WRITING / Building a new website

PUBLISHED: 10.03.2021

805 words — 4 mins

Building a new website

It‘s been some time since I last updated my website or even published something on it. With platforms such as Medium, Substack and Revue taking over so much of the written indie-web, I didn’t see the need to take care of my own digital space.

But things change. Thought I will still use Revue extensively to write and publish my (German) newsletter, I wanted to take a step back from Medium. Medium is a seductive place. It‘s easy to use, has an in-build audience and you might even earn some money on the platform. (I earned at least enough to buy myself a cup of coffee this year.) So why change? Why not build my own digital place?

Well, there are a couple of reasons.

  1. For control—I want to have complete control over the things I publish; from design to format. Also f#ck the monopoly-platform-play.
  2. To learn—A rather obvious one, but I wanted to challenge myself again.
  3. To build—My job mostly happens inside Google Docs, over a cup of coffee and through lots and lots of talking. I like it that way, but I wanted to get my hands at least somewhat dirty and build something again for a change.

And with more time on my hand, than I would have liked (thanks Covid-19), I decided to finally tackle this project.

From the start I knew, I wanted a couple of things my website should do:

  • A place to publish blog posts
  • A place that works as a portfolio for my projects
  • A digital garden (I get to that in a minute)

↳ The Money Shot

The Stack

In the end, my choice fell on Github Pages as a quick and easy platform after being inspired to check it out by Tom Critchlow’s piece on his digital garden (yes, yes… let me finish here).

Github Pages uses a programing language called Jekyll to weave together blocks of HTML, Markdown and CSS to static pages. So, it‘s not fancy and quite bare-bones, but it has a couple of neat upsides for me and my workflow:

  • I have been using Ulysses for some time now to collect my notes and write articles. Jekyll allows me to keep the workflow and just push slightly changed markdown files onto Github.
  • Jekyll also uses folders and files instead of other more opaque databases. So the whole site is extremely portable and backup-able. At the moment the whole side exists as a somewhat offline backup on my Google Drive. And I can simply push an update via Git to the online version. Neat and simple, once you get the hang of it.
  • It also allows me to build custom designs and layouts. Jekyll is quite flexible which means I can do lots of hard-coded manipulations and tweaks on the go, once you‘ve set up your templates.
  • Also: I hate the Wordpress editor with a passion.

Planting a Digital Garden

Okay, what‘s a digital garden? To be concise, a digital garden is a collection of public notes1. It works similar to a personal wiki, where I can build on ideas while also being able to reference them quickly through links. Or as Tom Crithlow describes it:

It’s a less-performative version of blogging – more of a captain’s log than a broadcast blog. The distinction will come down to how you blog – some people blog in much the same way. For me, however, blogging is mostly performative thinking and less captain’s log. So I am looking for a space to nurture, edit in real-time and evolve my thinking.

Again I looked a Tom‘s own digital garden for inspiration and lifted some of his Jekyll code from his Github, as well. (Sorry, Tom!)

It works again by using HTML and markdown files in folders, sorted by topic. The code loops through every single folder and collects the content on the main wiki page, as well as every topic page. Jekyll also creates a page for every note in the folder, which means I can simply link to single notes via URL. You can check out my garden here.

So, if I want to update a file, I can simply jump into Ulysses, edit the content and then push the updated file back onto Github. No need for a complex and slow backend. Yes Wordpress, I am looking at you.

So yes. Here we are. New website, new system, lots of room to play.

  1. If you‘d like to read more, Patrick Tanguay published a great overview on the different approaches and idaes behind digital gardens