The personal website returns: the good, the bad, and the ugly of it

6 May 2024

Kyle Chayka, writing for the New Yorker, in an article heralding the demise of the platform era:

Now digital-distribution infrastructure is crumbling, having become both ineffective for publishers and alienating for users. Social networks, already lackluster sources for news, are overwhelmed by misinformation and content generated by artificial intelligence. A.I.-driven search threatens to upend how articles get traffic from Google. Text-based media have given way to short-form videos of talking heads hosted on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube. If that’s not how you prefer to take in information, you’re out of luck. Surrounded by dreck, the digital citizen is discovering that the best way to find what she used to get from social platforms is to type a URL into a browser bar and visit an individual site.

Platform refers to walled garden environments such as Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram. Places you can check out of, but never leave. I may not be a one-hundred percent fan of some of them, but I don’t necessarily welcome their total demise either. Social networks are part of the internet’s evolution, and fabric. They play a role. But when you find yourself trapped within their confines twenty-four/seven, something’s not right.

Needless to say, I welcome the homecoming of the homepage, personal or otherwise. Not that some ever really went away. Some websites, as Chayka notes, were determined to remain outside the walled gardens. Tech news site The Verge is one, even going so far as to incorporate a social-media feed/stream like feature, when they revamped their website about two years ago. If you can’t beat them, join them. Sort of.

But another line in Chayka’s article sent a shiver down my spine:

One could argue that its [The Verge] makeover, which has now become a subject of admiring chatter among media executives and the editors who work for them, heralds the revenge of the home page.

It’s great The Verge has shown us what a post-platform internet could look like. Not so good, perhaps, is the news that “media executives” are seemingly salivating in delight at the prospect. Out goes one money-making model: the platforms, back comes another: the homepage. But we’ve been there before. And depending how many websites you continue using, still are.

When blogs — perhaps the first descendent of the personal website — began to really take off, about twenty years ago, the first influencers were not far behind. The monetisation strategies quickly followed. This wasn’t all bad. That a writer could make a living, independently, from their craft, was an ambition many aspired to. But as time went on, things began to get out of hand.

And I’m not referring to the plethora of blogs-about-blogging, the content farms, and who knows what else. Reading many blogs had become a trying experience. I lost count of the number of times I’d made my way to a blog — often through a search engine query — to look up something, only to be immediately greeted by a popup box, obscuring the content. They’re called “entry popups”.

“Would you like to subscribe to this publication by email?” read the annoying message. Well, I might, but I’m in no position to decide, as I’ve not been able to read a single word of what’s written here, so have no idea if subscribing is worth my while. Give me ten minutes, I might have a better idea.

Equally irritating were the so-called “exit popups”. Move your mouse pointer towards the top of the page, and, on the assumption you were leaving the blog, one would appear. Their purpose was to entice you to stay, perhaps by offering a discount on an e-book (which you had no interest in), and/or making another attempt to garner an email address.

The early years of the social networks were positively refreshing in contrast. Here was an online experience devoid of popup boxes, ads, and content of questionable quality. Short wonder so many people sought refuge on the platforms. Of course the respite would be short-lived. Now people, “digital citizens”, are returning to websites. But my question: how long before the money hungry marketers make the same transition?

You can still peruse The Verge without being blocked-out by those annoyingly ubiquitous popup boxes. They still carry adverts, but they’re relatively unobtrusive. Of course, The Verge is not a personal website, and the primary goal of personal sites is generally not to turn a profit. But there’s nothing wrong, I think, with a publisher of a personal website, or blog, deriving some income from their website, especially where they are creating content others find useful or enjoyable.

But does that make it ok? To therefore monetise personal websites? Those unkempt public parks, as Mike Grindle eloquently describes them?

I think it’s vital that we still have web spaces where rampant monetization and marketing are frowned upon or outright disallowed – spaces like the Fediverse, personal blogs, and the indie web. They are like the unkempt public parks of the internet’s town square-turned-metropolis. They are places where we should be careful to not let the billboards outgrow the trees.

The billboards had outgrown the trees, particularly towards the end of the first homepage era. And then they eventually swamped the platform era apps. Can anyone else see the trend here? I’m sure the aforementioned media executives can, as they eagerly anticipate the return of the homepage. But they’re not interested in collateral damage.

I can’t imagine though, too many Indie Web/Small Web personal websites sacrificing screen real estate for a great many billboards. There are other means of monetising, some so low key they’re almost invisible. While hardly the best examples of personal websites, even if they are published (mostly) by individuals, Daring Fireball and Kottke nonetheless make for noteworthy role models.

Enduring also, both have been online for decades. Daring Fireball, whose revenue model I’ve written about previously, features a single, small, advert in its left hand column. And it doesn’t look half bad either. Kottke meanwhile, draws income from a voluntary membership system. There’s barely a billboard to be seen, but I’m guessing both publishers are doing well.

If that’s not proof less is more, what is?

Meanwhile plenty of personal website readers are happy to make “buy a cup of coffee” type donations to content creators whose work they like, or buy their products. There’s also going to be other ways to go about this, without a return to those homepage destroying, oversize, billboards.

There’s also something else that may help prevent a repeat of the overgrown billboard homepage apocalypse. Something that was not present twenty-years ago, at least not entirely in the form it is today, and that’s the Indie Web/Small Web community. A community determined to see independent publishers thrive. Massive billboards may one day again overwhelm, and wipe out, resurgent homepages, but not in all quarters of the internet.


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