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Web Design II: Why?

(This can actually be considered a digression referred to in the introduction. Nevertheless, it should be useful in establishing the context for the rest of this series.)

With all the millions of websites out there, there are, broadly speaking, only two reasons for a website to exist. And every page exists for exactly one of those reasons.

The two reasons boil down to:

  • I have this website because I have something to say.
  • I have this website because I can.

That's it. 'Having something to say' is a pretty broad topic; it covers everything from 'I'm a major corporation doing image burnishing and product/service selling' right down to 'This is my hobby, and this is what I want to tell you about it'. Whatever the specific reason, it lends legitimacy to the page.

What doesn't is 'because I can'. This is simply showing that you're 'cool', that you know what a web page is, and that you've learned enough about either HTML or a particular HTML-generating tool (which may be a provider's automatic generation software) to be able to create a page that doesn't break when someone goes to look at it. If that's all, why bother? This is the equivalent of a programmer learning a new language and writing the traditional 'Hello, World' program in that language - even if it's his first language, he's going to feel pretty silly about showing it off, especially to other programmers.

C'mon, folks - we already know that the medium is not the message, in spite of any pithy sayings to the contrary - so why use the medium if you have no message?

You'll hear that 'everybody' has a web page. You'll hear that you 'have to' have a web page. Stop for a minute. Think about who's telling you this. Ask yourself where they heard it from, or how they benefit if you do. Ultimately, it's going to come down to somebody trying to sell you something - internet access, web presence, web design services, and so on - or somebody trying to take you for something - essentially free advertising, overpriced addons to the services you really need, and so on. Think carefully. Ask yourself 'Do I really have something to say?'. If the answer is yes, and the cost isn't unacceptable, hey, go for it. If the answer is no, why bother?

(Actually, there used to be a third reason to have a web page - early browsers didn't have 'bookmarks' or 'favorites', so a lot of people set their 'home page' to be a page that had nothing but links to other websites. By the time I wrote this, originally, that usage had largely been relegated to 'legacy' status, and people had mostly converted to using bookmarks/favorites. I don't count this as 'having a message', although it was a legitimate reason to have a web page. Since some early browsers didn't support the file: protocol, allowing the browser to read the page from the user's own computer, it wasn't unusual to have these pages stuck somewhere on a provider's server. I no longer consider this to be a legitimate reason to have a web page; I'm not aware of any browser that fails to have both bookmarks/favorites and the file: protocol.)

The rest of the series will assume that there's a message involved somewhere.

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Actually, the "collection of favorite links" homepage still has uses, I think:
- Sharing your links with others, a la delicious, which I guess falls under "I have something to say"
- Sharing your bookmarks between browsers (on the same computer or on different computers), which doesn't.

A webpage of links is useful if you frequently use many different computers, such as while travelling or studying at a school with public-access computers. It's also use if, say, your employer has helpfully set up computer in your office so you can't save bookmarks.

A special case...

The version of Safari shipped with the iPhone doesn't have the file: protocol, because that might lead to customers knowing that they HAVE a local filesystem, which might lead to them wanting to use it in other than Apple-approved ways, which might lead to... Drinking Beer. Or Dancing, if you're Baptist.