Make the Internet great again

4 Mar|Harry R Lloyd

A sample spread from Idler 65: Mar/Apr 2019

Make your own website, Harry R Lloyd urges. It’s easier than you think and better than leaving it to Zuckerberg

In 1999, Bill Gates made 15 prophecies about the future of the Internet. Most of them have already been fulfilled – predictions about the rise of price comparison websites, smartphones, targeted advertising and online recruitment – and a few more (concerning the “Internet of things”) look set to become a reality in the next few years.

Only one of Gates’ 15 prophecies shows no sign of coming true: that someday everyone will own their own website. The visionary tech billionaire got this wrong because he failed to account for our aversion to hassle and rigmarole. Instead of wasting time setting up our own websites, most of us settled instead for having a personal page on a website owned by somebody else … that midget misanthrope called Zuckerberg.

Increasingly, however, this is beginning to look like a bad trade.Experts reckon that the average Internet user’s data is worth about $200 a year. Facebook hoovers up a large portion of this data – and what do they give us in return? Clickbait, fake news, and the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal.

So, perhaps we should reconsider Bill Gates’ entirely more democratic vision of the Internet. A system of personal websites would allow us to take back control of the data that we generate. It’s true that we’d have to pay web hosting fees (about £10–15 a year) for a personal domain name. But in return, we the people could decide whether or not to bombard our friends with advertising. If enough of us set up blogs and RSS feeds (if you don’t know, Google it), then we could quite easily do away with Facebook altogether.

To put the theory to the test, I decided to set up my own personal website. At first I thought I would teach myself HTML coding. This would’ve allowed me to build a website from scratch – in keeping with the Idler’s philosophy of autodidacticism. And anyway: how hard can it be?

The answer, it turns out, is: very. A HTML-literate friend told me that to design the sort of website I wanted would take many months of studying. Even then, I’d have problems producing a website that would look as good on tablets and phones as on computers. In short: “I wouldn’t bother if I were you.” Having seen my dream take a knock to the head, I did some research into the other options. Here’s my beginner’s guide …

If you want to create a website, then there are three things that you’ll have to sort out: a domain name, site design, and web hosting.

A website’s domain name is what you type into your address bar to get to it (e.g. idler.co.uk). “Registering” a domain name is rather like registering a trade mark. If you’ve registered a given domain name, no-one else can pinch it off you. But you do have to re-register the domain name every year, which will typically cost about £10. Unlike trademarks, you’re allowed to register a domain name even if you aren’t planning to do anything with it. In fact, a bunch of insanely valuable domain names – like teacher.com, calendar.com, and USA.com – are all owned by a bloke called Gary Millin, who had the prescience to buy them up during the dotcom crash of 2000–2002. They’re probably worth tens of millions of dollars each in today’s market.

The process of creating the design for your website is rather like creating a design for a magazine. Most magazine editors aren’t experts in typesetting, so they pay someone else to design their magazine for them. Likewise, most people don’t know how to code, so can’t design their own website from scratch. There are two ways around this. The expensive option is to pay some other human being to design your website for you. The more sensible option (for most small businesses and individuals) is to use a “content management system” (CMS) or “website building platform”. Website building platforms allow you to design your own website without learning to code, usually by selecting a certain template, and then customising it using a series of menus.

Let’s suppose that you’ve trademarked the name of your new periodical, and you’ve designed and typeset the first issue. Quite clearly, you can’t call yourself a magazine editor just yet! You need to pay someone to print it, and you need to make it available to the general public. Likewise, in order to make your website available to your friends, you’ll need hosting for your first website.

Some website building platforms bundle all three of these elements together for you, charging a fixed monthly or yearly fee. The most well known website builders of this sort include Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, and WordPress.com (which is not to be confused with WordPress.org – more on this below). For excellent info on choosing between them, visit sitebuilderreport.com.

Certain other website-building platforms only handle site design, forcing you to sort out the other two bits independently. The runaway market leader for this route is WordPress.org, a free and incredibly flexible site-building platform that powers 30 per cent of all the websites in existence. Lots of web-hosting services make it very easy to design using WordPress.org when you host your site with them. Otherwise, bluehost.com is a safe bet for price and service – they also sort out domain name registration for free. Websitesetup.org is a useful resource for those considering this route.

In the end, I decided to use WordPress.com to set up my own website: it worked out to be cheaper and easier than using WordPress. org. And it had better features for blogging than the other website builders. (For the results, see harryrlloyd.com)

It’s possible to set up a basic site for free using Weebly, WordPress or Wix. You should only do this if you aren’t bothered about having your own domain name – your website’s address will be something like yourname.wix.com – and if you’re happy to have ads on your website that you don’t have any control over. Simplesite is also worth a look: you get fewer opportunities to customise your site than you do with other builders, but in return you get a design process that is much simpler to get to grips with. Don’t be tempted by their paid-up option though: the premiums are borderline extortion.

This piece appears in Idler 65: Mar/Apr 2019, available to buy online and in bookshops.