June 12, 2022 Crayons, craft paper, and CSS

A few things came across my desk this week that inspired hope about the future of the web and hypermedia as a medium.

No matter whether you consider yourself technical or not, it has never been easier to be creative with web technologies. Even the pain of setting up a local development environment has been abstracted away by code-in-the browser apps.

Why, then, have we not seen more people using the web as you might expect a layperson use a spreadsheet to assist with a myriad of tasks? The web goes far beyond just letting us organize and process information, it also lets us architect our own little palaces in the ether. It leaves space not just for data and numbers, but for our imaginations and interests.

Cristóbal Sciutto published an essay this past week about using the browser and the filesystem to visualize local media, and why others might want to build their own media environments. He calls these folk interfaces:

I think of these as folk interfaces, akin to the jigs one makes in wood-working. Divorced from grandiose ambitions of building comprehensive systems, it leads the programmer to directly engage with data. I hope this mode can paint the picture of software, not as a teleological instrument careening towards automation and ease, but as a medium for intimacy with the matter of our time (images, audio, video), yielding a sense of agency with what, to most, feels like an indelible substrate.

Folk (Browser) Interfaces

The spreadsheet might lend us the wonders of automation, but the web has romance. It lets us connect with what Cristóbal calls the “matter of our time” in a way that is much more human.

We’ve put the web in the hands of nearly everyone in society, but we’ve spent a depressingly small amount of time helping folks use the web as a building material.


If we want to empower the average web user to harness the power of the tools at their fingertips, it makes sense that we would start teaching the basic skills needed at a young age.

On that note, someone started an interesting thread on Hacker News this past week: Is there a site popular with Gen Z where users can write HTML and CSS?

In the 90’s, a number of teenagers made Geocities sites, which awakened their interest in web development and taught them some basics of HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Many of these teens went on to become web developers. […] Later still, many teenagers learned these skills customizing their Tumblr.

Ah, this had me reminiscing of many late hours spent hacking in the Tumblr theme editor.

There is some interesting discussion in the thread about how approachable mature technologies can even be to the uninitiated:

It’s probably disappointing to see the path so many of us took closing up behind us, but to some extent is a normal process for a maturing profession. There aren’t really accessible DIY paths to auto mechanic, aviator, architect, or lawyer either, though there once were.

I think that this is one of the great challenges we face as the web matures. If we don’t maintain accessible DIY paths as a point of order, we’ll lose the spirit of what has made the texture of the web that we know today.

Building the web is better compared not to auto mechanics and architects, but to painters and artists. You don’t need to make painting your profession to enjoy it as a method of self expression, and the same holds true of the web and any other creative medium.

Art class in middle school should have days focused on CSS.


Finally, an example of something being done to keep this kind of folklore alive for the generations to come. Figma and Google announced a partnership whereby students using Chromebooks will have free access to Figma.

Access is core to Figma’s mission. By partnering with the Chromebook team, we are able to use our web-based roots to deliver collaborative design software to more students and educators inside and outside of the classroom.

Figma education beta

This warms my heart in a way that is unusual considering Google is involved.

Figma is a powerful tool that, importantly, is made of the web. There’s quite a lot that a middle school Chase could have imagined up with an infinite, scriptable canvas like Figma.

When it comes to discovering the expressiveness of the web, Figma is a powerful gateway drug.