Building site


Starting a proper website may be the most stupid thing I have ever done in my life. It started off as a simple project to make something promoting my book, Darwin Wars, and allowing people to buy it by clicking on a link to I already kept a few pages with cuttings and things on the Well, a bulletin board in California, but they were done back when the web was simple and good design consisted only of using the smallest possible pictures and making sure that nothing on the pages tried to slither, beep or blink.

Even without any kind of fancy layout, there is still a huge amount of work involved in web publishing if you are to do more than shovel acres of unrelieved text at the reader. Articles need thoughtful linking, either to the rest of the site or to the outside world. Since reading on screen is unquestionably nastier than reading on paper, we should compensate for this experience by adding useful footnotes. This needs thought and even research. You have to throw your mind out of gear and freewheel across a piece of prose looking for sidetracks, then go back and work out where these should lead, and where on the web to find their destinations. This is not hard work, but it is extraordinarily time-consuming. I have come to realise that the perfect hypertext summary of a piece of prose would, like the perfect map, be as large as the original.

Newspapers can make these links automatically to some extent, by searching their own databases for similar stories. The Electronic Telegraph is not a bad model. But there is judgement as well as knowledge needed and that takes time.

The language in which the web is written, HTML, has been growing and changing ferociously for as long as it has existed. The latest versions allow designers, for the first time, to specify more or less how they want their pages to look, in the way that you would take for granted if you were printing on paper. Until now, the author of a web page could specify that a paragraph should appear as a heading, or as part of a list, for example; but he had no choice over what those terms meant. A heading might appear to the reader in a chaste serif 14-point, Independent-style, or it could leap, drooling from the screen, in 18-point lime green Creepy (one of Bill Gates's more philanthropic pieces of software, a font that drips slime). The choice was made at the reader's screen, not the writer's. The background might be in any colour or none, depending on the whims of the reader or his software.

This powerlessness gave art directors nervous breakdowns; it had other disadvantages, too. It meant that people had to concentrate on the structure of their sites, and not on the look. There are two troubles with this kind of minimalist approach. The first stems from the ability of skilled designers to accomplish a great deal more than they ever could before and make sites that look delightfully inviting. So unskilled designers want to do the same. There's lots of software that seems to make this easier. The best of it, such as Macromedia Dreamweaver, is powerful, subtle, elegant and . . .

Actually, there is only one thing you need to know about this sort of software, and it is that, as soon as you get the CD in your hands, you must hurl it like a frisbee as far away as possible. If you once start playing, it will take over your life and destroy your capacity for productive work. Believe me: I have just spent half an hour examining scanned photographs of Roman ruins in Provence in order to extract from them a pleasing colour scheme. Before that, I spent an hour debugging a form that allows people to join a mailing list. At five this morning, I woke with a brilliant idea for an article, which had within seconds been washed from my mind by an even more interesting idea about how to display it in a three-column table and now I can't remember what I was meant to write; worse still, I can't get the layout to come out as it should.

The second problem is that none of the browsers you can currently buy actually do what they promise. They all still display carefully designed pages differently; it's just that the more modern ones make more complicated mistakes.

At the end, of course, I tell myself that it is all worthwhile because people can go to the Darwinwars site, read, click and buy the book at once from Amazon. This is an author's dream of self-promotion - and, sure enough, last week I think I earned £1.57.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet