The geek shall inherit the Earth. But the semi-geek won’t be far behind.
Back in April I wrote a piece about MPs’ web sites. I came to the conclusion that a large number of MPs have web sites that are over-complex and therefore cost more money to build and maintain than they should have done. They also fail in supplying basic functionality to users (for example, many have invalid web feeds) because they are often written from scratch by people who don’t really understand the web. I made the point that a real geek would have not written a new system, but would use some of the excellent open source or hosted services that are available.
I was reminded of this at the Open Tech conference in July. There were a few talks that touched on this issue. In his “10 Cultures” talk, Bill Thompson discussed the differences between the geeks and the rest of the world and how the rest of the world is becoming dependent on the geeks. Immediately after Bill, Ben Goldacre’s talk touched on many of his usual subjects (the dearth of good science journalism and the lack of scientific literacy in the general population) before coming back round to echo some of Bill’s themes. Ben knows what tools he needs to build in order to fight his battles effectively and he knows that he’s not geek enough to build them. He therefore put out a call for a “geek posse” to help him to build the tools that he wants.
Both of these talks got me thinking about the geek/non-geek divide, but it wasn’t until I saw Will Perrin and Fran Sainsbury’s talk “Spread the Web” that I started to draw comparisons with the MPs’ sites that I’d written about earlier. Will and Fran talked about the problem of organisations who paid for expensive web sites many years ago and who are now left with a hard to maintain system that doesn’t give them a good presence on the web. This is exactly the same problem as I had recognised, but in a far wider context. It’s not just MPs who spend too much money on crap web sites. Anyone can do it. And many organisations do. Will and Fran aren’t hard-core geeks, but they know enough about WordPress and other similar systems to help organisations to replace their nasty old web sites with some newer and simpler which works.
Two weeks ago Lloyd Shepherd wrote about how he had set up a web site for his wife’s school using WordPress. Like Will and Fran, Lloyd is no geek (as he freely admits) but he knows enough about the technology to identify the best technology for the job and wrangle it into a web site which is probably more usable than the majority of school web sites. In his article, Lloyd asked why more people don’t do this and a really interesting discussion followed in the comments.
So here’s what we know:
- There are many organisations out there who want web sites but don’t have the technical knowledge to decide how best to do it.
- Many of these organisations (schools, charities and local groups would be good examples) are short of money.
- The most effective way for these organisations to build web sites is often by using tools like WordPress and Drupal.
- The IT professionals that most of these organisations approach for advice don’t seem to know about these solutions and end up proposing expensive proprietary monstrosities.
- You don’t need to be total geek to build these sites, “semi geeks” like Lloyd, Will and Fran are perfectly capable of doing it.
I think that the problem is that knowledge of the WordPress or Drupal approach is pretty sparse outside of the geek (and semi geek) circles that I and most of my readers move in. Even most of the IT industry still seems unaware (or, perhaps, untrusting) of these open source solutions.
I don’t have a solution. I’m just pointing out obvious problems here. I suppose there’s some kind of education gap that needs to be filled. I’m considering asking my local council if I can run some kind of “building web sites” evening class to try to spread this knowledge.
But I think we also just need to offer to help. Do you know a cash-strapped charity or local school that could do with a bit of help rebuilding their web site? You don’t need to be an expert. This stuff really isn’t hard. And you’ll be helping to make the world (well, the web at least) a better place.
If you’re not a hard-core geek can you become a semi geek?
 I said I’d discuss it in more detail later – I didn’t expect it would be almost three months!