The basic concept of Zonelets is that the structure of the modern internet discourages the simple, empowering creativity of ordinary people. If you want to express yourself on the internet, you will likely be funneled into one of two camps: social media—where you are the product sold to advertisers and the platform reaps the benefits of your interactions—or commercial blogs/site builders—where you pay for a company to handle the seemingly insurmountable tasks of web development. Wordpress.org, being free and open source, bucks this trend—to great renown! But it's clunky and over-featured for a small blog, and you'll still need to purchase a domain name and web hosting.
Zonelets strips away all the bells and whistles. It simply blogs. As a result, the code itself is beginner-friendly and approachable. In conjunction with Neocities.org, the whole process is free and should feel familiar to anyone who has navigated Google Docs or Facebook.
That's the short version! A more specific version full of musings continues below. Note that it's neither authoritative nor necessary to read/understand for using Zonelets.
The Long Journey
This is a big topic, and you can find numerous articles comparing different services and types of services. I'll mainly focus on why you may or may not want to use these methods specifically for simple personal websites and blogs. It was never my first instinct to create a blogging system, I tried tons of services looking for something that would suit my needs and preferences. This page essentially chronicles that journey.
If you've looked into blogging, you've probably heard of Wordpress, which is the most-used blogging platform. Confusingly, there are two different services, Wordpress.org and Wordpress.com. I'm talking about Wordpress.org which is what most people prefer and are talking about when they say Wordpress.
- Pro: Wordpress has lots of plug-ins and themes, so if you want some special feature you can probably find it (you may have to pay).
- Pro: A lot of people use it, so presumably there are an abundance of guides and question/answer type stuff all over the internet related to using Wordpress.
- Con: Wordpress is not really the best fit for a small personal blog. Setup is more advanced and you need to purchase your own web hosting and domain name. There is simply more going on here than you really need.
- Con: Anecdotally, I and other friends who have used Wordpress simply have found the experience clunky and unfun, even though it technically has good features.
I believe Blogger is the 2nd most popular blogging platform. From what I've seen it's the easiest, most all-in-one, free blogging system. Yes, even easier than Zonelets haha... but not by much!
- Pro: No ads, despite being free.
- Pro: Really fast to get started with. It's owned by Google, so if you use Gmail you can just get going with it right away.
- Con: It's owned by Google. Basically the reason it's free with no ads is because Google owns everything and can just have stuff that doesn't make money floating around. It's convenient and I use Google services, but any tech company of this scale is going to have troubling effects on the world, and Google is no exception.
- Con: Blogger is not really updated anymore, and its future is unclear. Google hasn't focused on it in years and many people seem to have gone elsewhere, even though for now it totally works. Google has abruptly shuttered various other services in the past.
Website Builders like Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly
I haven't used these that much but they seem okay for what they are. They are simple to operate! The themes tend to feel kinda generically pleasant and professional. Weebly and Wix display ads for themselves if you use their free options. But basically they are paid services more suited to a small business website in need of specific things like online shopping carts, etc. You could personal blog with them, but from what I can tell, most of the people doing that are influencer/career type bloggers rather than people who just want to put some words online.
Medium is a weird one. I've used it and it works fine, but I've always found it to be a bit uncanny. Reading blog posts on Medium feels like you are reading articles published by some sort of magazine called Medium. Which is not the case at all, it's just random people. Companies can also use Medium so it's like branded as both Medium and the company... but still looks like Medium? This all makes it very weird and confusing for the reader to parse the context of the text. This is equally bad for the author, who may find it difficult to feel a sense of ownership and control over work in a space that doesn't feel like it belongs to them.
Substack, Tinyletter, Mailing Lists
I think mailing lists are great, but they don't really feel like spaces. Technically you can go to a Substack authors page and it is very literally a blog, but it's really structured and designed around being a mailing list.
Big Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
If you're a person who cares about the world, it can be intoxicating to create a Twitter account and be instantly surrounded by lots of new, challenging ideas and experiences. On social media, I have found connection and some semblance of a human community at times when I have felt most low and isolated. Not to mention that real, tangible social action, mutual aid, and friendship can be facilitated through social media. There can be value gleaned here. But on the whole, I find that these types of sites have dramatically diminishing returns. Eventually all the viral tweets with Correct Opinions start to blur together and you realize that to keep learning you'll have to go to deeper and more vulnerable places than these platforms can ever really allow.
These sites take the thoughts, care, and energy of people and consume them to grow the platform. Tell me: do you go to people's Facebook profiles and browse around to read their past posts? How about on Twitter? Is that a satisfying experience? Absolutely not, it's a weird and disjointed experience and that writing may as well not exist. These platforms combine what everyone is saying into a weird Social Media slurry that becomes instantly disposable.
On a very simple level, these platforms often feel bad and unhealthy. How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell really influenced the way that I think about social media. A neat alternative is decentralized social media sites like mastodon.
Github Pages and other Static Site Generators
When I started getting really into blogging recently, I was originally going to encourage people to use a process similar to this tutorial about Github Pages by Jonathan McGlone. Despite a few tricky steps to the process, I felt that there was a great balance of simplicity, convenience, and control that was hard to match with other services. Additionally, by integrating version control, Github Pages makes it easy to go to old versions of your files so you don't have to worry about deleting something that you might want later.
The biggest reason that I halted plans on any work to make this process accessible to new users was that I remembered hearing some negative things about GitHub a while back. Looking into it, I found that GitHub (owned by Microsoft) contracted with ICE. Despite the anger and resignations of employees (as well as criticism from the broader open source community), Github upheld the contract. As if directly profiting by providing software to an organization that exclusively does harm somehow upholds standards of openness and freedom (for whom?).
Moving on from GitHub, I looked at workflows that were similar to GitHub Pages. I realized that what I was craving was very simple: Write text. Put on internet. Repeat. In theory, I could do this very simply with pure HTML, but the problem with HTML is that it's completely static: you can't combine different pieces or really automate anything. If you want to have a header with "Home, Archive, About" you would have to copy that code to every single blog post you ever write. And if you ever want to update the header, you'd have to go back through every single file and change the code.
Static site generators (SSGs) like Github Pages' Jekyll solve this problem by combining your header template with your content locally on your computer. Then you're able to upload static HTML files to the internet. If you want to change your header or add a new page, you run the SSG and it rebuilds the whole site quickly. It's an elegant solution, but most SSG workflows involve at least intermediate-level computer skills: downloading extra components, using the command line, understanding version control software, understanding deployment software, and altering obscure and finicky system variables on your operating system. It just wasn't a workflow I could picture shouting from the rooftops.
So I decided to make one myself. All I really wanted was the aforementioned header/footer, and a convenient archive. Everything else could be the most basic of HTML files. I figured it *had* to be possible to make something like this. And not just possible, it *had* to be pretty simple! And ultimately, it was! I'm not the first person to build something like this, nor is this somehow the "best" version of the idea. That's one of the strengths of Zonelets—it's ultimately not that special!