RE: Static Site Generators

Easier to use depends on who you ask, doesn’t it?

Mon, 15 Aug 2022

Kev Quirk is of the opinion that it’s hard to manage content with a static site generator, therefore WordPress is better. I’m not entirely sold, but he makes some valid points:

Let’s consider Jekyll as a case in point. If you already have a functioning Ruby environment and you’re already using Ruby gems and bundler, then installing and running Jekyll isn’t a big deal. If you’ve got to set up a Ruby environment before you can even install, configure, and run Jekyll you’re gonna have a bad time.

Kev also references a post by Florens Verschelde from 2018 about static site generators being terrible at content management.

Static site generators are elegant on principle, but are not designed to deal with content more complex than a handful of pages and a list of blog posts. And I’m not talking about the speed of building hundreds of pages or more (Jekyll is notoriously slow, Hugo is fast), but the sheer ability to use content however you want.

Florens isn’t wrong here. Nor is he wrong about this, even though his wish list for a better CMS would only make sense to other developers.

When I’ve used static site generators in the past ten years, there were a few pain points like lacking documentation and strange and incompatible conventions. But the nail in the coffin was always that it’s either impossible or way too hard to build a single page from several pieces of content.

However, I’m not convinced that existing content management systems are much better. Admittedly, the only major CMS with which I’m familiar is WordPress. It’s supposed to be easier for users, but I don’t believe that’s the case. If Automattic wasn’t providing hosting for WordPress, and if hosts like Dreamhost didn’t provide hosting for DIYers with a one-click install, would people who have trouble working a command line interface be able to install WordPress themselves?

I think Kev has similar blind spots regarding WordPress that he accuses SSG fans of having with their preferred approachi, because he is familiar with and happy with WordPress. I think he’s forgetting that WordPress is easier than a SSG if all you have to do to get it running and keep it updated is click a few buttons and be careful about which plugins and themes you install.

Knowing how to safely run a WordPress installation (as in without getting easily pwned) is something a sysadmin or developer can reasonably be expected to know or be able to figure out. Most would-be bloggers don’t also want to be sysadmins or developers.1

If you’re wondering why the Web is fucked, I think it’s because if you want to fully participate by having your own website, you’re eventually going to have to become your own sysadmin, a developer, or both. The Web was made by UNIX people, for UNIX people, and most people for whatever reason don’t want to deal with UNIX.

I don’t mind dicking around with shell scripts, makefiles, and command-line tools like pandoc and xsltproc to build this website because I’m nucking futs2. Compared to the headaches I deal with at my day job3, this is practically a vacation.

Most writers, artists, musicians, etc. aren’t going to become techies in order to participate in the Web as first-class citizens with their own websites because they don’t want to. Nor will people who just want to argue with strangers about the latest sociopolitical cause celebre. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter if WordPress is “easier to use” than a SSG; most people would rather just use Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit if they write, or post images and video to Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, or TikTok.

These data harvesting tools don’t require computer literacy or much from their products in the way of technical prowess by design, and the people who think they’re using these apps and either don’t realize or don’t care that they’re being used are fine with that.

Most people aren’t even minimum viable users for WordPress, let alone static site generators. This is especially the case now that Automattic has decided to turn WordPress into a site-builder app like SquareSpace or Wix4. According to OECD research in 2016, 26% of the adults they tested can’t use a computer.

I have no idea how to fix that, but unless we do both static site generators and content management systems like WordPress are going to be inaccessible to the vast majority of people. As long as that remains the case there will remain a market for the likes of Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, Substack, Medium, etc.

  1. And I don’t blame them. I only do it because it pays better than scrubbing toilets in supermarkets.↩︎

  2. I’m still not clear on whether mental illness is an occupational hazard for techies or a prerequisite for becoming one.↩︎

  3. For my sins, I’m a web developer using Microsoft tech and the JavaScript framework du jour.↩︎

  4. I understand that there are a good many people who like Gutenberg and the block editor, and that is fine. I’m just not one of them. Let people dislike things.↩︎