The return to a simpler, uglier web

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Those were the days…


Form follow function. It has to work then it has to look nice. Every once in a while the industry gets it in it’s head that it just has to look good and give the appearance of functioning. That doesn’t last for long.


I’ll take an ugly site over one that makes me restart Firefox every time I go to it.


To be fair, the design isn’t the only ugly thing on Drudge.


Cue multi-week multi-stage rollout/rollback of new @beschizza BBS-redesign in 3…2…1…


Or just make the ascii page the main page!


I find the association of ‘simple’ and ‘ugly’ a bit troubling.

It is true that many sites are ugly and simple: people with limited skill hand-building stuff tend to keep it simple by necessity and keep it ugly for lack of the ability to do otherwise; but those are a distinct category from sites that are simple-as-in-simple but lack the classic flaming skulls, ‘under construction’ signs and other geocities memorabilia.

Most notably, anything that bears the signs of having been produced by groff or mandoc automatically engenders feelings of comfort and trust.


Ooh! Do it in green this time!


Insofar as that’s true, the question becomes, “who defines function?” Web developers will tell you they do, as if that’s a stupid question. But the developers have little interest in empowering their users. In the best case, they want predictable uniformity, where a user can’t do anything they haven’t defined in advance and thoroughly tested. It’s not (always) malicious, but it is certainly constraining.

The web we have now is the web that 90s applications developers insisted that everyone wanted:

  • the site needs to be able to enforce content protections
  • the site needs dynamic UI elements to hide unnecessary interfaces and un-hide them once they become necessary
  • the site needs to control the loading of content to minimize stress on the servers and network bandwidth.
  • the site needs to be tailored to each user.
  • the site needs to be stateful
  • the site needs to offer a uniform experience on all platforms
  • platforms which cannot comply must be locked out.
  • though not a stated goal, all these new features require a lot of new markup.

In other words, web pages today strive to be something you could run on Windows 95. And that runs completely contrary to many of the design decisions that built the web, and gave the user power.

  • before sites could enforce content protections, people just viewed and saved whatever they had access to. You were either in a site, or out. No DRM. No javascript to disable copy/paste/save. Nothing locked away in obscured formats.
  • before dynamic UI elements, the browser could process data as the user wished. You could search a page for text knowing it wasn’t “there but hidden”, because there was no such thing as hidden. there wasn’t even “on this page, but not loaded yet”. You could scrape an entire screen easily.
  • A file or site was either live, or not. Passwords, aside it wasn’t generally something that was going to become inaccessible or disappear. It certainly wasn’t going to be different for different users. This “unstated feature” was one of the first things to go, because it doesn’t depend on the nature of the web so much as the hosting and retention goals of the site’s owner. Even so, for about a decade very little disappeared from the web unless and entire company went down.
  • A uniform experience was never a stated goal. At first, it was implicit in the way the web worked. But even then, the design looked forward to a day when different agents had different features, and the structure would allow those features to fail gracefully. The decision to break graceful failures in tied up with the decision to give scripts and styling the ability to define structure. Now our only option is to play 100% on the developers terms, or not at all. It’s possible to built a site that both overrides all modern browser features (search, clipboard, save) and uses scripts from the same source to define the structure and load the content. Any time you can disable javascript and still get a readable site, it’s because they just didn’t invest effort in stopping you.
  • It is difficult to the point of foolishness for an inexperienced human to design a modern-ish “web app”. The human-readable content of a modern site is a trivial portion of the underlying code. Participation is generally one-way, unless a user signs up with some sort of broker (like Disqus) to host comments which can be drafted with an exteremely simplified mark-up and decorated automatically.

As the sites grow in power, the browser and the users diminish.


No mention of the greatest website on the internet:


Ironically, I was in the middle of reading your comment when I noticed Discourse’s new “internal scrollbar.”

Fans of simple, retro design might enjoy Ron Gilbert’s all too infrequently updated blog.

The only criticism I have is that he needs to use a better text to background contrast. But as someone who started with an IBM PS/2 model 30, it feels like going home.


I can’t tell if these sites were:
A) designed to look bad.
B) designed by someone who doesn’t care.
C) designed by someone who lacks skill.
D) designed by someone with bad taste.

In the last few years, several news and opinion sites that I frequent have gone from:

Simple, clean vertical organization: a headline, followed by the text, for the latest article, followed by a headline, with the text for the next newest article, and so on down the page, to:

Huge graphics, covered by the headline in BOLD 60-POINT TYPE, which are scattered across the page in three columns the ordering of which was apparently determined by a D20 roll, and which require further clicks to access the article text.

This may have been done in order to make the page more “smartphone friendly” or because the page administrators anticipate attention span decay among their audience, or (as I suspect) the two are in some way linked.

It sucks. Sucks, I say!


Take us back to the 19A0’s, @beschizza. You’re our only hope.


Wow, what would a 19A0s website be? It’s a full decade pre-www, but with all the key features.

I’m thinking this could be a hoax that millions of TV sets in the early 1980s had a modem inside and an rs232 keyboard header but no jacks on the case, and the 19a0s angle is the social revolution briefly fomented by interactive teletext.


A 19A0’s website would be Judge Reinhold’s face, weeping. In ASCII. On the readout screen of a beeper.

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