A few years ago I worked on the website for a department that specialised in data standards. The majority of the website had been coded before I had taken up the job, it was written in PHP and did all sorts of clever things for the time, it aggregated blogs, took event bookings, stored project information. I owe a lot to the original author of the website, he was a brilliant coder, but a bit of an eccentric. He coded it up himself – it was MVC, used templates and the such and followed all kinds of great practice. On the other hand, it did not use an established PHP framework such as codeignitor or the like. It was great for me because I got a really good insight in to how these things worked, and the developer was a relaxed kind of guy who’d let me break things and then watch me panic to fix them – stepping in only when he really needed to.  He left a few years after I started and I inherited this beast of a site and worked on it until we made a switch to wordpress for upkeep reasons. I often think back to how much functionality that site had considering it was upkeep was one person, and that person would ‘do it on the side’ of their other activities. Events were managed before Eventbrite, blogs were aggregated, projects were tracked and information on those projects was published as linked data. I thought it was great.

The rest of the department did not.

What is a website?

To be fair, while the functionality of the site was sometimes under scrutiny (particularly the tracking of projects), it was mainly the ‘look and feel’ everybody hated.  However, I could not get my head around anybody wanting it to look a certain way. With the exception of accessibility arguments, I couldn’t really see why you’d want anything more than white text on a black background. I mean you just need the information right? Who cares what it looks like?

My pet hate was ‘The Mobile Web’ or ‘Mobile First’, I understand the power of having Internet access on mobiles phones, but wanting to have a separate look and feel for different devices just made me confused. These pages are just documents at the end of day, why do people want them to look different in the different contexts they are accessed in?

I couldn’t really get across that I just saw these pages as documents and if we just stuck to putting a bit of text and a few images then they wouldn’t need to be different. Our site didn’t work well on mobile, but that’s because we’d put all this extra crap on it to make it look like a website on desktop and now we need extra crap to make it work on mobiles because the original crap doesn’t fit the small screen. Neither could I get across both my hate for CSS (why do we even need to present things) vs my love for it (leave HTML for content only).

I’d put up this argument, but secretly I knew that I was wrong thinking that websites were documents. In reality I knew they were very much dynamic things driven by a database. Being the developer of the website I knew that better than anyone that the departmental website would display very different things depends which events, projects and blog posts were in the database at the time. While I was still adamant that a website should be the same website whatever it is accessed on, I knew that black text on a white background wouldn’t work – because that gives the impression of something static, like a piece of paper I have written on, and I did not want to give the impression that the thing that someone was viewing would be the same thing they viewed next time they came to visit.

What the departmental website was doing was showing a dynamic document made up of some of the information in the database. Deep down I thought that ’our website should look like a website’, as opposed to black text on white, simply because it is not a static document and therefore shouldn’t look like one. I still believed it should look the same on every device and the content should be the same as if you accessed it on every device. Whatever a characteristics a website needs to be a website instead of a document, I’d take them.

Models of the world

I still think of websites as dynamic documents, that have some features that make us know that this thing we a looking at is not static. But there are plenty of instances where no two people looking at these documents will ever get the same view. In fact, the same person will never get the same view ever again. It makes me wonder, when two people go on Twitter (or perhaps the same person at different times), what the hell are they looking at?  It is a bit more than a ‘dynamic document made up of some of the information in the database’, it is a model of the world influenced by tech corps, friends, colleagues, advertisers, bots, and governments. It is quite an important model, it shapes our knowledge, actions and conversations. In the same way I found it misleading to have a dynamic content on a black and white webpage, I find it misleading to say that this webpage I am now looking at is a ‘Twitter Feed’ in the same way someone else looks at a ‘Twitter Feed’. What IS a twitter feed?

I don’t really use Twitter or Facebook now, but the less I use them, the less I think of them as websites and more as tailored models of the world. When someone says to me “have you seen this on Facebook”, I have these mixed feelings about missing out on some shared model of understanding. When we post to these websites what do we do? Are we attempting to assert our influence on these models of the world? How do we know what will appear in the model and where it will appear? As feeds are pushed to many places, perhaps my insight into the workings of a website is a hindrance? Does Twitter think that Twitter is a website?


Mark Johnson · May 21, 2019 at 12:02 pm

Yes, everything (including Facebook, twitter) is a document, although I’m not sure it is a model. I would say the model is in you (and me), and is formed in the light of the documents we read. Interestingly, I think because each person reads a slightly different document, it drives people into providing more data to influence the documents of others (like leaving a comment on a blog!). That’s the game of the social media companies.

    David · May 21, 2019 at 12:16 pm

    I think I agree, at least in the sense doceō denotes “to teach”. We do certainly try to influence the documents of others.

    I think that the post was prodding at “I read it on The Guardian” and “I read it on Facebook”, are very different things yet we treat them as the same (websites, documents).

    I can go to the Guardian and see what you are reading, I cannot see what you read on Facebook. I think a news feed is a document, but there is something recursive going on, there is some kind of representation of our environment.

      Mark Johnson · May 21, 2019 at 12:25 pm

      So if we only had those documents which were public it might be easier to discuss and agree our models of the world. When those documents are private, it becomes more difficult. Proliferation of documents creates uncertainty, doesn’t it? It becomes harder to build a coherent agreed model of the world. Confused people are easier to control 😉

        David · May 21, 2019 at 12:33 pm

        Not sure if the confusion is due to the number of documents or the lack of understanding in how they are constructed.

scottbw · May 21, 2019 at 3:45 pm

I liked the weird aggregator site thing!

Though is some ways it was closer to the Facebook type of approach where there are no documents as such, just a curated set of objects, that changes all the time depending on who is looking at it and when. FB and Twitter feel more like textual TV channels than documents.

    David · May 21, 2019 at 4:07 pm

    I guess they were similar in that you could submit a blog post to change the document people saw. But everyone who visited the site saw the same document and knew you had done that. We can’t both open Facebook and see the same thing. I have no idea how much you’ve been trying to influence the throwing of milkshakes.

    I like textual TV channels, but I guess a TV show is similar to a document?

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