"What is one thing you learned about building websites this year?"
I was inspired by the title of this end-of-year thought series on CSS Tricks and thought I’d write my own reflections.
Knowing how to build websites translates to freedom.
In 2020 I learned that knowing how to build websites really boils down to freedom. If you do, you're well on your way to building anything else you can think of for yourself and others as an independent, free thinker and self-learner. If you don’t, you’re at the mercy of platforms with terms of service you may not always understand or necessarily want, but don’t feel like you have much choice about. You may discover your content doesn’t really belong to you or that your data is used in unsavory ways. And if the terms change, the last injury is that you may find yourself locked into a platform you no longer like.
Over a decade ago, we used to think that building your own home on the internet was a cool, pioneering act of self-discovery. We didn’t know what we were doing, and hardly anyone made beautiful, sophisticated sites. The best websites were rough around the edges but created from the heart and a place of authenticity. But we saw the beauty in opportunity.
We later replaced that with most people creating social media accounts to establish a presence online. On the one hand, this had a positive side: many of us can take pictures, write, sing, and tell stories and share them worldwide in ways we were never able to before. We take these things for granted, but historically, few people were able to leave much of a written legacy behind. On the other hand, what started out as fun is now doing our society, freedom, privacy, and mental health a disservice. In some cases, it leads to behaviors that escalate until countries decide to “turn off the internet” or isolate themselves and moderate it with a very heavy hand.
What you really learn when you know how to code a website
There's more to websites than 'just' HTML & CSS, and there's also no shame in stopping just there.
1. Knowing how to code your own site means having the freedom to write, host, and own your content.
Not only can you reflect your interests and personality, but you’ll also learn about the power and responsibility of ideas, as well as ownership.
When you wonder why your site is so slow, you get to know something about physics and how information travels worldwide through electricity, cables, servers, and who owns them. When you want to add a picture or video to your site, you learn something about storing information and the societal cost of this infrastructure. You might be surprised by what you find. And when you decide to write a few thoughts of your own, you get clarity on your beliefs and possibly feedback from others as well.
When you need to renew hosting, you learn about the effort required to preserve websites like other history pieces. You might realize that building websites goes hand in hand with losing websites and digital decay. Progress and content permanence isn’t a given. We can and already lost websites and technologies, just like we lost the Library of Alexandria or entire cultures. You might discover that there are efforts of activists and digital archivists to preserve them. Still, you might be surprised to learn how many are volunteers.
2. Building your own website like this also means freedom from teachers and a fixed mindset.
You can teach yourself everything you need to know from the internet.
When you teach yourself things at your own pace, you learn about yourself and free yourself from beliefs and people keeping you back, like the notion that you’re “too old to learn.” You also understand that teachers are everywhere, not just in institutions with famous names. It takes effort from many unsung people to ensure that information is free and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
When you take a moment to feel grateful that this information is out there on the internet, you learn about the internet’s history and its creator’s values. You’ll understand what led to it being freely available instead of belonging to some corporation. You might end up with more of an informed opinion about where the internet is heading, which directly contradicts this beautiful, original idea that we take for granted when we’re just consumers.
3. Knowing to code your own website will teach you something about art, history, and self-expression.
When you wonder about how to design it and what this might convey to others, you learn a bit about the history of art and design. You might start to see websites as one step in a long tradition, like the Lascaux paintings of our age: a way to say, “I was here.” You might even be inspired to create art with code rather than code for money.
When you labor over something, and someone steals it without batting an eyelid, or you want to use someone else’s work, you learn about copyright, attribution, and licensing. You need to make your own mind about how and whether your and other people’s work should be protected. This might lead you to wonder if other people should take what you’ve created and offered for free but charge money for it when used in a different setting.
Freedom to choose your own path
These things may seem like hard work, but experiencing them gives you direct knowledge that no one can take away from you. You can’t get that from anyone or anywhere else. And nor should you, because the stakes of life in a digital, interconnected society are too high for us to do otherwise, to paraphrase a philosopher-economist.
The free pass we had from when the world was less instantaneous and relatively disconnected world has expired. Since our actions have potentially global and immediate ramifications, we all have the ethical responsibility to ensure our commitments are sound and only believe what we have diligently investigated.
That's why building a website nowadays is about freedom. Freedom to think for yourself, make your own mind up, and a necessary act of rebellion and self-reliance that will serve you well in the future. Learn how to code a website today, and change the world tomorrow.