The vanishing personal site

OUR PERSONAL SITES, once our primary points of online presence, are becoming sock drawers for displaced first-person content. We are witnessing the disappearance of the all-in-one, carefully designed personal site containing professional information, links, and brief bursts of frequently updated content to which others respond via comments. Did I say we are witnessing the traditional personal site’s disappearance? That is inaccurate. We are the ones making our own sites disappear.

The vanishing personal site.

Obliterating our own readership and page views may not be a bad thing, but let’s be sure we are making conscious choices.

Interactive art director Jody Ferry’s site is a perfect example of the deeply decentralized personal page. I use the term “page” advisedly, as Jody’s site consists of a single page. It’s a fun, punchy page, bursting with personality, as intriguing for what it hides as what it reveals. Its clarity, simplicity, and liquidity demonstrate that Jody Ferry does indeed practice what the site’s title element claims: Interactive Art Direction and User Experience Design. All very good.

It could almost be the freshened-up splash page of a late 1990s personal site, except that the navigation, instead of pointing inward to a contact page, resume, blog, link list, and photos, points outward to external web services containing those same things. Mentally insert interactive diagram here: at left is a 1990s site whose splash page links to sub-pages. Structurally, its site map is indistinguishable from an org chart, with the CEO at the top, and everyone else below. At right, to re-use the org chart analogy, a site like Jody’s is akin to a single-owner company with only virtual (freelance) employees. There is nothing below the CEO. All arrows point outward.

Most personal sites are not yet as radically personal-content-outsourced as Jody’s, and certainly not every personal site will go this way. (Jody’s site might not even be this way tomorrow, and, lest it be misunderstood, I think Jody’s site is great.) But many personal sites are leaning this way. Many so inclined are currently in an interim state not unlike what’s going on here at zeldman.com:

  • There are blog posts here, but I post Tweets far more frequently than I write posts. (For obvious reasons: when you’re stuck in an airport, it’s easier to send a 140-character post via mobile phone and Twitter than it is to write an essay from that same airport. Or really from anywhere. Writing is hard, like design.) To connect the dots, I insert my latest Tweet in my sidebar. I have more readers here than followers at Twitter, but that could change. Are they the same readers? Increasingly, to the best of my knowledge, there are people who follow me on Twitter but do not read zeldman.com (and vice-versa). This is good (I’m getting new readers) and arguably maybe not so good (my site, no longer the core of my brand, is becoming just another piece of it).
  • Like nearly everyone, I outsource discoverable, commentable photography to Flickr.com instead of designing my own photo gallery like my gifted colleagues Douglas Bowman and Todd Dominey. Many bloggers now embed mini-bits of their Flickr feeds in their site’s sidebars. I may get around to that. (One reason I haven’t rushed to do it is that most of my Flickr photos are hidden behind a “friends and family” gateway, as I mainly take pictures of our kid.) Photography was never what this site was about, so for me, using Flickr is not the same as outsourcing the publication of some of my content.
  • As I’ve recently mentioned, links, once a primary source of content (and page views) here, got offloaded to Ma.gnolia a while back. From 1995 until a few years ago, every time I found a good link, an angel got his wings and I got page views. My page views weren’t, brace yourself for an ugly word, monetized, so all I got out of them was a warm feeling—and that was enough. Now my site is, brace yourself again, monetized, but I send my readers to Ma.gnolia every time I find a link. Go figure.

I’m not trying to get rid of my readers, nor are you trying to shake off yours. In the short term, including Flickr, Twitter, and Ma.gnolia or De.licio.us feeds sends traffic both ways—out to those services, but also back to your site. (Remember when some of us were afraid RSS would cost us our readers? It did and it didn’t. With RSS, good writers gain readers while often losing traditional page views. But that’s another story.) I’ve certainly found new websites by going to the Twitter profile pages of people who write funny or poignant Tweets. Behind a great Flickr photo may be a great designer whose site you might not have found if not for first seeing that photo.

Site of André Gonçalves

But outsourcing the publication of our own content has long-term implications that point to more traffic for the web services we rely on, and less traffic and fewer readers for ourselves.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Not every person who designs websites needs to run a personal magazine on top of all their other responsibilities. If your goal in creating a personal site way back when was to establish an online presence, meet other people who create websites, have fun chatting with virtual friends, and maybe get a better job, well, you don’t need a deep personal site to achieve those goals any more.

But if world domination is your goal, think twice before offloading every scrap of you.


An authorized Belorussian translation of this article, Нуль персанальны сайт, appears on designcontest.com.

[tags]personal sites, blogs, blogging, de.licio.us, ma.gnolia, flickr, twitter, jodyferry, outsourcing, content, readers, readership[/tags]

An Event Apart New Orleans: thank you and adieu

An Event Apart New Orleans is over, but the memories and photos linger on.

Maybe it was the people. Maybe it was the extraordinary speakers. Or the staff, who made everything hum and shine. Or the keenly focused film crew. Maybe it was the sponsors. Or that crazy party. Maybe it was just the king cakes.

Whatever it was, these two days of peace, love, and web design felt to me like our best show yet.

Thank you to everyone who joined us in New Orleans.

[tags]aeanola08 aneventapart webdesign conference conferences events neworleans[/tags]

ALA 257: the why and how of Ruby on Rails

Issue No. 257 of A List Apart, for people who make websites, is about the why and how of Ruby on Rails:

Creating More Using Less Effort with Ruby on Rails

by Michael Slater

The “why” of Ruby on Rails comes down to productivity, says Michael Slater. Web applications that share three characteristics—they’re database-driven, they’re new, and they have needs not well met by a typical CMS—can be built much more quickly with Ruby on Rails than with PHP, .NET, or Java, once the investment required to learn Rails has been made. Does your web app fall within the RoR “sweet spot?”

Getting Started With Ruby on Rails

by Dan Benjamin

The “how” of Ruby on Rails: Hivelogic’s Dan Benjamin prepares non-Rails developers, designers, and other creative professionals for their first foray into Rails. Learn what Ruby on Rails is (and isn’t), and where it fits into the spectrum of web development and design. See through the myths surrounding this powerful young platform, and learn how to approach working with it.

[tags]alistapart, rubyonrails, webdesign, development, RoR, ruby[/tags]

Breach of Peace (Freedom Riders site launch)

In the spring and summer of 1961, several hundred brave Americans—the Freedom Riders—entered Southern bus and train stations to challenge their segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters, and bathrooms.

Breach of Peace is a new book, and website, that honors their courage and attempts to tell their story—a “photo-history told in images old and new.”

Author Eric Etheridge traveled America meeting, interviewing, and photographing surviving Freedom Riders, usually in their homes. The initial result of his three years of work and research is a compelling book of portraits and stories, now available for pre-order. (I’ve read the galleys.)

A tremendous amount of material did not fit into the book. The website will document those additional facts and stories.

Presently, during its soft launch, the site is limited to a blog, but already the blog is compelling. Read Barnett to Kunstler: What If Your Daughter Married One? and you’ll see what I mean.

Although it documents some of the vilest aspects of American racism, the website is primarily a tribute to the courage of several hundred Americans, black and white, male and female, who defied the prejudice of their time, risking their freedom and lives to advance the cause of justice.

The feed is gone

Over the weekend, I added my Ma.gnolia bookmarks feed to my blog post template, such that every post would be followed by links to and descriptions of the last five external web pages to have caught my fancy. Inserting the feed into the template was easy and took all of three minutes.

This morning, I removed the feed.

Why I inserted the feed

From 1995 until around the time Happy Cog worked on the Ma.gnolia design project, one of the things I wrote about here was other people’s websites. I did it because I was passionate about web design, and so were the people who read this site. And of course, writing about other people’s sites also provided a ready form and steady stream of content. From 1995 until about 2001, I wrote here several times a day, and had millions of readers.

Then married life, and a business that grew in spite of my lifelong effort to avoid commercial success, ate into my blogging time. Today I write less frequently and have fewer readers. In an effort to provide linkage even when I don’t have time to write posts, I added my Ma.gnolia feed to my site’s sidebar in 2006. (It’s still there, on my front page. You may need to scroll down to see it.)

A flaw in the design

Not everyone notices the Ma.gnolia feed in my sidebar, due to a flaw—one of many—in the way I redesigned zeldman.com in 2004. (I used to redesign this site several times a year, but haven’t touched it since Spring of 2004.)

When I redesigned zeldman.com in 2004, I thought it would be “neat” to make my sidebar’s linked text almost the same color as the background until you hovered over it. The idea being that the focus was on the site’s content, not all the little crap in the sidebar. The sidebar was like sand, and you, the reader, were like a beachcomber with a metal detector. Hover the metal detector over the sand, and you might find a quarter. Hover over my sidebar, and you might find additional content.

Like most “neat” ideas that aren’t entirely practical, this one required compromise in the execution. The result is a conventional sidebar with low-contrast text. Because of the low contrast, lots of people (including people with certain kinds of dyslexia) pay little attention to the sidebar’s content. So I need to redesign.

But meantime, slipping the Ma.gnolia feed out of the sidebar (on blog posts) and into the body of posts itself seemed like another neat idea. People who’d ignored the Ma.gnolia feed in the sidebar would now, finally, bask in its glory. Every post would end with the last five third-party links I’d reviewed. Neat, neat, neat.

Why I removed the feed

This morning I removed the feed from the body of the blog posts for a technical reason and a design/usability reason.

Technically, as we all know, it’s not a great idea to pull content from a third-party site. The third-party site can be slow. It can get hacked. It can even go down, causing one’s own pages not to finish rendering. (As I write this, Ma.gnolia’s server appears to be taking a little nap—an infrequent occurrence, although the server is often slow. As for my embedded Twitter feed, like yours, it suffers from near-constant narcolepsy.)

And from a design usability perspective, the idea just didn’t gel. For one thing, people would dig up old posts and write comments on them about sites newly added to the Ma.gnolia feed. Owing to the age of the posts, those comments were unlikely to be found by other readers. And as soon as the feed updated, the comments would become nonsensical, because they discussed content no longer found in the post.

So the feed is gone.

[tags]design, usability, ma.gnolia, zeldman.com, happycog, links[/tags]

Looks good to Mies

The Seed Conference, held in Crown Hall (the “Cathedral of Modernism” designed by Mies van der Rohe) is a one-day event about design, entrepreneurship, and inspiration. Learn about taking control of your own work by seeking out methods to inspire new thinking and adopt unconventional ideas about collaboration and business.

Speakers include Jason Fried, Jim Coudal, Carlos Segura, Jake Nickell and and Jeffrey Kalmikoff, Edward Lifson, and Gary Vaynerchuk. An open panel will follow the presentations and the day will conclude with a reception on the lawn of Crown Hall, featuring wines selected by Mr. Vaynerchuk. Registration is $499/person; attendance is limited to 270; seats are going fast (with nearly 50% sold out in the first week).

[tags]seed, seedconference, design, conferences, segura-inc, carlossegura, 37signals, coudal, threadless, vaynerchuk, edwardlifson[/tags]

ALA 256: map rolling & data viz

In Issue No. 256 of A List Apart, for people who make websites, Wilson Miner shares techniques for incorporating data visualization into standards-based web navigation patterns, and Paul Smith shows how to replicate Google Maps’ functionality with open source software to produce high-quality mapping applications tailored to your design goals. Read and enjoy.

P.S. Just for the heck of it, we’ve started an A List Apart Facebook group. Saddle up!

Comments off. (Comment in the magazine.)

[tags]alistapart, datavisualization, maprolling, googlemaps, opensource, navigation, standards, webstandards, design, webdesign[/tags]

The John Slatin Fund Accessibility Project

The John Slatin Fund Accessibility Project matches accessibility experts with companies that would like a brief review of their site for accessibility. In return, the site owner is asked to contribute a minimum of $500 to The John Slatin Fund.

John was a wonderful man and a friend. This project will raise awareness of accessibility and help his wife Anna cover some of the expenses associated with his long illness. Spread the word.

[tags]john slatin, john slatin fund, accessibility, tribute, memorial[/tags]