I, Website

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Chris Coyier on (Updated on )

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There is a famous essay by Leonard E. Read called “I, Pencil“. This is a homage to that.

I am a website — the ordinary website familiar to all people who use the internet.

Presenting information is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery — more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash drive. But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, as a wise man observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

I, Website, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me — no, that’s too much to ask of anyone — if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because — well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when it is realized that there are about 300 million of my kind produced each year.

Load me and look me over. What do you see? There’s some text, some images, a logo, navigation, perhaps a form, perhaps other media like video or audio.

Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is it impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents. But I would like to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the richness and complexity of my background.

My family tree begins with what is in fact typography. Pure letterforms coming together as a system to communicate messages, born from the desire to mass produce books as early as the 15th century. Typography has had a long road since then, only in very recent history manifesting as pixels on a screen. The people involved in that process are too numerable to mention. The thought behind it immeasurable. The culmination of skillsets massive. The tools used countless. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the designers drink!

How are these words delivered to you? Massive networks of wires! Fiber-optic undersea cables line all the oceans and seas and grip the Earth like a hairnet. A single cable crossing an ocean costs hundreds of millions of dollars to install. Imagine the slowly plodding boats, embedding these cables into the seabeds. Who captains these vessels? Who turns the crank releasing more cable to the depths. Who prepares the pork and beans? Who scrapes the barnacles from the boats hull? These legions are among my antecedents.

Don’t overlook what powers these lines. Perhaps we shall thank Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm. Nod to Thomas Edison for his practical light bulb, making it ever-so-desirable to wire up this world. Light bulbs, no doubt, brightening the sketchbooks of every subsequent inventor. A high five to Alexander Graham Bell is due, for passing the first information along those wondrous wires.

As I travel through our enormous wires, so too I travel through enormous computers. The internet’s “core routers”—$1,000,000 or more in engineering and construction—are among the most powerful, capable, and expensive machines on the planet. Not to mention temporary. The rapid increase in demand for speed ensures a core router today isn’t a core router a decade from now.

What is it exactly that travels this network? My foundation is the ubiquitous Hypertext Transfer Protocol. If the computers of the world are to talk to one another, they need to agree on how. For that we can thank the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium. We could thank those who planned those meetings. The cabbies who brought them together. The bartenders who were certainly… involved.

Bask in a traceroute, a pale visualization of a journey through our vast network.

traceroute to example.com (, 64 hops max, 40 byte packets
1 (  1.000 ms  0.739 ms  0.702 ms
2 (  0.683 ms  0.385 ms  0.315 ms
3 (  0.791 ms  0.703 ms  0.686 ms
4 (  1.430 ms  1.310 ms  1.063 ms
5 (  2.652 ms  2.260 ms  5.353 ms
6  acmkokeaig.gs01.gridserver.com (  3.384 ms  8.001 ms  2.439 ms

We should remember Tim Berners-Lee, excuse me, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, a man knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his pioneering work on the web. He was the first to implement Hypertext Transfer Protocol ever (the father of the web, we could easily say), and presides as director of the World Wide Web Consortium to this day, a team of some 70-odd people standardizing how I should work and my future.

My building blocks, while limitlessly complex, are few. Hyper Text Markup Language is my body. Cascading Style Sheets are my clothes. JavaScript is there for the version of me that breathe. All are similar, but no two of me are quite the same.

There are vast seas of practitioners specializing in the creation of me, each unique in their skills. One Front End Developer may be a master of my HTML and CSS. Carefully arranging a beautiful system to not just create me, but a system in which many more of me can be created efficiently. Another Front End Developer may be deeply focused on JavaScript, making me sing with glorious interactivity, but whose CSS skills leave something to be desired. Another developer may focus their skills on how to make me accessible to all others who may need me.

While HTML is my body, my bones, the very creation of it may pieced together by other practitioners. The keepers of data. The masters of the back end. Not to mention the artists who consider my colors, my feel, my gestalt. Not to mention the researchers who guard the usability of the site. Not to mention the managers who align the teams. The operators whose job it is to make me fast and keep my healthy. The steerers of ships. The people whose job is it to help people find me, use me, love me.

To be sure, I change over time. Oh, the places I’ll go. Right now, I’m lounging on a laptop screen at a coffee shop in Istanbul. In a moment I’ll grace the screen of a phone in Seattle. The afternoon I have an appointment on a television in Tokyo followed by a watch in Berlin. Fortunately, I’m built to travel. I’m an open format, after all. How the world chooses to digest me is up to it. I speak an open protocol. I am an entity. I am a Uniform Resource Locator.

Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me? Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others.

An astounding fact: I have no master mind. No one person dictates or forcibly directs the countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found.

I, Website, am a complex combination of miracles.

The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. I, Website, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony.