A few weeks ago, I started learning basic code for websites.
Which is weird, because coding doesn’t really fit into my conception of the things that I like and the things that I’m good at. Despite my father’s protestations that understanding computers *might* be important one day, I gave up high school computer science as early as I could.
What is even stranger is that I’m actually kind of enjoying the coding. It is satisfyingly creative. So far, it’s mainly formatting, it’s just that the formatting has to be expressed in a weird language that takes some getting used to. Using the language correctly makes me feel weirdly powerful. I tend to giggle maniacally when I manage to make the website do the thing that I am trying to make it do through the power of my code (it’s like magic!)
I’ve been completing quite bounded and specific tasks within the online course that I’m signed up to (available via CodeAcademy). Change the font size here, create a heading called ‘Whatever’, make a numbered list, make it this colour. That’s pretty easy, so I’ve also been branching out a little and, at the end of each exercise, when the course says, ‘Hey, now play around with what you’ve learnt!’ I’ve been trying to create websites that look like they came out of the early 2000s, with all the fonts and all of them a different, garish colour on another garish background and my text organised via lists instead of paragraphs. It’s been super fun. I’ve been writing weird, stream-of-consciousness websites, which I would like to pretend I invented, but really were inspired by a New York Times article concerning the internet art of the 90s.
Anyway, to encourage me, a friend, who is an actual, professional, paid-real-money coder, sent me a link to ‘Gomix’, which is a website that allows you to use other people’s code to do… internet things. You know, things on the internet.
Look, I’m not entirely sure I understand everything that I can do with Gomix. But, it seems like it’s goal is to take a lot of the faff out of coding. And, also, let people work together on their code (if that’s a thing that you have enough skills to do). Watch the trailer here.
So, this is my very basic understanding of how I could use it. Say you’s building a new web page and you want a heading on that page and you want it to be massive and pink and in Times New Roman. If you’re formatting in Microsoft Word (which is a program I understand), you would just choose ‘Times New Roman’, the colour pink and 300pt from the drop down menus at the top of the screen and then start typing. But, if you’re building a website, those drop down menus don’t exist. You have to write them into existence. You have to tell the internet, here’s my webpage, it’s called ‘x’, I want it to have a heading, that heading should say ‘this’, it should be this colour and this size. So, a lot of coding is just the same over and over again, because each time you start a new website, you have to start it from scratch and tell the website you want a heading, it needs font, it needs a font colour etc etc etc. Gomix allows you to get the basics straight away and then tweak them, rather than starting from scratch.
My big problem with Gomix is that my coding skills are currently very limited (as the above mangled explanation of coding should indicate to you). I think the people who tend to use the site have bigger goals for the things they want to make. There was coding for games and coding for bots on Facebook Messenger and twitter. I have made a twitter bot before (it tweeted Charlotte Bronte quotes!), but it was under direct supervision and with extremely specific instructions. I barely understand what is possible with a bot, let alone understand how to change the code to create one. So, I had to find a code template on Gomix that was something I had the skills to play around with. I had to find a plain old website.
The website template I found was still pretty complex. To be honest, I ignored 3/4 of it, because I didn’t understand what those bits were or how they worked. But I committed to seeing what I could do with the other 1/4. I tried to change the colours of some fonts. That seemed like a pretty easy thing to do. It turned out to be very difficult as the bits of font I tried to change didn’t have the names I expected them to have in the code. Then I forgot what the old colours were called, so I couldn’t change things back to how they used to be. I suddenly went from trying to change very small things to changing EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE – attacking every colour of every single piece of text I could find.
Initially, I wanted to use really specific colours (there are around 16, 000 different colours that you can indicate through a code which tells the computer how much red, blue and green to put in a colour). But, I couldn’t find the bits of texts whose colour I had changed and couldn’t figure out if that was because I wasn’t changing the right bits of code or if the colour change was too subtle. SO, then I decided to chose a super simple colour – ‘blue’ – that was very different from all the colours already used on the web page. Then I could track what changes were happening and when. It also meant I didn’t have to remember (or look up) complex colour names like rgb(66, 134, 244), every time I tried to change something. Once I started getting a handle on which bits of text were changing, I chose another super simple colour with a super simple name – ‘tomato’ – and used it to alternate and highlight certain bits of the page.
The background image also seemed to be something fairly simple that I could alter. I was ostensibly designing a website for myself/about me (because I can never think of anything else to design – I am SO self-absorbed), so I decided to find a picture of a typewriter for the main image. Seems simple, right? IT WAS NOT. Every picture I chose had super bad composition. Well, that’s not fair, they were all quite nice images on their own with perfectly reasonable composition- but as soon as you used them as a background image with text on top, the images made the text impossible to read. White text over the white paper that was being inserted into the typewriter. Title text over typewriter keys with letters on them. I tried changing the colour of the text, the size, tried to realign it, but it all looked messy and/or unreadable. Eventually, I found a picture of a typewriter that had a giant expanse of blue behind it. My text went on the giant expanse of blue and it looked… acceptable.
I also changed the actual text on the website. This was much easier, as I could see exactly what I was changing. But, even so, I learnt much – the less words the better, or it looks ugly, which is (as anyone who read my blog will know) a fairly tough ask for someone with such tendencies towards over-writing.
All these (quite small and cosmetic) changes took me several hours. It was difficult. But, it was also fun and gave me an opportunity to experiment with some of the things I’d been learning on my course. It gave me a better idea of what coding might be like (instead of having a teacher over my shoulder saying, ‘see that bit of code there? Don’t worry about all the rest! Just that tiny bit that looks exactly like this? Well, change that tiny bit in this exact way using this precise piece of code that I am giving you’). I guess it’s the difference between doing language exercises like, ‘Wo bist du?’ ‘Ich bin Jenny’ in your German course with your fellow students and then actually going out into the real world and attempting to introduce yourself to an actual German human.
Also, I’m still not entirely sure how the test website I make goes out into internet-land and is found by other people. It has to have an address, yes, but, then… how to connect the address to the website? Does one use soap? Or do you sew it together? Look, I did warn you this computer stuff has never really been my cup of tea.
Below you can see some screenshots of the website I tried to make.