Your Website is Useless

Most artist websites are bad. They either fail at their purpose, don’t have a purpose, or their only purpose is to point visitors to more active social media.

It is impossible to follow or keep up many artists’ work if you don’t want to look at Twitter or Instagram (nevermind that there’s always the chance you’ll miss their work even if you do follow them there). Their neglected, second-thought websites don’t bridge the gap, if they even have one at all.

This, despite growing popularity of social media “breaks,” “hiatuses,” and “detoxes,” is frustrating. No one denies the negative effects of social media. Everyone says “good for you” if you tell them you’re taking a break or quitting, but so few take the time to make their work accessible to those wanting to step away.

Websites as Portfolios

Most artist websites are portfolios intended to accompany a resume for the primary purpose of soliciting work. These sites tend to be minimalist and simple, with a Gallery of art and a Contact page, and maybe a brief About page or CV.

But portfolio sites are often outdated; the further along in their career an artist is, the more likely it is for this to be the case. If anything, the artist updates social media way more often, and a potential client or employer is better off looking at their Twitter or Instagram for recent work — which is fine, since most of those clients and employers do just that, or social is where they found them in the first place.

The portfolio site is just a token, a relic, a name claim on the domain. It’s mostly useless, and no one expects it to be anything more.

Websites as Portals

Some artist websites don’t even bother trying to be portfolios. They’re just a sandwich board pointing to social media, because everyone understands that’s where the action’s at. You can’t “follow” a website, right? (Wrong, but if an artist doesn’t update the website regularly, then following a website is pointless even if the technology is there.)

These portals are especially depressing because clicking on social media links without being logged into an account just results in endless prompts to download that app. You often can’t see art at all, or the experience is extremely subpar and annoying. There are some ways to get around the barrage of “sign up/log in” alerts in desktop browsers, but they’re annoying, not obvious to laypeople, and you’re still SOL on mobile.

Portal sites are helpful for linking out to a long list of third party social accounts, especially if the artist has a different handle on some sites/apps. In this way, these websites do fulfill their purpose — they’re not useless — it’s just that their purpose is sad and subservient, ceding superiority and importance to social media.

Websites as Places To Be

Websites used to all be destinations.

Some early Internet sites which have stubbornly continued to exist all this time, sometimes past their original owners’ deaths, are huge repositories of information, articles, opinions, etc. They often look comically outdated, but they’re still valuable to the communities they’re a part of. To be fair, lots of these old sites don’t have RSS/Atom feeds and thus also can’t be “followed,” but the point remains that more websites used to have actual value beyond simply redirecting visitors somewhere else.

In early Internet fandom, artists and writers used to (have to) self-host their art and writing. Tiny, dedicated shrine sites to an artist’s favourite character or series were common. Despite centralised fanfiction repositories existing even in these ancient times, many authors still self-hosted their fic and maintained a “home base” separate from centralised mirror sites.

No one does that anymore. Social media is easier. And “free.” Many niches still have very dedicated fansites, but personal websites aren’t really a thing these days, at least among artists (and fanfic-only writers). Personal sites, and blogs in particular, are a bit more common among nonfiction and original fiction writers and people in tech, but artist websites are nearly all portfolios or portals.

It’s a shame.

In addition to art, lots of artists have produced incredible tutorials and other resources or shared important stories and valuable experiences — but these things are regulated into long, poorly formatted tweet threads or shoved into Instagram story highlights, making finding and referring back to them difficult. These platforms weren’t intended for such uses, but people make do, because that’s what they know, and that’s where they live.

Social media is a “destination,” but it’s an constant stream of impersonal chaos and an awful archive. Content on social is meant to be consumed immediately and forgotten. Likes and favourites lists are unwieldy and yet universally unsearchable. Liking an artist’s post doesn’t mean you’ll ever be able to find it again, but saving things to a local drive also isn’t a habit people have kept. (Social media doesn’t make that easy either.) Everything is ephemeral, impermanent, lackadasical.

Websites as Archives

The whimsy, transient nature of social media is part of its appeal. Lots of artists only post doodles and sketches because they know they’ll disappear from the timeline quickly enough, or because they’ll only be up for 24 hours or so in Stories. It’s all low risk and low stakes. They’d never consider posting those silly things on a real website.

And it’s easier to share a personal story when you’re composing it 280 characters at a time and publishing it as you go, without thinking about or knowing where the end may be. It’s at least easier than staring down a blank text editor with no limit and having to decide later how much of a 2,500 word rant is worth sharing, anyway.

Websites are what you make of them though. It’s possible to dedicate a space for stupid doodles and keep it separate from the portfolio pieces. There’s still value in keeping those doodles around, archiving them, and making them easy to find and refer back to. Many of my favourite “pieces” from artists are stupid doodles. Many of my favourite pieces from myself are stupid doodles.

And you can still write about experiences 280 characters at a time if you want to. Just collect it later for the website. Archive it somewhere proper. Even if it wasn’t even an important or consequential story, it could be worth looking back at later, or it could be important to someone else.

I don’t expect people to give up social media. For artists in particular, it’s hard to compete with the “reach” and the ever seductive possibility of a viral hit.

But artists wouldn’t lose anything by making their websites more of a destination either. I can’t save my spot scrolling through someone’s Twitter feed. I can’t filter or sort it by arty images only. I can’t go through it in any real organised manner, and the artist couldn’t make that easier for me even if they wanted to. Instagram Story highlights are terrible to try and manage. Are Twitter Moments even a thing anymore? A properly updated website could be the solution.

Making Better Websites

But actually, artists do lose something by making their websites more useful: time and energy.

I still think one of the reasons Tumblr became so popular, for artists and in general, was because it was the social media platform that gave people the most control while still allowing them to be part of a network and publish things quickly. You could post art in less than 15 seconds, as everywhere else, but you could also post up to 10 images at a time (up from Twitter’s 4, and this was years before Instagram finally allowed multi-image uploads in 2017).

You could tag posts, creating a basic taxonomy and more functional/useful archives. You could customise your layout (with real HTML and CSS, even). You could write however much you want. You could hyperlink text (shock! amaze!). Tumblr was one of the only platforms that supported RSS, that had decent export tools, and that didn’t force you to have an account to look at things, etc. It gave users freedom and flexibility that was unheard of in walled gardens of social media platforms.

It was the closest you could get to making a personal website without self-hosting, and you were still a part of a broader platform and community, so you could still take advantage of the networking effects and possibility of virality. Win-win for users  — except that Tumblr never became profitable, which led corporate sales, unpopular changes, and its ultimate fall from grace.

Honestly, if everyone went back to Tumblr for posting art, I’d be pretty happy. I can follow via RSS without ever looking at the Tumblr dashboard. I can search archives by keyword, tags, or date. Glorious! But Tumblr’s had a tumultuous history, and while I think Tumblr’s in decent hands these days, I still think self-hosting is the best solution because it’s the one that gives artists the most control and certainty.

But it’s the most work.

Incentivising Websites

It’s hard to blame artists for the lack of effort. Most are already juggling too many hats, and there’s little incentive for them to put time and energy into alternatives when the vast majority of their audience, peers, clients, and employers remain on social media. Many got their breaks on social, went viral on social, gained huge followings and found success on social. What has their website ever done for them?

So what if an artist’s work is inaccessible to people who choose not to partake in social media? Those people are such a minority, and accommodating them is so much work. Artists do enough work. It doesn’t make sense to invest energy into something with poor returns.

Having to maintain an email list newsletter takes a surprising amount of time, and the “reach” may still be worse than on social, because people have such a fraught relationship with email. (Also, lots of inboxes have sort algorithms these days…)

Updating a website is a chore when your first instinct is to tweet, and cross-posting social media posts to a website is a technical ordeal. There are lots of solutions for “how to auto-tweet when you post something on a [WordPress] website” but none for “how to auto-publish something on your website when you tweet.” Social media platforms have zero incentive to allow users to be able to cross-post from their platform, only to their platform. All of the results instead rely on embedding the Twitter content, which still only exists on Twitter. A visitor to the site can see the tweets, but they still can’t follow them without also having a Twitter account.

I actually wish there was an open source version of Tumblr. That interface is simpler — indeed, it was so simple that browser plugins like XKit became widely used to implement many, many missing features (some of which are finally being added to Tumblr officially) — but that simplicity was also what encouraged its rapid growth. It would be easier to convince artists to manage their own websites if they could just install a self-hosted version of Tumblr and go.

WordPress is powerful, but the cost of that is its complexity. And somehow there aren’t many better solutions for content management systems.

I still don’t know what the answer is.

This post would take 47 separate tweets to post on Twitter, but the fact is that more people would read it there. Each individual tweet could be retweeted for its own separate chance at virality. More people would reply to it, add their own commentary, start their own discussions.

Why even bother post it here instead of there? Because damn, it looks so much better here, in coherent paragraphs, with actual headers. Because I like being able to link things in my writing, to be able to make references, give examples, share context. Because it’s so much easier to write without thinking about character limits or having to re-compose each of those 47 tweets to make sure no words are getting cut off. Because my “content” isn’t for Twitter (or Medium) to profit from. Because a million other things.

My constant plea is for artists to put in a little more effort for their websites, but I don’t think there will be a compelling reason for most to do so unless more people abandon social media. Etsy just raised their fees, and lots of sellers are looking into alternatives again, but most will still stay. Etsy has clout and an audience; self-hosting is a lot more work. When artists began abandoning Tumblr in droves, most of them just ended up on Twitter. Hopping on another platforms will always be easier.

The barriers to setting up and maintaining a website are still great. It’s hard to begrudge anyone not wanting to expend the time, money, and effort… but if you have these resources to spare, I’d really like to be able to spend more time looking at artist websites instead of artist Twitters.

Photo of the Stuttgart Library
Let me sit in the library of your website and enjoy things quietly and unhurriedly. That would be so much nicer than standing in a tweetstorm trying to snatch relevant art out of a flurry of bad news and drama. Photo by Niklas Ohlrogge on Unsplash.

About the author

Kiri is a Seattle-based artist, writer, webmaster, and (brush) pen enthusiast with over 12 years of convention and event vending experience and a lot of opinions.