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« Big Art/Short Fiction | Main | Elsewhere »

January 29, 2005

Squarespace

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

God knows that my musings about the Web don't deserve to be listened to. But there's one thing about life online that has really taken me by surprise. I wonder if it's hit others the same way. It's that websites that are static seem dead.

When I first started paying attention to the Web, I assumed that, despite their links and their accessibility, websites would generally be like books -- locked-down things, if more transparent and sparkly than paper-based mediathings are. And how great to have all these book-like entities out there to explore, eh? On I surfed, scarfing up information.

But as I surfed, I started to notice that I was going back to some sites again and again, while many other sites I'd visit once and then never return to. Why was this so?

The reason, it finally occurred to me, was simple: something was ongoing at some of the websites, while at the ones I'd seldom revisit nothing was happening. No reason a website shouldn't be a more-or-less static reference source, of course. And thank heavens for the zillions of good ones out there. But thank heavens as well for the websites that are what I now think of as "Event Websites."

A website seems alive when something's going on there. The brilliant thing about blogs is that the technology makes maintaining an Event Website easy to do. A blog isn't just a bunch of stuff that's been deposited on the Web. It's ongoing commentary; it's performance art; it's a place where people drop by and hang out.

While traditional writing tends to put the writer in the position of someone lecturing an audience, as a blogger I often feel more like a cafe owner or party host. I'm not talking at people; instead, I'm sponsoring a conversation. (A much more agreeable position to be in, as far as I'm concerned.) A blog is the most existential of all forms of weblife: if a blog isn't updated and monkeyed-around with, no one visits -- which, in blog terms, means death.

Another benefit of blog technology is that a blog is so simple to operate that it can be run by people whose primary preoccupation isn't technology. Pre-blog Event Websites were so dependent on techno-expertise that a problem arose: the only people who could maintain Event Websites either 1) had the money to pay a team of webmasters, or 2) had the expertise to maintain a site themselves. Which in practice meant that Event Websites were nearly all either commercial sites or sites devoted to the topic of computer technology.

Now, thanks to blogging software, even non-rich non-techies like the Blowhards can sustain a lively web presence. (With only the occasional panicky call to our webhost's Help Desk, or to Daniel, our wonderful blog-guy.) But blogs, however liberating, are also rather odd things. As websites, they're lively but they're also very limited. A blog offers one scrolling page, the means for visitors to join in the conversation, automatic archiving ... And not much else.

A high price is paid in terms of scale and scope for the sake of Event usability, in other words. Forgive me if I'm being obvious here, but this is something that it took me a while to understand: the reason a blog is such an EZ-to-use thing is that it has been so very crippled in terms of its website capabilities.

The fact is that a blog's limitations can be frustrating. An example: how and where do you stash material that you want to make available long-term in an accessible way? I'm apparently not the only person who feels these frustrations. Typepad, for example, has done its best to expand their blogs' repertory of possible behaviors, making it easy for bloggers to put up photo albums. I've noticed that a few non-Typepad bloggers (Collected Miscellany, Gerard Van der Leun) have tacked some extra features onto their blogs too.

But still, a blog is a blog, with that one scrolling page as its centerpiece. And blogculture, much as I love taking part in it both as surfer and blogger, can get to be frantic: all that posting; all that commenting, cross-referencing, and linking.

What to do, what to do? Once I understood that a blog is a crippled website, I started wondering -- as I'm sure many have -- well, why shouldn't someone create a technology-suite that's as easy for a techno-weenie to manage as blog-tech is, but that enables said weenie to run a multifaceted Event Website? Not software that allows you to heave a website out there only to watch it die, but software that stays by your side, helping you to maintain an ongoing and happening Event?

So I poked around. CityDesk looked promising. Joel Sapolsky, the guy behind CityDesk, is a computer-usability guru -- my man! And CityDesk's concept seemed clean enough for an old-media brain like mine to wrap itself around. But no, finally. Sapolsky seems to have lost interest in his software, which evidently remains buggy. And he never addressed a key question: who's gonna host your website? Blogging may be a snap, but a lot of what accompanies the setting-up of a blog -- finding a webhost, getting your files onto it, obtaining domain names -- can be a nightmare. Why should I be expected to know what a "DNS" is? (Hence Blogger and Typepad.) I even spent some time trying to get a grip on how Dreamweaver works. Verdict: Dreamweaver's a great product for people whose primary interest in life is interacting with computers.

Then, a few nights ago, I stumbled across Squarespace. Have you heard anything about it? I suspect Squarespace may be the perfect Event-Website-making technology for technoweenies -- "perfect" here being understood to mean "non-perfect, of course, but in a good way."

Although I've monkeyed with Squarespace for only a couple of hours, I've already managed to create a small website. It isn't just a sample file on my computer; it's actually out on the Web, offering itself up to the passing hordes as a website ought to. Get this: modest and almost-empty though my little website is, it has a blog, it has a photo gallery, and it has multiple pages of text. Get this too: all of these features and pages can be easily messed with. And by me!

I am my own webmaster.

From a user's point of view, the best thing about Squarespace may be that you do most of your website-making directly on your website. Squarespace supplies everything: hosting, servers, software, templates, etc. All you need is a computer that connects to the Web.

You can get into the guts of your Squarespace website from any computer that goes online. First you sign up for the service. (Squarespace offers a free month to try the service out.) Once you're inside Squarespace, you'll want to run your eyes over the instructions, tips, and demos. But it won't be long before you'll start creating a real-live website. Did you make a goof? No biggee: corrections are a simple matter. Do you already feel the need to update or revise? Making revisions easy is a Squarespace specialty.

Squarespace is Blogger or Typepad, in other words, but for making and maintaining entire Event Websites. Another comparison, although I may be overstating matters: Squarespace is to Event-Website-making what the word processor is to writing.

So far I've run into only a few glitches. One example: the blog that Squarespace creates for your website, while perfectly serviceable, seems to be almost defenseless against spam-comments. Horrors! On the other hand, the standard Squarespace blog enables you to accept comments only from people to whom you've granted permissions. Another small glitch: Squarespace doesn't play happily with IE in Mac OS9, which is what The Wife and I use at home. (No laughter, please. We know that it's time to upgrade.) But anyone with a newer operating system and a better browser should do fine.

Minor stuff. Techno-whizzes and Flash jockeys will no doubt find Squarespace 'way too poky for their tastes, although I understand that Those Who Know How can customize a Squarespace website to a fare-thee-well. But for techno-bozos such as I? Judging from what I've seen so far, I'd say it's time for us to break out the champagne.

Squarespace is full of thoughtful features. One I like a lot is this: it's possible to make parts of your website accessible to everyone, while reserving other parts for a select few visitors. I love imagining what I'll do with this feature. Perhaps I'll publish some writing about movies for the masses to read, while setting aside some personal material for family and buds.

The cost of the service is comparable to what Typepad charges: from $7 to $17 a month. I've signed up myself, and am having a good time heaving material onto my website. I expect that Squarespace will simplify and centralize some of my straggly Web activities. I've put photos up on some of the photo-sharing sites, for instance. (This is a good photo-sharing site; so's this; and so's this.) But I expect to be doing any future photo-sharing on my Squarespace site.

Caveat emptor, of course. I've only messed with the service for a couple of days. And it's probably fair to say that, at the moment, I'm feeling a little deranged in that crack-cocaine way that new digital possibilities seem to promote. So beware my judgment. Needless to say, if my evaluation of Squarespace needs correcting, I'm eager to hear about it.

Still! You know how what's great about the Gap and Banana Republic is that they enable those of us with no fashion gift, no fashion interest, and no fashion training to get by in an inexpensive and reasonably attractive way? They have made dressing-attractively possible for non-specialists. Well, Squarespace may be to Event-Website-running what the Gap and Banana Republic are to clothing: both very easy and good enough.

The advent of places like Squarespace does make me feel concern for techno-freelancers. Blogger and Typepad must have taken lots of business away from the tech-savvy designers who help people put up blogs. And I imagine that Squarespace (and the competitors it should attract) will have the same impact on the getting-a-website-up biz generally. Many may dream of indulging in some fancy Web tomfoolery -- Flash, video, sound. I know I certainly do. But I suspect that many of these dreamers will find themselves happy enough to forgo their unrealizable fantasies of high-end carrying-on for a reality that includes an easy and cheap way to publish, blog, and show off pictures.

My one big worry: is Squarepace a going concern as a business? I sure hope so. How disappointing it would be for someone who's taken the time to create a substantial Event Website if the business underlying it were to die.

The brilliant and resourceful mind behind Squarespace belongs to Anthony Casalena, a 22-year-old who first put the concept and the software together when he was a 20-year-old junior at the University of Maryland. Here's a Washington Post visit with Anthony.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at January 29, 2005




Comments

Look at ecto (which is available for Mac OS X and Windows) plus Moveable Type. All of my favorite sites (and all of the best-looking ones) use MT and Ecto makes blogging absurdly easy.

Posted by: j on January 29, 2005 06:07 PM



After serving 12 years in the Big House, I would have thought your crack-cocaine days were passed?

;-)

Thanks for doing the homework for me...again!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on January 29, 2005 06:15 PM



I'm working on something like this right now for version 2.0 of SimplyBuilding.net. The idea is a bit of a salon based on a monthly/bimonthly architectural topic, for instance "Natural building materials". Each topic gets its own homepage. Users will be able to do things like: participate in forums, submit longer-format articles for publication, upload photos/images related to the topic into one big gallery, add Web links related to the topic into one big list.... Maybe even add some hip stuff like poetry submissions, live design sessions with the online sketch tool, etc. Be interested to hear what the architecturally-inclined think of the idea. My goal is to give people a soapbox to describe in as many ways as possible the physical environment they'd like to live in. By defining the topic sharply each month, it will hopefully invite participation and provide focus; create, as you say, an event.

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on January 29, 2005 07:31 PM




Not surprisingly, my effective philosophy is the opposite of yours. I lecture the audience in static articles. Even though my new site has comments, people hardly ever comment unless someone else links a story.

Awhile back you kindly hinted that I might preach less, but it doesn't seem to be in my nature.

I don't actually disagree with you at all, I'm just using the web differently -- to self-publish stuff I can't get anyone else to publish. Freedom of the press is now for anyone with a connected computer who can spare about $10-30 / month.

I still get about 330 visits a day on my old site which hasn't been updated for nine months. Many fewer on my new site, but it's not timely either. I'm already #1 on Google on several obscure topics.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 30, 2005 02:02 PM



Rob, your idea is interesting, but who's your intended target audience? Architects and designers or laymen?
Cudos to you for trying to give the silent majority a place to express their dreams. The only doubt I have (after years of communicating with unarticulative clients, deciphering their personal code-speak into material specifics) that, even given sketch tools, it is very difficult for unprepared person to translate their inner vague idea into coherent visual image.
On the other hand, I'd love to participate in your architects/designers salon. It is quite rare, in my opinion, in this field to meet people willing to engage in non-hierarchical conversation - mostly the mode is either monologous lecturing or discussion of secondary and tertiary topics.

Do you have architectural background?

Posted by: Tatyana on January 30, 2005 03:28 PM



Tatyana,

The audience for SB.net is Everyone. I realize most architects would rather not hang out somewhere the commoners do, and the layperson may be intimidated to hang out where architects do, but I'd like to foster a bridge by giving people lots of different ways to contribute and providing a nonthreatening 'environment'.

In addition to the participatory spirit, I'm interested in the format in terms of organizing information. What I love about 2blowhards is the constant stream of culture recommendations. But the blog/forum format tends to bury this stuff pretty quickly. Browsing by category seems to me only a partial solution: 1) The balance between too many and too few categories is tough to strike 2) I think we're really interested in topics, not categories. One of my favorite topics to follow here is the American infatuation with adolescence, which we get bits and pieces of in all those categories, so it's scattered, especially if you're not following the conversation closely. If you had a salon topic "Kids these days" (as it says in the site description), this would be a place to keep links to all the adolescence-related Web articles, a list of books on the topic, your own thoughts in long or short format (with comments), maybe a list of movies or TV shows where people act like they're 12, a place for articles or interviews from experts in the field to throw in their 2 cents (and plug their own book), a collage of remarkably stupid, childish things we hear people say during the day and can't wait to tell one another, a photo gallery of 30-somethings wearing Disney clothing, etc.

Hopefully this topical salon format will create a lively monthly event and also an organized, accessible collection of interesting topics that invites revisiting and renewal. Glad to get one vote, the first salon should be together in a few weeks.

Architecture isn't so much my background as foreground; I'm going back to school for it soon. My professional background's in Internet marketing/advertising/design/etc. in various real estate capacities.

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on January 30, 2005 09:14 PM



Correction: Joel Spolsky

Posted by: Toby on January 30, 2005 10:20 PM



Lordy, get rid of that Spam. It's like a big old wart.

Posted by: onetwothree on January 30, 2005 11:40 PM



You may want to look further into the specs of the plans they offer.

Even at the most expensive "personal" plans - $17 per month - they only offer 300 Mb web space and 4 Gb traffic per month.

And I notice there is no mention of what type database they use/offer or if there are any size restrictions on database size.

Looking at the "business" plans they offer at most - for $30 per month - 600 Mb of web space and 10 Gb of traffic.

I took a quick look at some of their example sites and while they may offer point and click site building there are often no search engine friendly meta tags.

Seeing as how it is geared towards point and click site design it is geared to working with various templates. Sure, you can change the colours and insert pictures but if you really wanted total control over how things look and function then you would not need templates.

A site such as this hosted by squarespace could easily become very expensive.

If you want to expand the interactive abilities of this site, just let me know.

Posted by: daniel on January 31, 2005 03:30 AM



Daniel,

To address your concerns, you seem to be evaluating Squarespace as you would a standard web host (and not as an application), which is why you're looking for "Databases" and other sorts of developer things.

There is no database offered, and you can not host your own code on Squarespace -- this is because you are purchasing a solution for a consumer, as opposed to an open ended solution for a developer. That said, there are a large number of developers on the system, and many prefer it for their publishing needs due to the flexibility offered by the templating system, and the wide array of features. Squarespace is a publishing platform.

"Search engine friendly" site-wide meta tags can be integrated on a per-site basis rather easily, as individuals have access to their code-generating templates, and per-entry tags may appear due to popular request (although I have no proof that these are not an artifact of the 90s -- over exploited and no longer used). Squarespace, however, does structure your site using extremely clean markup, allowing for search engines to index your site with ease. For example, we got hits from individuals on search engines finding our blog within just a few days of linking it from the front site -- meta tags or not. Movable Type also does not offer per-entry meta tag support as far as I know.

As far as how expensive a site hosted using Squarespace could become, we generally considered extremely inexpensive, as the cost for a developer to develop most of the features that Squarespace clients are given would cost into the thousands, especially considering all of the functions offered are integrated into one site, and offer a unified interface that is manageable by the client.

In terms of pure resources, the only situation where Squarespace may fall short is hosting raw, large media files. Our plans currently fit the needs of most of our clients without any need for bandwidth or storage upgrades. This site, for example, would most likely fit easily within the constraints of any of the advanced plans provided.

To address the commenter who commented about Ecto, we support that client as well (and all other XML-RPC blogging clients). Ecto is not mutually exclusive with Squarespace. A blog is only a piece of a Squarespace site.

Hope this clarifies things. Thanks!

Posted by: A. Casalena on January 31, 2005 05:35 AM



If you are offering modules for blogs, discussion forums, image galleries, journals, etc... then your sites are running on databases. You are just not providing your customers direct access to them.

Or, as the sites grow larger and larger with added content the dynamic portions would slow down incredibly.

And while meta-tags have been abused, they are not, as you say, an artifact of the '90's, but are a part of an overall strategy along with getting reciprocal links and using keywords intelligently to getting out there on the search engines.

Just for curiosity - what are your charges for when a site passes its alotted bandwidth?

While your service may appeal to those who wish to, as Michael put it, be their own webmaster with minimum fuss, it does place limits on what you can do with the site - limited by the templates and how much you can alter them, limited by the modules that you offer and the inability to "run your own code" - I take it that you are referring to third party scripts - to further expand the range of dynamic portions of the site.

For total control over every aspect of one's own site, I would still recommend a regular web host, in which the space is yours to do with what you will.

Best of luck in your endeavour.

Posted by: daniel on January 31, 2005 06:16 PM



Daniel,

I totally agree -- we might be talking past each other a bit.

If you want access to databases, and you want to install scripts and write code on your server -- Squarespace is _not_ the platform for you. If you don't want to do any of that, and want a publishing package delivered to you with no worries or hassles, Squarespace is exactly what you want.

There is no replacement for the infinite amount of things you can do with your own code and your own system. It's just that 95% of the people who want to speak on the web don't want to touch that stuff.

As for bandwidth overages, it's $1/gb/month -- which is higher than some, lower than some, and equal to some. We ignore most overages. The point, though, is that Squarespace can save hours (weeks?) of someoneís time who wanted to publish but not worry about more. Developers aren't the intended audience, though we do have some stuff planned for them (us?) as well.

Hope this helps!

Posted by: A. Casalena on February 1, 2005 10:01 AM






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