Exploring the independent web with Elliott Cost and Laurel Schwulst.

I’m not sure that Volvox Vault would exist without the inspiration I found from exploring Elliott and Laurel's various projects, which I was lucky enough to surf across on the web somehow. Community websites like Special Fish, and the gentle conversations on HTML Energy introduced me to a simple & calm, yet complex & vast side of the internet.
I think a lot of people, probably especially those who don't make websites (if you don't, I encourage you to try it), often forget how special and thoughtful a 'hand-made' website can be. This interview turned out to be an insightful meditation that I personally found very helpful in the midst of continuing to develop volvoxvault.com, and that will energize you creatively as well.
- tiana dueck

Tiana: Elliott and Laurel! Who are you as website builders and how do you work together?
Laurel & Elliott say:
Hi Tiana! We met 5 years ago. We were actually roommates in San Francisco first when Laurel was a visiting teacher at California College of the Arts for a semester. We didn’t know each other much at first, and at the time, Elliott was a pretty quiet roommate and was making many strange websites. Laurel was teaching interactive design, so there was similar ideas happening in close proximity. After that, Laurel returned to New York, and later Elliott did too. In 2016, Laurel was the creative director of The Creative Independent (which is published by Kickstarter) and brought on Elliott to help with design and web development there. We worked in the basement at Kickstarter in our own little bubble and drank lots of kombucha on tap. How we work together is somewhat of a mystery. It seems like we are vibing energies running in parallel, and sometimes we intersect. We also worked on Empty Day together, and most recently HTML Energy. We shared an art residency at pe hu creative community space in Osaka, Japan last summer, which is where we started some videos as Green People.

tiana with laurel and elliott in elliott's virtual room.

Tiana: What are the values of your websites like Special Fish, Gossip's Cafe, and HTML Energy?
Elliott & Laurel say:
These projects are still forming but here are a few values behind those ones…

  • Things don’t have to be complete (websites are never complete) but they should achieve their goals and work (not break).
  • Harness the power of HTML when possible.
  • Community websites should have clearly defined moderation and take a stand when it comes to politics.
  • Every website is a program for the mind. Social media is a good example of this. What kind of programs do we want to write for others to follow?

Tiana: I saw that you did a social media cleanse, why was that an important move for you?
Laurel says:
A cleanse or fast every once in a while is good for anything that’s somewhat addictive… social media, food, alcohol, etc. It’s important to see clearly how we channel our energies, and regular cleanses help us do this.

Sunset with Citrus print overlay.

Community Websites

Tiana: Can you describe your fascination with community websites?
Elliott says:
I’m fascinated by what happens when you open up a private website to the public and allow people to create their own pages, etc. All these social networks and apps that we use on a daily basis are just websites with databases at their most basic level. I think sometimes people lose sight of that. The web hasn’t really changed all that much from a technical standpoint. I’m fascinated that a tiny community website running on a home server and a giant social media website share many of the same technologies. It’s kind of beautiful and makes me feel like nothing is set in stone–there’s always alternative ways of being on the web.

Tiana: What were your intentions with Special Fish? How have they evolved?
Elliott says:
At first I was specifically trying to create an alternative social network. After it launched, Kicks Condor wrote about it on their website and called it “a big directory of people.” That really changed my perspective on the project. I realized my field of vision was too narrow. I ditched social media recently because it was training me to look at websites in a certain way. People talk a lot about social media’s adverse effects, but I don’t see this problem brought up. I suppose it only really impacts people building websites, but it leads to unfortunate outcomes nonetheless. So to answer your question, I think of Special Fish as a directory to explore the handmade web, websites that are hand crafted by real people and not by corporations. There are a lot of these sites out there but very few directories to find them, so Special Fish hopes to help with that.

Tiana: What is the relationship between your community websites and real life?
How do these websites impact our real lives?

Laurel says:
I’ve been thinking recently about how I feel in social spaces—physical and digital alike. I love when I’m in a room with other people, and I am in awe of everyone around and somehow absolutely believe that everyone present is a special, kind genius. I could imagine this happening, for instance, at a lecture that a friend is about to give and I’m talking with some people there, and even though I don’t know everyone, I’m excited by and respectful of everyone in the space. I also feel this way about most people on Special Fish, too. I think it’s because so many people put such thought and creative energy into their profiles. But that’s only possible because Elliott took special care and intention with the design—which is not just how it looks but also how it functions, what it requires of users. The design of Special Fish encourages its participants to put this effort forward. It’s a reciprocal relationship.

But then there are other social spaces, both physical and digital, where I think everyone is kind of trash and superficial. Not always, but often Instagram affords this, as does certain IRL events pre-COVID, like some gallery openings. I just look around and have this feeling like everyone sucks in some way, and even if that’s not true on an individual level… somehow the energy of the event and social space feels unthoughtful and unfortunately doesn’t make me excited to interact with others. Something about the social space is too easy and not thoughtful. Maybe ultimately these spaces are not “for us”—Instagram uses its users’ posts as advertising to earn money, and gallery openings are often perfunctory events meant for social climbing.

Elliott says:
Agreed. I’m pretty glad that a lot of events have been canceled. At the beginning of quarantine, with so much communication switching to video chat, I think it was immediately evident that online could never really replace in-person interaction. There’s always some kind of energy missing when you’re on a call. It bothers me that these social networks are continually trying to replace in-person communication when they could be working on supporting preexisting forms of communication. I’d love to see more websites that support real world interaction. It was inspiring to see all these Google Docs being created during the recent Black Lives Matter protests. I think that’s a good example of websites impacting real lives.

Tiana: How do your community websites differ from popular social platforms?
Laurel says:
Since they’re more clearly authored, often homespun community websites’ goals, rules, and moderation are more obvious. This makes sense since most of them spun out of being dissatisfied by the larger, more popular social platforms.

Elliott says:
Yeah the goals are pretty different when it comes to community website vs social media websites. One thing that separates them is the ability to experiment. When your metrics aren’t based on how long you can keep a user on a website, things really open up.

Tiana: With projects like Gossip's Cafe, you close the cafe at 11pm.
What is your philosophy behind a non-24/7 website?

Elliott says:
I’ve always felt that websites should have grounding in the world. Sometimes this can happen through a feature or design choice, but it could also be quite literal like having open hours. When I started the cafe, I had this idea of literally turning off the website/server at the end of the day. Sort of like turning off the lights in a real cafe and locking up. I guess the current implementation is not that drastic, so it might be cool to actually turn off the server in the future : )

Laurel says:
Grounding a website in the world helps people understand that technology is man-made and literally comes from the earth. Like other things that come from the earth, it’s a resource that has limitations. Normally people understand websites to be up all the time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, because they imagine websites as ethereal and not tied to the physical world, when in fact they are.
This reminds me, I interviewed Marie Otsuka on HTML Energy about the solar-powered website she designed, Low-Tech Magazine. She said, “Just because things are digital doesn’t mean they’re more sustainable. There are servers that are powered by fossil fuels that serve up these digital documents.” Her visual design works in ways to make this underlying truth more apparent.

sunset with Citrus print overlay.

HTML Energy

Tiana: What is HTML Energy?
Laurel says:
It’s an ongoing conversation and movement about the famous “HTML,” also known as HyperText Markup Langauge. It’s also a podcast where we’ve talked to several web geniuses about how they go about creating, updating, and living their websites.

Elliott says:
Yeah, I like to think of it as a movement or fan club. I remember the name came from a conversation I had with Laurel once about energy. I asked her if she thought everything had energy and she said yes. So I started wondering if something nonphysical like a language could have energy. It’s nice to think of HTML as a means of transferring and storing energy between people.

Tiana: What power does accessibility hold for you in relation to web building?
Laurel says:
We like fast and lightweight websites. Making websites with only HTML enables this because HTML is universal to all websites. It’s the foundation. Unfortunately in 2020, a lot of people forget that, for example, adding unnecessary JavaScript that’s only for superficial polish actually adds a lot of weight to pages, sometimes making them unable to load on slow connections. This is especially sad when the website contains important, life-sustaining information that should be accessible to all humans.
With HTML Energy’s podcast, so far we've been talking to mostly individual designers and programmers, but we would love to talk with someone from a more government or public service organization perspective working on websites that optimize for people in areas with low bandwidth connections, for example. Let us know if you think of anyone.

Tiana: How have the conversations on HTML Energy impacted you?
Laurel says:
By interviewing people, we connect with other special, unique energies.

I love hearing how different each energy’s approach is. Especially now in 2020, there are so many tools out there to make a website, and honestly it can be overwhelming, and to boot, there can be a lot of social pressure around using tools that are currently trendy. So when we interview people, we get to hear specifically how they have used simple HTML and made websites in their own unique way. I love hearing the specific details and the origin stories especially. For example, Tom Bubul made Dungeon and Dragons fan sites in the 90s. He didn’t even play the game, just invented his own scenarios as his way to play. And other people we interviewed such as Emma Rae Norton didn’t start coding websites until she was in college and still found her own creative way of approaching it for the first time by slowly coding by hand and embracing that slowness. Hopefully hearing these stories shows how anyone can approach HTML as a pliable and expressive creative medium… similar to more traditional mediums like clay, paper, paint, or even a musical instrument. And unlike most technology which is fast and efficient, such as anything we use quickly on our phones, we should actually consider embracing the clunkiness, slowness, and imperfection of HTML. Our guest Korede Aderele embraces “bugs” or things that don’t work as originally intended. “I figure it’s my personal website so I can do what I want with it. I’m fine with having a bug sit there for a while. Sometimes, I just leave a bug and let that become a weird, quirky feature.”

Before HTML Energy started, I was very inspired by website hand-coder Zach Mandeville, who declares, “Basic HTML Is the New Punk Folk Explosion,” saying making websites by hand is similar to older folk traditions.

After we launched the podcast, at first we thought no one was listening. We had no way of knowing immediately since we didn’t put it on Soundcloud and didn’t have analytics on our pages… so we couldn’t see the play count or anything. But after a few months, we heard that a few people had listened to all the episodes, and were enjoying it. This delayed feedback feels nourishing somehow. The time elapsed between a message and its reply is an important part of the message itself.

sunset with Citrus print overlay.


Tiana: Why is it important that we design with vastness in mind when building a website?
Laurel says:
I think it has to do with transparency and wanting to show the underlying structure and not obscure things.

Elliott says:
Yes, I think transparency is definitely important. I have a strange relationship with design because on one hand it can be a really important and useful tool for organizing information but it can also easily get in the way. An example of this is when people design for the web like they would for print. Things like web fonts and layout are nice but just get in the way if they don’t support the underlying content. Maybe a good analogy is a public library. In a library all the bookcases are designed to present books (information) without obscuring their titles or how many there are. Most modern websites feel like libraries with a few books on a table and all the other books tucked out of sight in storage. There might be a card catalog system for looking up titles, but sometimes that’s even missing. This seems like a big mistake in the long run because it’s putting design and engagement before information, exploring, and play.

Tiana: How have you incorporated vastness into your work since writing

Elliott says:
Most of my energy after writing that essay went into building the cafe and Special Fish. More recently, I’ve taken a step back and have been trying to observe more. After putting so much time into making things on the web, I’ve been feeling like I want to put more energy into things happening off the web. Maybe this goes back to your question before about how websites can impact real lives. I’m not sure what this would look like for me or for HTML Energy but it’s fun to think about.

sunset with Citrus print overlay.

Final Thoughts

Tiana: Any recommendations for people just starting out with HTML or building servers?
Laurel says:
While it might make sense to delay, I actually think it’s important to start using real web servers as soon as possible to truly understand how to build a website that’s fully online, and not some “toy project.”

However, I also think it’s good to recognize that a website can still be a website even if it’s not publicly online, similar to how our HTML Energy guest Larissa Pham made her first websites at her grandparents’ house. Larissa said, “I got into coding websites because I wanted to make a fan site for this manga series. None of it ever went live, but I learned how to write everything in a a notepad file (like a text file) and just save it with the `.html` extension and open it in my local browser. So I would mock up websites that way. I would read source code from other people’s sites to learn how to do things.” So in other words, a website is just a set of files, and one of those files should be readable by a web-browser (like the extension `.html`)—and it could even live only on your computer and still be a website. Larissa shows that you can enjoy making a website that is only for you… it doesn’t have to go online.

It’s up to you whether or not to put your website online (that is, from your computer to a web-server). However, in my biased opinion, I think putting your website online, on a real web-server, is part of the essential magic of websites.

With my students and clients, I usually recommend people start with a basic paid host (which rents you web-server space) such as Nearly Free Speech. This service is very clear about how it charges you. There are also no year-long binding contracts… it’s kind of like a gas meter, you put in money and it gradually runs out. So you can truly calculate how much your site costs you per day, if you like. It allows for PHP, which is useful if you have a Wordpress, Kirby, or some dynamic content. On the other hand, I think Github Pages is a good route for small, static websites, and it’s technically free… although note it’s owned by Microsoft.

Tiana: What are your favorite websites right now?

http://volvoxvault.com https://pfw.guide http://cdxs.ist http://petals.network http://tombubul.info http://tombubul.info/tenets.html https://agbero.dev https://agbero.dev/w/rants/2019-04-13-whacky-idea-for-radical-wealth-redistribution.html https://motsuka.com https://solar.lowtechmagazine.com http://pketh.org https://kinopio.club https://larissapham.com https://lrsphm.github.io/poem-club https://www.marceldochamp.net http://website-with-the-sound-of-its-own-making.net https://pg.ucsd.edu https://pg.ucsd.edu/advice-for-first-year-PhD-students.htm https://netabomani.com https://www.ritu.online https://maskon.zone https://soundsaboutriso.online https://aidanquinlan.net https://aidanquinlan.net/sunday http://ursulakleguinarchive.com/UKL_info.html https://rsnous.com https://screenotate.com http://vg.pe.hu/jp "https://mel-nguyen.com https://winnielim.org https://www.kickscondor.com http://philosopher.life https://pond.computer http://jollo.org/LNT/home/fanfare https://coolguy.website https://solarpunk.cool https://text.npr.org http://lite.cnn.com/en http://mushinone.sakura.ne.jp/English/ENGindex.htm https://emotional.codes

Thank you to Elliott and Laurel for speaking with me about websites and all the wonderful things they can do.

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