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Inefficiency by Design

How my web site’s lack of a CMS has made me more prolific.

There is a popular myth in geek circles which claims that the QWERTY layout standard for Latin keyboards was actually designed to slow down typing, since early typewriters were prone to jam. While this is a misunderstanding (jams were caused by the mechanical proximity of common letter pairs, not the speed of typing), it has occasionally made me wonder: could technological shortcomings that ostensibly get in the way of the user experience actually, ultimately, be good for the user?

Over the years, I’ve used several different content management systems for sites I designed for clients or for myself. But lately, I don’t seem to have the curiosity or patience to learn new CMSs or even to integrate my designs with ones I’ve used in the past. So when I was redesigning my personal site last year in the hopes of getting back to writing regularly, I decided I would launch without a CMS and make updates to the site the old-fashioned way by hand-editing text files. For me, the long-term inconvenience of this relatively archaic method was preferable to the short-term inconvenience of dealing with CMS integration.

As a result, when I post a new piece of writing on the site, I usually need to update about five to seven text files with varying degrees of hassle and redundancy. This probably sounds like a nightmare to anyone who has ever had to manage a web site in any capacity; this kind of inefficiency is antithetical to the goals of modern computing. But the year I’ve spent publishing with this system has been my most prolific one yet, even more than those halcyon days when the site was running on a robust CMS and the blogging zeitgeist was in full force.

There are two specific, external factors that have had a substantial impact on my site’s recent fecundity:

  • The Pastry Box Project, a blog that collects the wisdom of thirty-one influential web professionals, which asks that I submit something once a month.
  • Letterboxd, a social site for film buffs whose thoughtful design has encouraged me to write frequent short-form film reviews.

In the last year, 83% of the posts (and 73% of the word count) on my site were republished content I created for The Pastry Box Project, Letterboxd, and a few other external sites, so I clearly have publishing systems other than my own to thank for the lion’s share of the writing I’ve done. Still, I’ve grown to enjoy using my site’s laborious non-CMS, and I think it’s encouraged my writing in its own way.

For one thing, there’s a hand-crafted element to working in static text files that’s very satisfying. Marking up the semantics of my writing in its native HTML environment feels like a more personal endeavor than typing into a WYSIWYG interface meant to shield me from the complexity hiding beneath it. For another thing, the sizable inconvenience of editing several files for every site update makes each post feel more consequential, which has paradoxically made my approach to writing both more and less precious: I take extra time to make sure everything is just right before publishing and I rarely get bogged down in minutia-driven revisions after. So once something is done, it’s done, and I can move on to the next thing.

Creating a system that increases the work necessary to complete a task is understandably rare. But in this case, I’ve found the extra work to be more rewarding than the sensibly efficient alternative. Whether or not my non-CMS is comparable to the differences between manual and automatic transmissions or artisanal and manufactured products, there can be benefits to adding complexity to our relationships with the things we create and consume. So I’ll be on the lookout for other areas where inefficiency is my friend.