There is No Web Page

There’s an oft-quoted scene in the movie The Matrix where a boy tells Neo—Keanu Reeves’ character—“There is no spoon.”

For those unfamiliar with The Matrix, the movie shows a world where reality is just a simulation…and our bodies are power sources for sentient machines. That last part—sentient machines…blah blah blah—isn’t quite on topic, but that first part is a perfect analogy for what I want to talk about.  These days, there is no web page, but many people don’t realize it.

So take the red pill (Matrix reference), pretend I’m Morpheus (Matrix reference), and I’ll show you the truth.

How Things Used to Be

A decade ago, websites were just sets of files organized into folders. Your “Mission Statement” page was saved to a file called mission.html. Your “Services” page was service.html. When a board revised the mission, a webmaster opened up mission.html, made a few changes and loaded the new file to the server. That worked to a point, but  it didn’t scale to hundreds of pages ((Though that didn’t stop people from doing it!)) and you had to know HTML to edit a website.

And so now we mostly use Content Management Systems (CMSes) like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla. These systems store the content for your Mission Statement and Services pages in a database instead of HTML files. The only files that we create and edit determine how content in the database should look. There is no file we can edit to control everything we see on a web page. ((This is admittedly a very cursory and rudimentary view of how a database-driven website works, but it’s enough for the purposes of this post.))

This list of HTML files from a 2006 website, has names that sound like web pages.
The Old Way: This list of HTML files from a 2006 website, has names that sound like web pages such as “Institutions,” “Sources,” “About,” and “Ideals.”

This list of PHP files has no content at all. It just tells WordPress how to display content stored in a database.
Now: This list of PHP files for a WordPress theme simply tells WordPress how to display content stored in a database (menus, titles, bodies, widgets, etc.), but not what that content  says.

A Lingering Mental Model

Yet despite the shift to CMSes, most people I train to manage websites seem to use the former mental model of individual files containing pages even though that’s no longer the case. When presented with a page like “Services,” they assume that they can edit everything they see in one place just like we used to edit just one HTML file.

The other likely reason this ideas persists comes from document editing software like Microsoft Word, Open Office., and even Google Docs. In those programs, what you edit on the screen looks like the printed page. With desktop publishing, there is a much more direct relationship between the information-inputting interface and the final product. ((The difference between desktop publishing and website management is even greater than I make it out to be here. A single website varies in appearance based on operating systems, browser, browser settings, computer monitor calibration, screen size, and more. This is the topic of a whole other post.))

How Things Are Now

Website management has grown more complex—and powerful and flexible—and it’s important that website editors learn to think about websites differently. Let’s look at an example. Here is a simple “About” page from the website I made for the Seattle Chapter of the Association for Women in Communication.

The "About" page of SeattleAWC.org, divided into editable regions.

 

This looks like a single “page” but is really a collection of information stored in many places:

  • Red – The body of the web page stored as a WordPress “Page.”
  • Green – The green sidebar appears on many pages of the side.
    • Orange – The sidebar has four widgets.
    • Purple – The first widget has three separate “Event” posts. Events have full descriptions and location information displayed on separate pages.
    • Yellow – The second widget has a news “Post.” Like Events, it shows a full story shown elsewhere on the site.
  • Blue – Pages, Posts, and Events can all have “Comments” stored and managed separately from the posts on which they appear.
  • Black – A “Testimonials” feature to display quotes at the bottom of each page. A “Testimonials” page also displays all the quotes entered on the site in one place.

There is no about.html. Looking at that page, I can think of nine different screens that one could visit to change content on that single web page above. ((And those nine screens would be: “About” Page edit screen, Widgets Management Screen, Events, [news] Posts, Testimonials, Menus, Comments, Social Media settings, and the Form management screen.))

When an editor logs into this site, there’s an “Edit” button displayed at the top of the page. However, that button only allows the editor to edit the body and title (red outline). That may seem like a hassle, but a system like this can scale up for a larger site. Additionally, content is easily reused elsewhere, including:

  • The menu is at the top of every page.
  • Events appear in a Calendar and in the sidebar.
  • News posts appear on a News page and in the sidebar.
  • Quotes appear on a comprehensive “Testimonials” page and  in the footer.

What This Means

This may seem convoluted. This may not make much sense yet. That’s fine. ((I plan to write about this more in the future and it’s a hard concept to grasp without experiencing first hand.)) Once grasped, this idea will give you powers you never knew you had: you’ll know website Kung Fu (Matrix reference).

What I want most is that people who manage websites drill this idea into their head: there is no web page. When you look at a page in a browser, there appears to be a singular web page, but to fully control what you see you have to abandon that idea and learn to think about many sources of information flowing together to create what you see on your monitor:

— Do not try and [edit the web page]. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth […which is that, in a modern Content Management System, each web page you see is the result of many sources of information flowing from a database onto your screen.]

— Then you’ll see, that it is not the [website that is edited], it is only yourself. [Ed. note: DEEP.]

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