The Purpose of This Website
The results of the Wayback Machine for this domain reveal that I created the first blog post on October 14, 2013. That means this personal website is nearing its tenth anniversary. However, I am not longing for this arbitrary milestone with pride or even mere comfort. Because the story of my personal website and me has been a story of misunderstandings, struggle, and neglect. The paragraphs that follow are my written pledge to give this story a happy ending.
But first I need to address the obvious question: If this project has been such a source of discomfort and struggle why not delete domain and code repository and be done with it? Why do I want to keep a personal presence on the Internet? A good question that aligns with my recent endeavor to start thinking about challenges with the question Why?
This might be skewed by my Indie Web bubble, but I have the feeling that personal websites have been on the rise for the past couple of years. Advancing digitalization, distributed work, privacy-awareness, and social media giants fallen from favor are pushing people to claim their own space in the Worldwide Web.
While browsing through my bookmarks of websites, blogs, and portfolios I identified several common angles of motivation for sitting down and creating your own website. (Bare in mind that they do not have to be mutually exclusive. There are blends, websites that capture portions of all aspects, but I tried my best to work out certain prototypes.)
First, there is the classic: The portfolio. A website that consists mainly of four pages or areas: home, about, work, and contact. The websites of Amber Thomas, Aurélia Durand, and Lauren McCarthy are shining examples. I’ve also heard the more clumsy term record of growth, but it all comes down to having a showcase of your current and past work that either attracts new job opportunities, secures new clients, or helps to establish yourself as an expert in your respective field.
I feel the second big reason for a personal web presence is a progression of the first: Having a central hub for your personal brand, your audience and community, your content creation. Once you are an established expert, thought leader, or spokesperson your portfolio matters less and your personal brand matters more. A personal website can be a place to aggregate content from other platforms, a gateway to an online shop, or a building block of a wider community offering. Dan Cederholm has done a stellar job in demonstrating that this can look a lot less stiff than my description.
But personal websites do not have to be content-heavy, with an industry-leading newsletter, several blog posts per week, and a bulging design portfolio full of prestigious clients. Far from it. Larry Fox and Josh Collie have created two of my favorite web business cards. I have to mention that I have a sweet spot for minimalism and brutalism in web design. Hence these sites work for me in three different ways: As an efficient way to get all important information across, as a pleasant alternative to convoluted, slow, privacy-violating corporate websites, and as a constant reminder that simplicity is beautiful.
The fourth reason for a personal website is open learning. Prominent examples range from travel blogs, over developers documenting their project progress out in the open, to tiny house owners who learn and struggle as they go. Granted, a lot of those formats have moved to Youtube and Twitch, but there is still enough out there for the connoisseur of the written word. Rob Weychert is redesigning his blog in the open and Caro Lynzhang allows us to partake in her search for her values in life. Reading about how others conquer their personal and professional challenges is my favorite type of content. People like Caro and Robert have inspired me to write articles like the one you are reading right this moment.
Before we get back to the topic of inspiration and the category of personal websites that triggers those wonderful serendipitous thoughts and sparks deep curiosity like no other, I want to give a quick shout-out to a rare, but no less awesome species: The micro blog! I immensely enjoy getting lost in the timelines of Pat Dryburgh or Manton Reece (driving force behind the micro.blog platform), to name two examples. There is something soothing about people sharing their actions, thoughts, and experiences in an immediate and unfiltered manner.
For me, the sixth and final reason to have a personal website is my favorite: To have a personal playground! After beating around the bushes for several paragraphs I need to throw it out there: HOW FREAKIN’ COOL IS IT TO HAVE YOUR OWN CORNER ON THE INTERNET? It gives you the power to exercise your right to free speech, it enables you to present yourself to the world the way you choose, you can use it as a platform to practice your craft (writing, coding, graphic design, photography, …), it is your permanent home on the biggest manmade network in existence. I have countless examples that showcase how people tailored their personal website to a wonderful extension of their personality: Charlie Owen, Cheapskate, Tim Holman, Justin Jackson.
All these websites make up what some call the 90s web, the non-mainstream web, the indie web—and I am part of it since October 14, 2013. But why am I not happy?
Before I dive into what I’ve tried (and discarded) on my blog, let me summarize the reasons I identified for having a personal website:
- Personal brand
- Business card
- Open learning
- Micro blog
The portfolio has never worked for me. As a software engineer I almost exclusively work on closed source projects and curating my project work outside my 9-to-5 job would be a major time investment—time I prefer to spend on the projects. Because I have helped friends with their websites, and I have moonlighted as a web developer and technical writer. But changing circumstances, laziness, and an unreliable stream of output has kept me from getting into the habit of showcasing that work. Today, I am okay with not having a typical portfolio to show. But there was a time when the pressure of producing portfolio-ready projects fueled by similar promises of coding bootcamps and online learning platforms almost had the opposite effect and kept me from producing anything meaningful.
But if visitors don’t see my work on my personal website, what do they see instead? My personal brand? At a time when I was’t sure what that even meant, I told my wife that I am the social nerd: I have a strong background in computer science, a lot of experience in software engineering, and a level of empathy that allows me to deal with a wide range of people. This could be a start of an elevator pitch, but I have been struggling with personal branding nonetheless. It comes down to three problems:
- Personal branding, staging myself, and self-promotion do not come naturally to me.
- I want to write in English (for reach and to practice my English writing skills) which is not my native language. Voice and tone are likely to get lost in translation.
- My range of interests is huge and covers art and music, technology, and sociology and politics. This is unfocused and impedes me from establishing myself as an expert in a field.
Now what? Should I condense my web presence to a business card, an about page, an elaborate contact option for anyone interested? I tried that and I can rule that out. For starters, I wouldn’t even know what to put there as my job title. Sure, I work as a software engineer. But again, I have many more interests and hobbies and I want my personal website to reflect that. Having a contact page allowing people to ping me on technical topics would not suffice.
Which brings me to the topic of open learning. Why not document what I learn everyday? Because I do learn something everyday—one of the beautiful aspects of dabbling in tech. This was one of my earliest attempts at blogging and I failed miserably because of one painful and undeniable truth: Articles on technology outdate fast. I have the utmost respect for everyone who produces a constant stream of helpful and thorough technical writing, but I fear it is not for me.
Like micro blogs. I wanted to like my micro blog. But I have the same issue with micro blogs that I have with maintaining a calendar or diary (except my bullet journal—that works for me): It is fun for 2–3 weeks and then I lose interest.
That leaves me with the personal playground. The tagline of my personal website has always stated that it is my blog and personal playground but I think I never explored what that means. I used my website as a playground in terms of trying out or learning new technologies, like service workers, CSS grid, and advanced typography. However, I never achieved that this playground-ness materializes on the frontend of the website.
The Silver Lining
There is no need to sugar-coat it: My personal website and I are estranged. Writing the first part of this article has shown me, though, that there are a lot of compelling reasons to stick with my own web presence. As a result, I needed to sit down, think about what I want my website to be, and start acting on it.
The following sections are the result of that thought process.
I Am My No. 1 Visitor
When I think about my website, I automatically think about visitors and what they might think or take away. This is the right thing to do if you want to sell something or build a community. But that’s not want I want to do right now.
Who are my intended visitors then? Simple. It’s me! If anyone else stumbles upon my pages and can draw value from it, that would be fantastic. But I consider this a bonus. Just like we curate our book shelves or furnish our kitchen at home, I am doing this for me. If friends and family complement our taste in books or feel welcomed and cozy in our kitchen, that is grand and to an extent the goal. But it is not the biggest, let alone only goal. It may sound harsh at first and I am not saying that might never change in the future, but for now this realization is liberating.
Work First, Personal Brand Second
I need to stop thinking about my personal brand and what I have to offer. I have a rough idea, a gut feeling—but nothing ready to be distilled into a website. Instead, I will focus on improving my craft and get the work in that will lead the way.
Document Close to the Projects
As explained above, I have always struggled with open learning and blogging about my projects. I therefore decided to document close to the projects. I am thinking along the lines of exhaustive ReadMes on Github, about pages that are part of the applications I write, or explanatory comments inside the code. I don’t want to replicate these learnings and insights for my blog, but have them close to the spot where they matter.
A Website Is No Brain Dump
A micro blog has always been a tempting asset for me. I had hope that this would satisfy my need for tracking… uhm, everything: That awesome concert I went to, this inspiring visit to the museum, travel adventures, a funny snapshot here and there, TILs, a short review of the latest book I finished, late-night discussions with good friends. The motivation to track these moments is deeply entangled with my fundamental belief that they define who I am. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a database of sorts that I can come back to?
I am happy to report that I found a better, lo-fi way to get my tracking kick. Going into detail is beyond the scope of this article, but to give you a few keywords: I am maintaining a second brain with the tool Obsidian. Following the PARA method, I use simple Markdown files to record my learnings, notes, and thoughts. Not everything is meant to end up on the internet. Instead I consider my personal website to be the frontend of my second brain where I present finished work.
Long-Form Content, Maintained Over Time
Lastly, I commit myself to producing long-form content that I will maintain over time. Instead of short-lived programming tutorials I want to create deep musings on software engineering and architecture. I want to ditch my wannabe instagramer self and create pages on traveling or generative art that invite readers to scroll and linger.
For now, the above are empty words, a promise I want to bring to life. I hope this is the first stepping stone towards a personal website that I enjoy. Thanks for reading!