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12 May 2024 ~ 7 min read

All you need is a text editor and a web server

I would like to use this post to announce the fact I’m planning to get back into the blogging game, but also use it as an opportunity to explain something deeper about the direction I think the web is going today.

I’m working on a new project that I think will help make the internet better and I think documenting that process here will be quite interesting. That’s however for another day.

Where I would like to start in this story is from my first personal website The latest snapshot visible from the internet archive is from 2008 and you can still read the embarassing words of a teenager, yet all the images are broken. Even though that site has disappeared from the face of the internet (the domain is an NXDOMAIN), the Internet Archive took a snapshot of it. What they were able to effectively store and keep was just the text. Even though probably digging a fully encrypted hard drive of which I have forgotten the password I might have found the original dump of the site, I don’t have to.

Netsons was an italian “cloud” hosting provider which offered people free web hosting at a time when that was something relatively costly. They still run a hosting company, however their free tier doesn’t exist anymore, probably because websites have gotten too data hungry these days, but I’m jumping ahead.

When I got involved with the Tor Project, one of my early contributions as a volunteer was a guide on how to setup a hidden service (aka Onion Services) blog (Note: this guide is at this point incredibly dated, so please don’t rely on it for anything serious). In this guide I explained how to setup and harden this perl based blogging platform called blosxom and expose it as a tor hidden service. I included tips on how to make it harder to leak your identity through potential side-channels that could come from the Apache web server or the blogging platform. The key is that it was easier because the stack was simple.

The setup was pretty striaghtforward and it was mostly just about copy pasting some lines of code into some config files and copying over a single file to your web server and you were off to the races!

What has happened of this kind of simple software? Kids these days have to run npm or yarn or whatever is the new trendy tool to install GBs of dependencies so they can generate a single HTML file, while back in 2011 you could drop a single Perl cgi file into your web server dir and you were good to go. I am getting ahead of myself though.

For my own personal blog, though, for the longest time I just ran it from the free hosted wordpress. The reason for that is that wordpress is a very complex piece of software and keeping it up to date so that you don’t get pwned is basically a full time job.

However fundamentally the problem is even bigger than that. I have the impression that we are all moving more and more in a direction of very short-form and fast writing, especially when it comes to online content. The attention span of internet users is reducing and it’s something very concerning.

I do however think it would be very easy and simplistic to just blame tiktok or facebook or whatever big tech platform you decide to pick as your scapegoat.

I think the problem is more fundamental and in my view has to do mostly with the economy of the internet.

Back in 2011 it was possible to maintain a blog and have people read it. It was possible because people felt like they had the time to sit down and enjoy a long form read without being concerned of missing out on the rest of the things out there. Ultimately, in my view, this reduced attention span problem comes as a direct result of consumer culture and the fear of missing out on something which you didn’t even think you needed.

What happened to the times when we used to send each other lengthly emails and we left those sitting in our inbox for weeks until we had the time to share a thoughtful and thorough reply?

The point I’m making here is that opting for a fast-paced way of interacting online is a choice we make, but we can also make the opposite choice.

And the secondary point is that the way in which technology is built and the direction in which it’s going, at a fundamental level, is optimizing for this fast paced way of interacting with it.

In my opinion we need to slow it all down. Why is it that CDNs celebrate when they are able to shave off 10ms from response times and that’s something significant enough to give them an edge in the market?

Can’t we just take it a bit more easy? What’s all the hurry?

Are you in a hurry to get spammed with ads telling you do buy stuff you don’t need so that you can get fed more junk content?

What happened of pond and the slow crypto (as in cryptography) movement? Those of you who rememeber those days hanging out in IRC channels on OFTC and sending each other messages that would be answered days later know what I’m talking about. Those of you still living in this consumerist world without a smartphone, I tip my hat to you. Those of you that still believe in the dream of the cypherpunks I understand where you are coming from.

During these days I explored this concept through a project which was the original implementation of, called latenza.js.

I also feel that as a community we need to recognize the fact that we don’t live in the 90s anymore and we can’t expect all these new internet users to not want nice things.

I will end it here with what I meant in the title. Back in 2011 all you needed was just a text editor (hopefully vi) and a web server (make your pick) to start a website. My arguement is that still today, fundamentally that’s all you need. It’s actually never been easier than before to run a static website. Just pick one of the many free static site hosting services. So why is it that we are investing so much time and energy and thought and code, in building even more complicated tech stacks like the fediverse? Why aren’t we happy with what we have?

I’m of the idea that on the tools are just instruments to do what you want to do. If you can do what you want to do with the simplest possible tool, you should.

I feel like sometimes as hackers we get distracted by shiny new things, which I get, however let’s not forget that ultimately software is a perishable good. At some point it will go bad and we will have to rewrite it. On the other hand text and words will remain long after the code has gone rotten.

I will end this here, because there would be so much more to say just on this last point.

If you enjoy this kind of content please share it with your friends and if you would like reach out to me. You can find my contacts on this site.

Headshot of Arturo Filastò

I write free software to measure and improve the internet 🔬👨. I'm the Founder, Executive Director and CTO of OONI, Co-Founder and Vice-President of the Hermes Center for Digital Human Rights and I used to work for the Tor Project. I live in Rome, Italy. You can follow me on Twitter or check out my code on GitHub.