The Joy of Personal Websites

2016-12-19 • programming

A few months ago, I found a fascinating website: the darnedest thing.

I don't know much about the owner. All the colophon page gives us is his name, Steven Hum, a bullet point inventory of the technology supporting the site, and an absurd vignette where he compares customizing his window manager to a samurai adjusting a new katana ("it’s a slow and methodical process. Step by step... molding it to one’s will").

And this enigmatic, ego-less, semi-useless about page was perfect. It was a calming reprieve from hustle culture, where, in tech circles, your website is your brand and you define yourself by where and what you work on.

He was not:

Steven Hum, hacker @company1, leveraging big data to synergize mouthwatering user experiences. In a previous life, @company2, @company3.

He was just the slightly eccentric Steven Hum, and he made a website to share a curated subset of his life with whoever might find it valuable.

Belying it's name, the welcome page took me several dozens of clicks to find. If I parsed the hippie-speak exposition correctly, Steven Hum intended the site to be about the end of suffering. That would be helpful description, if not for the fact that all the posts on the front page are about customizing mechanical keyboards, which leaves me fruitlessly whiteboarding possible connections between Siddartha, enlightenment, and the pitfalls of the QWERTY keyboard. The rest of the site spans a random assortment topics, from bird watching to shamanism to photography to poetry.

One of his posts is a tutorial on adding Phusion Passenger to nginx. It's probably as far as you can get from spiritual awakening, but it's a perfect representation of my favorite kind of website: the kind of website that reflects a person, the kind of content that speaks personally and authentically and not with SEO optimized catch-phrases and clickbait blog-speak.

I have no clue what Phusion Passenger is, but this paragraph stood out to me:

"The only oddity along the way I discovered with the migration to Phusion Passenger was that inline Slim HTML templates no longer appeared to work and required that template specifications reside in the standard application/views folder. Not a bad thing, but it did have me scratching my head for awhile."

Steven Hum has not given us a comprehensive Phusion tutorial and he does not claim to be the world's foremost expert on Phusion configurations. But, like a helpful kid in the basement lab of the computer science building who is a bit farther along on than you on finishing the same assignment, he has shared his personal journey: exactly what he did and the tips he's thought of along the way. You feel a vague camraderie that comes from working in the same plane, unlike when you ask a professor and the dynamic is tilted and you feel more like you are extracting knowledge from a valuable resource and less like connecting with a real person.

His post on why he uses urxvt is similar. It's not "top 10 reasons you need to switch to urxvt", but simply his undogmatic observations on a piece of software he enjoys.

Sometimes he'll just throw out a random poem he wrote, and I may have no idea what it means, but it's self expression, and I appreciate that.

A good personal website is a tunnel into the mind, an invitation to explore the thoughts and life of someone you don't fully know. Even if I met Steven in real life, our conversation would likely be limited to the weather, the election, and maybe, if it was an especially long conversation, programming. He would not, upon introduction, start reciting poetry at me and discussing the intricacies of his nginx configuration. Seeing his geeky ergonomic keyboard setup, I'd assume most of his interests are silicone dependent, and would never think to ask him about spirituality, completely missing a large and important area of common ground.

College computer science departments encourage students to have a personal website. At UT Austin, we even get a little corner of the cs.utexas website. Most students use their web development skills and free hosting to frame their resume in a Bootstrap template and some buzzwords. They see their website as a way to show off to companies that they are so passionate about computer science that they took time out of their weekend to make a working portfolio.

A personal website is something over three billion people can access. This is a chance to show some random Argentenian your conspiracy theory on how the government controls the weather, a chance to express a minority opinion some stranger will find refuge in, a chance to write a dumb essay on personal websites and convince some Ukranian hacker scanning for vulnerabilities to start a blog about succulents.

I'm not trying to shit on people who use their website as a recruiting tool. I'm just trying to say that a personal website is a powerful medium of self-expression. It gives you insight as to how someone else, oftentimes someone in a radically different situation than you, is figuring out how and why to live, and I find it crazy that people don't utilize them more.

As a random side thought: personal website edit history would be a beautiful thing, an edit by edit picture of growth and change.