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Growing up through the growth of the world wide web, and interested in website administration throughout, I have created many websites in my time. I made my first website when I was nine years old, a simple website coded in the most basic of HTML about video games I liked to play.
As the years went on, my HTML advanced on hosting sites such as Angelfire and GeoCities, and I began creating blogs covering the different subjects of my life I was interested in. However, I was fascinated by websites which had a more attractive way of blogging. Research pointed to b2/Cafelog. Although it was possible to run my blogs off it, as I was now using a hosting provider, rather than Angelfire or GeoCities, I could not wrap my head around installing and running a database at the time, so I continued to manually make my blog posts in HTML, though tried to dabble in CSS as much as I could.
I’m not sure when I first learned of Wordpress, but I have had it running on various websites I manage since the mid-2000s, and was an instant fan. I loved how easy it was to use - I didn’t have to code each page one-by-one, or even code at all any more! Plugins made it even easier and more customisable than ever before, and everything looked incredibly professional.
When I decided to create this blog, it would thus seem Wordpress would be the obvious choice - I am administrating three other websites running on it after all. However, I was tempted by the simplicity of other platforms, trying to push myself into something new.
Initially, I was enticed by running the website off Notion, having stumbled across a beautiful blog which ran it. I was genuinely torn, and explored various options of making it work, settling on Fruition. I purchased a domain, and then had to make a choice as to what to do with it. I ended up thinking about the future, where my knowledge with WordPress, as opposed to Notion, would come in handy later if, in the unlikely event people end up actually reading this blog, and I would need to scale up.
Having then settled on Wordpress, my next issue was wading through all the steps of customisation to get the website looking and functioning how I wanted. It took me weeks to decide on a theme, what plugins I wanted to use, and how I was to break my text up with images. At first, I chose the theme Nucleare with images to be inserted from Unsplash, as I could use these freely. However, I then started to view more blogs, and found myself wanting to go back to a more simpler design, favouring themes akin to Independent Publisher. I spent hours researching, installing and customising themes trying to get exactly what I wanted, which I didn’t think was a lot, but I found to be difficult:
- Simple, clean and minimalistic design
- Post excerpts
- A signifier to suggest to the reader to click on the post to read more, such as a button, […], or ‘…’
And you’d be surprised how difficult that is. Firstly, while I see Wordpress as a platform primarily for blogging, I am clearly in the minority it seems. These days, Wordpress is more often used for company websites, and the themes reflect this as such. It is incredibly difficult to actually find a ‘boring’ theme intended to blogging - even searching within the ‘blog’ filter inside Wordpress brings up hundreds of non-blogging themes, which while I understand could likely be used for blogging, is clearly not their main purpose:
It’s incredibly frustrating and makes starting a simple blog off-putting. In the end, I found two tips which helped me: Search via Wordpress.com, as these were more stripped down themes, but were few and far between, and to search for FOSS themes, as tended to be on the more simplistic side I was looking for and actually had blogging themes for blogging.
But this is not where my frustrations ended. Even when I found themes which looked the part, many had limited customisation options, and either didn’t have an option for post excerpts to be shown, or if it did, they cut the text off - it looked sloppy. Granted, there was likely a way to manually edit the files to make this happen, but I was exhausted at this point, having ran into so many walls, I really didn’t want to possibly spend hours learning something that might not even work, but knew it might have to come to that.
Thankfully, it didn’t. It was a search engine result which led me to Coldbox, a theme which finally did everything I wanted it to! Simple, with post excerpts and ‘Read More’ buttons, and customisable enough to make it mine. After setting it up though, I realised the use of Unsplash photos didn’t fit with the ‘vibe’ anymore, and I didn’t know what to do. By pure happenstance, I read a newsletter which covered free illustrations for any purpose you needed them for: visuals in apps, newsletters, slideshows, websites and so on, via a website called unDraw. I loved the abstract illustrations and felt they fitted right in with the new look, especially happy with how I could change the colours to create consistency between posts.
New Shiny Thing…
And thus, my website was complete. But I was not 100% happy.
One thing which irked me was how Wordpress can be a chore to maintain as it is a target for security attacks. I was also annoyed at how plugins could pose as a security risk, having once had to rebuild a website for someone who had a plugin go rogue and turn their Wordpress installation into a spammy mess. Another is the amount of tweaking needs to be done to be compliant to privacy matters. I don’t want to collect any one’s data, I don’t want to know who you are, but some plugins I installed to bring functionality brought along analytics and tracking, so I had to uninstall.
All this gave me a lot to think about.
Reconsidering everything made me contemplate about how complicated the internet has become since I first coded that website at nine years old, and made more prominent in my thinking when I stumbled across CloverCities, a generator to create websites reminiscent of the 1990s and early 2000s. While I think advancements with CRMs such as Wordpress have made things easier, I do have some nostalgia vision for more simpler times. I think that is why I was tempted by write.as and Telescope, I understand a lot of the internet needs to be built with high performing themes to get the best SEO and beat your competitor, but the simple act of blogging seems to be maligned as a result. That’s not to say this sort of thing isn’t popular, there is a reason newsletters are doing great, as well as services like Ghost and Medium being prominent. People clearly do want to write and be heard, but it seems they are being pushed into these services where alternatives exist, but are difficult to find.
Wordpress is huge, but as I mentioned before, doesn’t inherently look like a blog platform. Let me put it this way, if you were a writer choosing between Wordpress or Ghost, and you went to see what the choices are for how your blog might look like, which would you be drawn towards?
Static Site Generators
I settled to being frustrated and putting up with all the issues which bothered me, but I began more and more bothered about what irked me and that longing for a simpler time. Research down a rabbit hole landed me in the realm of Static Site Generators (SSGs), processes which generates functional websites, based on a set theme and your content, and outputting them in a way which means you can copy-and-paste them to pretty much any hosting provider with no fuss as there are no databases. Excitingly for me, I realised the predominant SSGs use Markdown as the language for posts and pages! I was already typing in Markdown, and now I can just place the file directly in the corresponding folder within the SSG, and my post suddenly appears on the website!
Well, it isn’t that simple. I first needed to choose an SSG, and there are many out there. I decided as this was all new to me, I would need one with plenty of documentation and support, as well as it being pretty easy to use. I contemplated Jekyll, Gatsby, Hugo and Eleventy - but there are many more out there.
After some reading and testing, I went with Hugo as it seemed to fulfil the brief. However, it’s not the simplest thing to get up and running. It took me multiple attempts to get Hugo setup correctly, and countless more deleting and starting over again when I broke something and couldn’t fix it. Furthermore, you access it via Terminal on a Mac, which although I could use, I don’t use it enough. To beginners, it could be daunting. However, once everything in the Terminal side is good to go, the rest is tweaked via text editors. Hugo allows itself to be used with TOML, YAML and JSON, and this caused an early issue with me as my chosen theme (PaperMod) had a lot of its documentation in YAML, whereas I had initially installed Hugo to use TOML (a simple fix when re-reading the installation guide here). I use CotEditor to edit files which need configuration, and use Typora for the blog posts.
Once I had configured Hugo and correctly formatted a few posts, I could fully experience the blog, and I loved it. I still can’t get over the speed - it loads so quickly between pages, and there isn’t any baggage at all. No databases or plugins to be concerned about as security risks. No trackers or analytics as privacy concerns, and no bloat needed to make the website functional. It just works. I then went to build it, where Hugo is given the command ‘hugo’ in Terminal, and processes all I’ve done into a folder called ‘public’, ready to upload anywhere I want. With the entirety of the website (so far, as I write this), it equates to under 5MB. Five megabytes! It’s tiny!
When reading up about Hugo, I often came to the next stage: Hosting your website. Hugo is running perfectly fine on my computer at http://localhost:1313, but no one else can obviously access it.
Plenty of guides talk about how, because of its tiny size, you are most likely able to get away with hosting for free. Free hosting! There is a lot of advice out there, so I suggest a simple web search of “Hugo free hosting” to find a guide you like, but the short answer is that places like GitHub can hold your Hugo-built website, and Netlify can be used to not only give you a way to connect your already purchased custom domain to your website, but can also provide an SSL certificate too - all for free!
However, at this point, I’m starting to get really excited about Hugo. I’m rethinking everything at this point. All the websites I maintain on Wordpress, could I migrate them over to Hugo…? There was one big issue with that idea. While this website is tiny, the other websites are larger. One uses an extensive amount of images (which would bulk the size up), and another provides custom-made images for people to use on their websites, so there is a lot of hotlinking. Furthermore, I have had my hosting since a teenager, there was plenty I had stored on there too, hotlinking for myself. I was doubtful providers such as GitHub, Netifly, Firebase, AWS and so on would allow such behaviour for free, and would start charging me. Additionally, I was happy with the lack of trackers and analytics, and was unsure what such providers may or may not place over my content.
Feeling dubious, I decided not to bother. Although free would be fantastic, it’s not going to work for me. Nonetheless, I’m still gaining a lot via the faster and more secure websites, and I can just as easily use my current host for the websites. However, I’m paying a lot for my current hosting as it is aimed for using databases, which I use for my Wordpress installations. It started to seem ridiculous to pay over £100 a year for services I would no longer be using. Surely I could get cheaper hosting if I was asking for less?
This hosting provider uses a pay-what-you-use method, where you deposit some money, and it will slowly drain away to pay for what is being used, with a reminder to let you know when the deposit has nearly ran out. I think it’s a great idea, but I would prefer fixed rates.
Using a pay-what-you-want model, with no difference in features, perks or services, Uberspace provides a fair way of affording web hosting, with an easily understood set of rules. At current exchange rates, the lowest suggested $5 a month tier would could me around £50 a year, halving my current hosting provider. Though I wouldn’t be paying yearly, instead paying month-per-month. I like this idea a lot as a student, I could pay less now, and then pay more later when I have more income. It also has many guides on running applications, and an extensive manual. Furthermore, they seem like a nice company.
How much do I long for Web 1.0? Well, with Neocities, it is alive and thriving. However, it doesn’t have to be like this, because while Neocities prides itself on hosting throwbacks to yesteryear, it is ’normal’ too, offering the ability to upload and host static websites of the more modern variety as well. Neocities is actually free for basic services, but for $5 a month, users are able to use custom domains, install SSL certificates, create multiple websites and gain access to larger limits on storage and bandwidth. Furthermore, it explicitly allows hotlinking. Again, this would cost around £50 a year, and is also paid monthly at $5 like Uberspace.
The biggest issue I am facing right now when it comes to web hosting providers is that I renewed my existing hosting just last month - how annoying! So for now, at this exact time, I will be using the remainder of that contract while taking this time to migrate my websites away from Wordpress and into Hugo. I can run them locally without an issue, so when the time comes in around ten months time, I can start paying my new web host, and start migrating the websites from my computer to their servers.
As to who I will choose, I am currently leaning towards Uberspace, as I like their ethos and extensive documentation I can refer to when I need help. While I am very tempted to start using Uberspace right away, as this website is ready to go as a static website, it would be foolish to pay twice for the same thing when I could just as easily use my current web host.
Since writing that last line, things changed dramatically. A simple change to re-organising my current web host (I swear, really simple and innocent!) broke a website I was hosting. Frustrated at it, and Wordpress in general (as the backups refused to restore), I made a few decisions, notably to go straight to hosting this website on Uberspace, and slowly start the migration for the other websites, first into Hugo, and then uploaded to Uberspace as well.
I’m finding the experience with Uberspace very interesting. It’s more difficult than what I have been used to, but more akin to the days when I started out doing all of this. It’s a very rewarding experience being able to accomplish small tasks to get everything working, I literally punched the air with joy when I successfully got the website running perfectly on Uberspace!
It’s going to be a bit daunting in the coming year to migrate everything in time, but I am looking forward to the process of doing it through Hugo, and feel happy to be using Uberspace as a web host going forward.