it's the unique collection of imperfections that makes something interesting.

In The Beginning™2 most of the sites you could find on the Internet had a soul of some kind. Even the sites that were just dumps of public or private libraries were at least interesting to look at. They hadn't been homogenized yet, and it was apparent that whoever was responsible for putting up the content usually did it because they had some interest int he content matter.

This personal interest in a particular topic combined with a relatively new medium with no real rules about how things should be structured or laid out was freeing. Budding webmasters were free to try out a lot of wacky ideas (some of them stuck and some of them didn't) because, unlike the print industry, for example, there were no expectations about how things should look or behave. If you want to publish a book but you want it to be on one thirty foot scroll instead of 200 individual bound pages, you're going to have a hard time getting that published and sold in any bookstore, but if you wanted to do that on the Internet, it's really easy to do.

And, over time, once the Internet started gaining pages at an exponential pace, it got harder and harder to get any eyeballs on your particular page if it didn't already have some. And, as these things tend to go, a particular author (or a bunch of them) might look at a particular page that is really popular or gets a lot of traffic and see what works and what doesn't to drive traffic and copy that. That's a viable strategy, and it's been shown to work over and over in all kinds of media: what works gets copied, and what doesn't work gets forgotten.

Once everyone is copying everyone else and only keeping the things that 'work' and discarding the rest, the Internet rapidly turns into a featureless grey morass where everything looks the same. Everything sounds the same. Everything is presented the same. Nothing stands out except for the things that aren't mass-produced or the things that aren't trying to replicate something else.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing in particular wrong with cookie-cutter websites. Sometimes it's nice to be able to go to a site and not have to guess which spinning glyph in the menu they they've cooked up is the one that you need to click on to get to the thing you're interested in. And for sites where you want to get the latest news as quickly as possible, that's fine.

But for other sites. For the personal home-page3, though, I like to see sites that have a soul. I like to see a site that doesn't look like everyone else's. One where the person behind the site has tried to make it their own.

Okay, before I go too much further, I should note that I understand that not everyone has the technical chops to make a web page, much less an entire website. That's fine. Even if all you can do is go to a host and have them manage a wordpress site with the default theme, you can still inject a little bit of your soul into the site. You do that by putting up content that you like. You do that by putting your own spin on things. You do that by being creative.

But there's always someone who doesn't do that. There's always someone who wants the results but doesn't want to do the effort. There's always someone who will just take content from other places and put that on their own site. Yes, I understand that you like that band, but just putting up .mp3 rips of all the albums you bought so you can pretend to be popular for a while while other fans come by and just download all the music you put up there is lazy (and might even be illegal where you live (but that's another article for another time)), and a site like that doesn't have a soul. If you instead wrote articles about the time you had when you went to that band's concert or you write out your interpretations of some song of theirs that you really like, or you write a series of blog posts where you figure out that if you plot the band's tour schedule on a map of the United States and then connect the dots with straight lines, then you get coordinates for a super-secret concert venue for 'true fans', then your site has a soul.

And those are the sites that I want to visit. I want to visit the sites where someone talks about a thing that they love because they genuinely lovethat thing, not because they're being paid to fart out a few hundred words about how they like said thing. I want to visit a site where someone has catalogued all the different label variations of Super Mario Bros because that person was genuinely interested in that. Not because they're trying to fill out a database and generate ad revenue.

I'm getting my time back on the Internet by limiting the amount of time that I spend on sites that don't have a soul. I'm not going to stop using them completely, because they do have some utility. It's kind of like the difference between buying a newspaper and buying a zine. The newspaper is safe, boring, and lets you know, more or less, what's going on in the city/country/world. But the zine will almost always be more interesting.

I'm getting my time back by seeking out and reading more sites that are like zines and fewer sites that are like newspapers. Reading a zine-like site for five minutes is a lot more fun than reading CNN for an hour. Though, to be fair, if the 'zine' site has sufficient content, it's not uncommon for me to spend an entire night reading it. I don't think I've ever done that with USA Today's site.

But the zine kind of site is becoming rarer by the day, and, by limiting myself to that kind of site, I'm necessarily limiting the amount of time I spend reading them. That's a shame, but it's also freeing me to spend time making things for my own site.


  1. And I'm not talking about the metaphysical religous concept of the 'soul' here. I'm not touching that topic with a ten foot pair of hip-waders.
  2. At least 'the beginning' from my perspective, which is from the late 80's/early 90's, which is nowhere near the beginning of the Internet in general, so take this with a grain of salt
  3. Yes, I know, it's very old-timey of me to expect that someone would have something as archaic as a 'homepage' and not a blog or a github repo for their dotfiles or whatever else that passes for an online presence these days.</end_rant>

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