Writing my own weblog CMS from scratch is, of course, lunacy. Consequently, I have been coming up with an elaborate justification for why the project is, at least, lunacy with a more respected real-world precedent. If you’re allergic to Internet metaphors look away… now.
More and more people these days have a home on the web. It’s not like the old days when the frontier was dotted with rickety encampments cobbled together out of discarded HTML 2 tags and animated gifs.
When I was first looking to make a home online, in 1995, I could only find three small places that offered free plots on which to build your own home. Even then, you had to learn how to construct it yourself. Everyone’s home was different and many were ugly (here’s a copy of mine, like a reconstruction behind glass in an anthropology museum, inhabited only by a Phil made of wax). The frontier was full of wierdos and pioneers and you could walk from one end of the country to another in a few clicks. But the folks back in the Old World of IRL didn’t yet “get it” and thought that anyone with a home on the web was a bit odd.
Jump forward to today and nearly all those people are here now. The frontier has kept moving, but the metropolis back east has reached the once wide-open spaces and the weirdos are outnumbered by the people who once pointed and laughed at the pioneers with their gerry-built homes.
Obviously, these newcomers, the normal folk, haven’t constructed their homes themselves out of raw materials. No one has to build their own home these days. Most people now live in the suburbs, the welcoming low-risk community of Facebook.
Sure, all the homes look pretty much the same, and the place is tightly controlled by the development company who can pretty much do what they like but, so long as they keep down crime and don’t change too much too quickly, everyone’s pretty happy and some rarely venture beyond the boundary. It’s a sociable kind of suburb and you’re allowed to customise your home to a certain extent — nothing too garish or personal, but fun little decorations that make your home your own.
Facebook’s not the only suburb of course. MySpace has declined somewhat and it’s a bit more lower class but it’s still going strong. The rules are laxer over there and it’s not to everyone’s taste: it’s like all the houses are decorated for a festival all year round.
Both Facebook and Myspace are a little folksy though, and you might be after something a little more professional. You’re not too bothered about customisation — you’re constantly on the move, you don’t have time to choose furnishings, and you only need the place occasionally.
Other popular communities have come and gone, each initially full of optimism. Some of them slide into neglect, leaving nothing behind but boarded up ghost towns.
Others will be levelled by their developers, cutting their losses, ignoring the wishes of the remaining residents and architectural historians who deplore this money-saving loss of culture.
Yet other communities, the first of their kind, the earliest homes for the masses, continue, loved by those who appreciate a certain kind of early charm.
While Facebook today seems like it will swallow up all developable land, in the future there will be new communities to replace or complement it. Some will never quite make it beyond the initial round of funding…
… but others will flourish into societies we can’t yet quite picture. We can try to imagine what they’ll be like, these future homes and towns, but we’ll often be a little wrong.
So these are the kinds of homes most people are happy with. Cul-de-sacs with standard plots and room to express themselves a little, but not enough to annoy the neighbours. You can move right in and not worry about having to do any work beyond a quick paint job.
This isn’t enough for some people though. They’re different, special, and want to live somewhere with a little “character”. The best option is to move in somewhere like WordPress.com. There’s not nearly as much community as in the Facebook suburbs, but for people who take their home a little more seriously, it’s a better choice. You can customise the place quite a bit, within certain limits, and if you pay a bit more you get even more control over the layout of your home. If you want something that expresses your modernist cool, your love of tradition and heritage, or your emo sensitivities you can probably do it at WordPress.com without even getting your hands dirty.
Increasingly though, some people seem to be finding these homes a bit over the top. While they want something more “them,” more individual, than Facebook’s blandness, they don’t want something as complicated and fussy as WordPress.com. They’re single, they go out a lot, and don’t have time to do much house-keeping, never mind extend their home beyond a splash of paint. And all those rooms! They only need a little place, something simple. Tumblr and Posterous are machines for blogging. Quick, efficient, and easy to make your own.
But what if you go the other way and want something more personal than WordPress.com? What if you want to extend the place and choose from a variety of extensions others have already made? Maybe even roll up your sleeves and completely customise how it works? And, most importantly, build on your own land? You don’t want to be at the mercy of development companies who provide you with a plot that’s never quite yours, that could be taken away from you at the first sign of a downturn or change of control.
For the homeowner who wants full control but doesn’t want to build their own home — they’re not lunatics — then a prefab is a good way to start. Movable Type or the self-hosted WordPress can, like any prefabricated home, function as perfectly fine homes from day one. Once delivered and set-up, no building work is required.
But if, or when, you do want to do your own thing, they’re a fine foundation to expand. You can even build separate homes for family and friends or, should the need arise, create a creditable home for an entire company. The result will often be unrecognisable from the original structure — I’ve rarely seen behind the scenes of a Movable Type home that hasn’t been stretched to breaking point in surprising new ways.
This comes at a price of course. It takes time and experience to make a good job of this. It’s easy to start tinkering with an initially solid home and, before you know it, the whole place has collapsed and you need to get the experts in to put the place back together. There are standards, building regulations, but out here, on your own plot of land, few laws as such. You need to know what you’re doing.
There may, however, come a point where extending a prefab home isn’t enough. Maybe you have your heart set on something that’s so different from the standard model that it’s easier to start from scratch. Maybe you’re an architect who wants to demonstrate your skills on your own home. Maybe you simply enjoy building, and customising an existing building only scratches that itch so much. Eventually you realise you have to build your own home.
You need to be a little crazy or, at least, driven by a dream to build your own home. You need time and energy and a vision of what you want to achieve. Your family and friends need to be understanding while you spend all your free time working away, one part at a time, learning new skills, making mistakes, inching towards your grand design.
You’re not entirely on your own of course. There are communities of people who have trodden the same path, experts in particular trades, who are able to offer advice. Books and websites are dedicated to helping the self-builder with tips and examples. Established patterns you can follow. It will take a long time, you’ll often wonder if it’s all worth the trouble but, if you make it to the end you’ll be very pleased with your unique home. It’ll be unlike anyone else’s and will show the world you’re special.
Then there are more downsides. Your self-build home will probably require a lot of upkeep. Things will need fixing. There will be parts you wish you’d done differently. But you can’t fix them because they’re too embedded in the structure to change now.
Eventually some self-builders will start getting the itch again. Maybe next time they could do it properly. They’ll begin investigating new techniques and styles, maybe joking about the idea with friends to test the water and, eventually, the foundations will be dug…
Which is perhaps one reason why many professionals, people who are capable of building their own home, don’t bother. They know it’s an all-consuming passion and they’re too busy demonstrating their skills in a professional capacity. They might have an online home somewhere, something they put together years ago out of now outdated materials. It still serves as a home, they’ll still give people the address, but the place is rarely tended and, if you look closely, there’s Perl hanging out of the walls.