From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

November 30, 2005*: On completing a web site

I've been visiting web sites for over a decade, and through most of that time building them as well. There have been school related projects and work related projects, and of course numerous personal projects that I've decided I wanted to take upon myself. There have been little snippets of sites alongside quite extensive ones. There have been sites that I've designed myself down to the final details, and sites for which I've written only the content, either leaving the design and encoding to professionals, or working with them to describe what I want, perhaps arguing over what I think are important points, or being awed by someone else's successful realization of an idea that I wasn't able to bring to fruition by myself. I've visited sites that made me wish that I'd written or designed them, and I've seen sites that have made me wonder how whoever it was who posted them wasn't embarrassed to do so.

Among all of these sites, it's hard for me to think of many that I've visited that were complete. There have been, of course, promotional sites for a particular event - sites that once that event had taken place, were perhaps left as-is in cyberspace, not only not updated, but even without any notice of the fact that the event took place long ago. There are sites for small businesses or organizations that don't really have much to say but still want to be represented in cyberspace. Sites of this sort often post a few informative pages and leave things at that - no additions, no updates, nothing - and rather than giving a feeling of completion simply seem to hint that you weren't really expected to view it. Many sites are devoted to a particular topic. Some of these are clearly continually being revised and material is being added to them, while some seem to fully exhaust their topic. But even these latter sites usually suggest that there may still be more to come. There are sites for courses, taught either in schools or colleges, that are self-contained and may be considered complete once the class is over, yet perhaps display student work and thus haven't been removed from the web. And of course there are sites that have been abandoned - students who started working on a site as a school project but who then moved onto other activities and left their incomplete sites online, schools that played with the idea of a web site but lost interest, fan sites that started out posting vast amounts of material on the source of their adoration but slowly petered out. Though it's often clear that work on these sites has stopped, it would perhaps be more accurate to refer to them as halted, rather than as complete.

Only rarely, if at all, have I encountered a site that was clearly self-contained, a site that clearly stated "what you see is what there is and is ever going to be", or "I'm written out, goodbye". Perhaps for this reason, when I began to realize that I didn't have much more to write about on my A Digitized Life site I felt strangely uncomfortable. Something a bit unnatural seemed to be taking place. Was I really serious about making this a site which was clearly, and purposefully, no longer undergoing change or development?

Web sites have traditionally been "under construction". It's in the very nature of the medium. We don't have to wait for a new print edition to correct typos, to add an update that relates to new material we may not have known about when we first wrote something, to take out items that now embarrass us. This fundamental idea became the basis of hundreds of images (too many of them animated) that made readers aware that they weren't viewing a finished product. Sometimes the question became "why don't you wait until you finish" before posting (and sadly, many pages fell into a category about which this could quite readily be said), but "under construction" soon became "always under construction" - an acknowledgement of the essence of web sites, an understanding that a web site is, by definition, an ever-evolving entity.

For this reason I found myself asking whether there was there something anti-internet about deciding that I'd reached the end of the work on a particular site. Of course nothing was stopping me from simply ceasing my work on this site and "abandoning" it. Since the three years of monthly installments were clearly dated, visitors (if there were any) would by themselves realize that the site was no longer being updated (though they might return every so often to check whether new installments had been added - until they'd understand that this checking was futile). Instead, I chose to add an afterword that (to my mind at least) made it clear that the site had reached closure. And yet, as I was preparing this afterword I was also (perhaps "already") playing with the idea of perhaps adding occasional updates - a clear sign that something about purposefully stopping a web site seems contrary to the logic of cyberspace.

A personal web site is much more than the writing (and pictures) on the page. It's a way of thinking, a focus that accompanies us every day, throughout the day. Almost every experience, and sometimes even every thought, gets processed through the question of "should I write this down?". Even when we don't write daily entries to our sites, the simple intention of making an addition, the ongoing process of determining what should be posted and what not, the writing and rewriting of a particular thought in our heads, is a form of exercise that, once we're accustomed to it, is hard to forego. Of course this was also true of diaries and personal notebooks (and perhaps of imaginary friends with whom some people carry on conversations). But imaginary friends (or for that matter, diaries and notebooks) aren't the topic of this column. And to tell the truth, the question of how we know that we've finished work on a site, that we've exhausted what we have to write, and sense that it's time to leave, interesting as it may be, isn't really the topic either. What most interests me about this entire phenomenon is the extent to which working on a site becomes that apocryphal imaginary friend - so much so that ceasing to work on a site stops an ongoing conversation in our heads. A conversation to which we've become accustomed, that we've discovered that we want, and need.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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