You don't need a doctorate in computer code to build an online home for yourself. An ability to shift Lego bricks around will do just fine.
BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF
Why, after all this time, is it still so hard for us ordinary Joes to publish something on the Internet without having a doctorate in HTML, or having to settle for a Web site that looks like the home page of a four-year-old with a Hello Kitty obsession?
This was the question -- or something like it, minus the Hello Kitty bit -- of a 21-year-old student called Anthony Casalena. Which is why he came up with Squarespace (www.squarespace.com).
Squarespace picks up where blogging software left off. Blogging, if you've not been paying attention, is how people publish journals online, using very simple software to add updates without having to know anything about computer code or fancy formatting. Select a layout, choose a color and a name for your blog and you're off. At the last count, between 2% and 7% of America was blogging, and while a lot of them don't stick at it, the craze has matured into a serious profession for many, and a challenge of sorts to mainstream newspaper, magazine and online publishers.
But the simplicity of blogging has created its own limits. One is that the tools are simple enough for us all to use, but not flexible enough for us to do more than just blog. As Dave Winer, one of the blogosphere's gurus, put it in a recent posting: "We've reached a plateau in blogging tools. There haven't been a lot of changes in the last two or three years."
In short, blogging has whet our appetites for publishing good-looking sites that reach the right audience, but which are more permanent than daily discussions and ramblings. Which is where Mr. Casalena, who is studying computer science at the University of Maryland, came in. He felt that bloggers were looking for something more. "I want the people … to realize they can do much more, with similar simplicity," he said in a recent online interview.
Imagine a Web site you can build from the ground up, just by selecting the bits and pieces you want, putting them together like Lego bricks to assemble a site. Want a list of links? Move that bit up there. A space where folks can leave their comments? Move that bit in there. Choose a color, style and layout, and you've got a site. That's Squarespace. But, unlike most "home-page builders" you might find on Yahoo Inc. and elsewhere, the result looks and feels professional.
And that was perfect for Harry Siegel, a 25-year-old New Yorker trying with some friends to set up an online magazine. "I'd been trying to set this site up for months, using various services with no success. On my umpteenth Google search for 'blog hosts' or some such, I came across Squarespace," he writes in the online interview. "I had Squarespace up and running in less than five minutes, and designed what I think is a professional and clean site in less than a week with minimal difficulties." You can see the results of his efforts at New Partisan (www.newpartisan.com). Sounds simple? It is. Even I managed it: Check out my new Web site (www.loose-wire.com), built with Squarespace bricks.
It sounds simple, but a lot of thought went into Squarespace. Tinkering with the layout of a site, for example, usually involves lots of complicated code. Imagine trying to move your "links" menu box so that it appears above, rather than below, your "about my company" menu box. It gives me a headache just thinking about it. With Squarespace, you click on the menu box "module," and move it with your mouse to where you want it to be. Once again, think Lego bricks and you get the idea. Want to add a picture to your Web site? Just drag it from wherever it is on your computer into a drop box and, well, drop it.
Simple to do, however, doesn't mean simple to explain. "It's misunderstood by a lot of mainstream press, as it's on the opening edge of the 'simple publishing' trend," says Mr. Casalena. "But they consistently don't get how it differs from blogging, a market which we clearly have great appeal within, though our primary focus is broader." Part of the problem here is that what Squarespace does is so simple, it's hard to imagine that it's not already something that's readily available: "If I were to tell you that you could make a Web site and manage it as easily as you could your blog and that we have something that requires almost zero knowledge of HTML, it would be difficult for you to obtain a mental image of what we've created," Mr. Casalena says.
Now, I'm not saying that Squarespace is without its flaws. There are some bugs in the software, the terms used to describe the modules that make up your site (the Lego bits I was talking about) are a tad confusing, and publishing something to Squarespace takes a few more hops than posting to a blog. But whereas your posting on a blog is here today and gone tomorrow, Squarespace is both a journal and a more-permanent Web site, perfect for an organization or individual trying to make a more-lasting impression on the Internet. Mr. Casalena readily acknowledges the need for improvements, and says he's working to make the process faster. New Partisan's Mr. Siegel says customer support from Squarespace has been great.
This is the kind of software that the Internet has been crying out for. It's not perfect, but it goes further than anything else I've seen to narrow the gap between big, expensive Web-site design companies and simple blogging. Now, with something like Squarespace, small companies, publishers and the self-employed can build a home for themselves without losing their shirt or getting lost in HTML code. As Mr. Siegel, who set up New Partisan last month to challenge established magazines and continue the tradition of Partisan Review, a recently-defunct highbrow journal, puts it: "For people who want to look like the big boys but can't pay to keep up with them, this is a godsend. Blogging is great, but there's something to be said for editors, maintenance of standards, house style, and everything else that distinguishes a magazine from a blog."
I'm biased, of course, but I have to agree.