In Defence of the Boring Web
Having recently had the pleasure of doing most of my internet interactions on a tablet or a smartphone because my laptop was ‘hors de combat,’ I was able to further reflect on the state of the modern web.1 With Web 2.0 being already passé, Web 3.0 being not the latest fad any more, and talks of Web 4.0, 4.5, and 5.0, my own website seems to follow a strange and anachronistic vision. I like to call this The Boring Web. Similar to the Boring Technology Club, this website employs boring techniques, both in terms of how content is being presented as well as in terms of its technology stack:
I am not using any cookies or additional ways of user tracking. Instead, I am using GoAccess to generate static reports based on the webserver logs—no user-facing parts are involved, and IP addresses are anonymised. As a consequence, I am not wasting your valuable time by letting you accept or decline any cookies.
Likewise, I am not pestering readers with ‘Click here to subscribe’ banners that open after you have been browsing the site for a while.
I also don’t require you to create an account if you want to read more than three articles per month. In fact, I am happy that you are even reading this text!
Last, but certainly not least, I am not showing you any ads or affiliate links.
Pretty boring so far, right? Wait until you read about the technology stack:
- Data is stored in a git repository.
- All content is written in Markdown files.
- The structure of the website is essentially a twin of its folder structure.
- I am using Hugo,2 a static website generator, to generate, well, static HTML files.
- These HTML files are served using nginx.
- Everything is hosted on a Debian machine.
I am not using a load balancer, a database, or a cache server. In fact, I am even hosting other websites on this server without experiencing any noticeable performance issues.3
What’s the Point?
I do not want this post to come across as a self-aggrandising ’look at how simple and elegant this setup is’ diatribe. I believe in de gustibus non est disputandum when it comes to highly-subjective things like elegance or simplicity. The point I want to make is boring has served me well so far: this website does not have a lot of moving parts; I can easily host it almost anywhere and even if I switch from Hugo to something else, my choices ensure that content can be easily preserved. My content has survived several iterations of blogging software without my URIs changing. I am not sure whether my content is designed to last, but I sure hope to be able to look back on this post in 10 years and scoff at my own naïveté.
Is boring technology for you?
I realise that many of these boring choices I made are a consequence of this website being a kind of pet project or labour of love if you will. I enjoy having an amount of complexity that I can just handle, and these choices provide me with some control—I am not at the beck and call of some content provider that can pull the rug out from under me at any time.
Likewise, I feel that these choices serve my readers better. Yes, being integrated into Medium, Substack, or any other larger platform might increase my reach. But it would also come with hidden costs that I am unwilling to pay at this time. I do not want my visitors to be tracked. I do not want my visitors to be badgered by some popups. I do not want my content to sit behind multiple layers of caching and load at a snail’s pace. And I certainly don’t want my content interspersed with ads.
A privileged perspective
Of course, I am privileged in that I don’t depend on this website in any way. It is my way of sharing things I find interesting with the rest of the world. If my livelihood depended on visitors, I would probably have to think again about monetising the content somehow. However, I am reasonably sure that there are better ways than this is commonly done in most websites. I strongly believe that if ads get in the way of content, you are doing something wrong.
Try being boring (if you can afford it)
I think boring websites like mine are possible for more people. It’s less a function of the expected number of visitors, but rather a function of its intended purpose. If your website has a well-defined purpose, maybe boring technology could be good for you. An excellent example of what I have in mind is lichess.org. The site has a single purpose: getting you to play chess with people. This is as true to the Unix philosophy of ‘Do one thing well.’ As negative example, I often wonder how many university websites really need the level of complexity they are exhibiting? Do I have to click through cookie warnings, a newsletter alert, and all kinds of other distractions just to see your faculty listing? I hope not.
Notice that boring does not mean that the website has to look as minimalist as mine. But when it comes to the way users are treated, boring wins the day—fewer interruptions are a blessing for readers.
Sometimes, boring can be exciting.
goare of course not ‘boring’ in the sense of being unappealing, but my choice of static website generator eschews more complex content management systems, which would doubtlessly provide additional amenities while also locking me in, were I to use them. ↩︎
Every once in a blue moon, one of my posts gets some attention from Hacker News or reddit. So far, the server was able to handle this additional load admirably well. ↩︎