Béton Brut

Wynn Wolf Arbor

It is hard to believe that it took me well over half a year to finally come to the point where I can publish this website on my new domain and leave the old one behind. There's a few reasons it took this long, and for once, surprisingly, they are not at all software-related. It was a journey through uncertainty, insecurity, and compulsive hesitancy, which is why this post will mostly be a reflective one.

Legacy Woes

Last year in November I had a bunch of free time on my hands, and I very innocently decided to work on a new site design. Back then I only really wanted to change a few things, since a full makeover seemed a bit too daunting. Still, after throwing around a bunch of ideas in my head, it seemed more clear that I would have to abandon the bulk of what I already had. Mainly this was because the old site was built on a considerable amount of legacy code: I was using AsciiDoc, which I had fallen out of favour with, and most of the site was being held together by an unwieldy Makefile and a couple of hacky shell scripts.

So whilst it was easy enough to add new content, changing the design or even merely attempting to tweak core concepts was impossible without a bigger rewrite.

Another concern was my growing disdain for a few of the things that I had published. Ideally I thought it'd be best to rewrite the bits that I didn't like and keep the rest, but I couldn't find a sufficient amount of motivation. I ended up neglecting to write any new posts on the site, and knowing I had stuff online that I kind of despised made me feel depressed every time I thought about it. I felt that the site could no longer reasonably present the kind of person I was. I felt that I was lying.

Honest Design

Around the same time I stumbled upon Brutalist Websites (since defunct, and only reasonably browsable by removing the prominent overlay), which curated a collection of brutalist websites.

Brutalist Websites

There was always a certain - perhaps morbid - fascination I had with Brutalism and its idea of béton brut, raw concrete. The German word for this concept, Sichtbeton, takes a more experiential approach; it is simply concrete that is unobstructedly visible. There's no attempt to hide the underpinning, instead it is displayed with a certain kind of pride. Core to the whole concept is a notion of honesty, of being utterly clear about what a thing is made of.

So when I felt that I was lying about what kind of person I was, it seemed only fitting to create something new in that sort of style, and to take to heart the idea of being more honest to the outside world and myself.

The Foundation

Not only did that mean creating a new design, it also meant starting from scratch and looking for a new engine to build the whole website. I quickly decided to use sblg to generate HTML files from templates, and lowdown to convert markdown files to XML content that sblg understands.

The whole project would live in only a couple of directories, tied together with a much simpler and cleaner Makefile this time. Compared to AsciiDoc, site generation was blazingly fast and very robust. It only took me about a day or two to fully tweak everything the way I wanted it to behave.

Small Steps

What ended up taking 90% of the rest of the time was the design. With the idea of being fully honest came a problem: I started questioning certain decisions because of what they might reveal about myself, what they might look like from an outside perspective. I noticed that, for a very long time, I had been genuinely insecure about releasing anything that was in any way personal to me.

For instance, the idea very early on was to have one single page containing everything I published; be it a piece of software, a poem, or some sort of essay. This resulted in a lot of internal conflict as I often considered my poetry to be “pretentious” and inherently less impactful than a software project. Suddenly I was wanting to have two sites, one for the “real” and technical projects, and one for the more personal. In turn that would mean that I was actively censoring my output by categorizing it away to a more obscure part of the site.

Another problem was an almost compulsive need to tweak the most insignificant parts of the design towards a sense of perfection and coherence that was frankly unattainable. Because of a lot of internal turmoil, it became impossible to do any further work I would feel positive of.

In the end the solution was to take considerable time off personal projects and reflect on and try to dismantle those problems and insecurities. I learned that it is very helpful to talk to trustworthy friends about this, and to find a comfortable space in which to experiment with being more immediately public with projects, ideas, or thoughts - even if you think they are unrefined and not ready. This is especially helpful if one tends to feel vulnerable after having published or when considering to publish. Initially it is perfectly fine to create a “mock public” space that no one can see, but which can be made more public as time goes on (a locked Twitter or Fediverse profile, for example). The idea is to build confidence in the act of publishing itself, and to take away the vulnerability and fear.

Horizon

Building this sort of confidence in publishing personal content is time-consuming and not always easy. You may feel the intense urge to undo a publication or to re-read it until it sounds drab and uninspired. In those cases, maybe ask a friend for feedback, but most importantly: take a step back and take some time off. It may read wholly differently tomorrow.

As for technical work, if you, like me, feel sometimes that what you do is unimportant, unrecognized, or invisible, it might help to start a document in which you collect even the smallest things that have some sort of impact day to day. Julia Evan's idea of a brag document is a helpful resource. I tend to be overly humble myself and want to highlight the following excerpt, which helped me understand something no one had explained to me before:

One thing I want to emphasize, for people who don't like to brag, is – you don't have to try to make your work sound better than it is. Just make it sound exactly as good as it is!

Like béton brut, be uncompromisingly honest about your work. Don’t make it sound better than it is, but most importantly, learn that it has value and that there is no shame in showing it.