House Made of Web
December 17, 2008

I saw a little tweet from David Airey the other day: "@davidairey Ever wonder how your website is constructed? " - and I clicked through, thinking this was perhaps a web designer talking about the process by which a site is built. Instead, Sitonomy is a nice little app which breaks down the various pieces of technology used to build a site.

But that got me to thinking ... perhaps I should explain how websites get built.

I know a great many folk who think it's some magical or terribly arcane process - but it shouldn't be.

First, a little backstory. Because I enjoy backstory and by golly, you wouldn't be my reader if you didn't enjoy backstory too. (Right? you like backstory, right? Crap. Just me. Well, there are people STARVING for backstory somewhere or another, so you just eat this all up and enjoy it and think about those poor backstory-starving people in Narnia. You're the lucky one, remember?)
I got my start in web design back in the Mosaic age. (Think Neolithic period of the web.) It was 1996 and I thought the web was a great place to store my class syllabus so my students couldn't lose it. Most of the students at Notre Dame in 1996 had computers in their rooms - and those who didn't seemed to constantly be in one of the computer labs scattered all throughout campus - so this seemed like a nice "bonus" I could do for my students. It also gave them the added benefit of being able to access their syllabus from home - or show it off to their parents.

Of course, I came up with this brilliant plan most of the way through the fall semester and decided I'd have it up and ready in time for Spring semester. I had been reading the source of most web pages and it looked pretty simple to do. In the end, however, I had to use a program called Navipress in order to get the site done in time for the semester to start.

Over the course of that semester and the following summer, however, I began writing all of the code for my site myself ... and it quickly expanded beyond just a syllabus site for my students.

This was, of course, the days of grey backgrounds everywhere ... horizontal line dividers marking divisions in pages that went on for screens and screens and screens ... and, for that matter, screens that weren't much bigger than 800x600 for most people. Oh the excitement when we could make text BLINK at you. And change colours! OOOOOOH! and looky at that nifty animated gif of a man digging a hole at a construction site.

Yeah, even "Under Construction" pages on a website were fun and exciting back then (instead of the incredible no-no they are now).

So, I learned HTML through looking at other website code and the crappy HTML that Navipress had written for me in my haste to park my thoughts on the information superhighway. I eventually found my way to the HTML Writers Guild and started learning how to code well.

A guild! My geeky Dungeons & Dragons heart overflowed. I was joining a real-life modern-day freaking GUILD!

I learned a lot over the next few years and became a very strong web advocate within my department, encouraging our publication of more and more department materials and resources on the web and very much encouraging our instructors to put their syllabi on the web as well as handing them out the first day of class.

As much as I loved teaching, I was utterly fascinated by the web and how we were starting to use it. My first lessons in user-interface were not through some book about good design - my first lessons were the tough ones handed out by my students. It seemed no matter how hard I tried to organize the growing amounts of information I had on the student segment of my site, the more complaints I heard.

Actually, I think the harder I worked on trying to make the site better for all, the more I took complaints and criticisms to heart.

All of my students used the site in different ways. One wanted the site to tell him when everything was due in one big list. Another student wanted it broken down by assignment. Another wanted it listed day by day.

And none of them were wrong. They simply had different methods of processing information and differing ways to parse logical data.

As much as it could sometimes frustrate me that I had "gotten it wrong" yet again, I found this real-life course in information systems to be fascinating and endlessly engaging.

How DO you put together a site so that every single user will find it - if not easy to use, at least understandable and logical once they get the hang of it. (And get the hang of it quickly.)

I hope that I taught all of my students something useful and positive about writing and about reading. I hope that I didn't kill anyone's interest or discourage them.

I know they taught me a great deal in return - even when I was discouraged by their apathy. (I mean come on, doesn't everyone just LOVE taking first-year writing classes?)

Next time I'll go into the modern process of how a website is conceived and constructed.

Posted by Red Monkey at December 17, 2008 4:17 AM | Blog | Design | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Shirley said:

I can't believe there's an HTML writers guild. Makes me wonder what other guilds are out there. The first computer we had was a Tandy from Radio Shack. I was never much into the computer thing it was all my little brother who was 12 at the time. He wanted a modem to hook up to the net. He had my mom purchase a chip, unscrewed the phone transmitter and placed it in the phone. Next thing I knew, we had a blue screen with words and it was very dull and boring. Nothing like it is today.

December 17, 2008 9:20 AM


Trish said:

I found this post fascinating - having started my own journey on the web at about the same time - 1996.

I never heard of Navipress - but I do remember first learning HTML - talk about instant gratification! Write the code and see it - how I love that! Never looked back, and never used another helper program - like having the absolute control writing my own code gives me. (Well, that's way more than you ever wanted to know - and yeah - I DO like backstory!)

Can't wait to see part two of this!


December 17, 2008 10:15 AM


PandoraWilde said:

The only time I got detention was for skipping a study hall to play Oregon Trail on a mainframe slave we had a modem hookup to a mainframe at UW-LaCrosse back in my sophomore year. It sat next to a trash-80--I mean a TRS-80 that we got toward the end of sophomore year.

I graduated in 1982. By that time our school had two computer labs--one for us pure geeks and one for the business geeks (read: secretaries, paralegals and other office personnel). That's when I saw my first hack--guys hacking a quiz the Physics teacher put on the mainframe (yeah, we still had the mainframe slave for stuff like that), changing "What is the formula for determining the speed of an unladen swallow?" to "Geek #1 likes his women how?" with the correct answer being "Like he likes his coffee--hot and black".

The funny part was that I didn't touch a computer from graduation until 1996 when my brother built his first PC. He built me one in 1998 and I haven't not had one since. I even feel like my purse is missing when the comp's in the shop.

Weird, but fun and occasionally profitable.

December 18, 2008 1:08 AM


Alan said:

yikes. if I am remembering right 1996 was the year I started working for Sprynet (an ISP started by Compu$erve, which was later bought by AOL, then sold to Mindspring, which eventually merged with Earthlink--ick and sent all our jobs to India).

as a very non-techie who only became a web publisher by accident and because the software is so easy to use I am very interested in learning how web sites are really made and will certainly be back to find out.

December 18, 2008 7:23 AM
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