In Defense of the Website

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By Cathy A Fisher | Read original
Social media is easy. I don’t think anyone can dispute that. It allows you to set up and customize a presence and get to posting in a matter of minutes. It lets you easily interact with your customers/fans/users. And it’s instantly gratifying. Listening to the news, it would be easy to believe that nothing matters except social media these days. It gets more traffic than anything else on the internet! A whole profession has sprung up around managing it! And I certainly wouldn’t argue that a social media presence isn’t essential, but…
It’s not a website.
The small-to-medium-sized website has been much neglected recently. Some might say that websites seem stodgy and old-fashioned. Static, expensive, labor-intensive relics of a previous iteration of the web, destined to soon be subsumed by the ease and utility of a Facebook Page.
I think this is a very alarming and dangerous line of thought with potentially disastrous implications, both for organizations and their users. A website has a variety of unique properties that social media has yet not managed to mimic or perhaps never will.
Property 1: Control of your information and your story.
One of the basic components of social media is the idea of the stream. A user establishes what entities they want to follow, and all of those updates appear in a continually progressing flow of data presented to them in a feed. When Company A posts an update, it’s at the top of that feed for a while, but will inevitably be pushed out the bottom by other updates. This system fundamentally establishes an expiration date for information. Any update exists not just in the visual and hypertextual space of the web, but also in the temporal space of the web, which is constantly accelerating.
A user can always go to Company A’s profile page and seek that same update out later, but there’s a good chance (if it’s a consistently updated social media presence) that the update will have been pushed down by yet more content in the constant struggle to maintain a presence in the central feed. And once an update loses recency, it’s consigned to the incredibly unstable and unreliable world of social media archiving. Facebook has made a vague attempt at improving its archival system with its new Timeline format, but ultimately, unless a user recalls specific information about that update, it’s effectively lost. [A/N: Timelines can be filtered somewhat but not searched! What’s up with that?]
A well-constructed website, on the other hand, allows you to decide where old updates are stored and how readily they can be accessed, using either hierarchy, tagging, or searching. Company B doesn’t have to worry about fighting with a hundred other competing voices in order to make their information accessible. A user looking for a particular piece of information needs only to click through to their site and find it (or cut out a step, and with good SEO, just do a Google search for it).
Property 2: Control of your aesthetic.
Social media also tends to constrain what types of information can be showcased and how they can be displayed. What a Facebook page can be is bounded by the text fields, upload types, and structures they give you to work with. Even with third-party applications, a social media page has limited functionality and limited design latitude.
A website is completely open-ended. If you can code it and a browser can read it, it will work. If your message is best communicated by a solid fuchsia page with an animated frog chasing around the user’s cursor while a MIDI of “Cotton Eye Joe” plays in the background, a website can do that. I’d like to see a Facebook page do the same!
No, I mean, I really would.
Social media sites will also always force you to share the real estate of the page with them. Sure, your Facebook page has your organization’s name and images on it, but it also has a Facebook logo and the constant distractions of Facebook notifications, navigation, and chat widgets. The user’s attention is necessarily going to be divided between your content and Facebook itself.
Property 3: Security, stability, and longevity.
A good rule of thumb for not ending up in a situation you’ll eventually regret is to assume that anything you post on or upload to a social media site 1.) Becomes that site’s property and 2.) Is public and irrevocable, no matter what your privacy settings are. At the same time, you should never assume that any social media site will last forever. It may seem like Facebook and Twitter will never go away, but stranger things have Myspaced. You have to be willing to lose whatever you put in the hands of social media. And more importantly, you have to be willing to lose the following you have on social media, because they’re fickle as hell about where they choose to spend their time.
A website, on the other hand, can be completely within your control. Even if your host goes away, you can easily keep a copy of the site stored locally. If you want to remove something that was put up by accident, you have a much greater capacity to remove it or make it private. You also retain full rights to your content. You don’t have to sign any Terms of Service agreement establishing how you’re allowed to use your website.
Property 4: The ability to tie together disparate social media accounts.
Sure, there are ways to tether Facebook and Twitter, or YouTube and Google+, or LinkedIn and…whatever LinkedIn would interact with, but currently there’s no system that bundles them all together in a usable way. Nothing that says “HERE IS SO-AND-SO’S WEB PRESENCE.” Nothing, that is, except a website. A website is the ideal way to organize and connect social media outlets to a central identity.
An Illustrative Case Study
I’m going to use Tim and Eric’s web strategy for my example here, mostly because it’s the best example of this that I’ve run across recently, but I’m going to say it’s for the sake of THEMATIC CONTINUITY.
In a lot of ways, you could cite Tim and Eric as paragons of good social media strategy. They understand that the most important techniques for holding the attention of their fans are regular updates, valuable and entertaining content, and bi-directional engagement (in the form of either simple conversation or in the form of exchange of content). They’re present on multiple platforms, and use each platform in ways that are specific to its affordances. That’s not to say there’s nothing wrong with how they use social media–it might be pointed out, for instance, that they have too many social media outlets and require their fans to be following multiple Facebook pages and YouTube accounts just to make sure they’re fully in the loop. But they at least know how to use them.
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Fig. 2: The good old times
With a little Tim and Eric scholarship, it becomes apparent that their website, TimandEric.com, played a central role in the emergence of their comedic identity. For example, the DVD of their pre-breakout work is called “TIMANDERIC.COM Ultimate DVD Collection, Volume 1.” It functioned both as means for satirizing the enthusiastic embrace of the web by companies in the ’90s and the consequent dot-com bubble and a tool for distributing their work. [A/N: This is an entertaining and informative Wayback Machine journey and I encourage you all to give it a try.] Even now, when their website is at most a side note to their primary work, they almost always reference it in promo videos.
Keep all that in mind as I tell the following anecdote.
Recently, I had occasion to want to look up the schedule for the recent screening and Q&A tour Tim and Eric did to promote Billion Dollar Movie. I had already looked at it once a few weeks prior when I bought tickets for the Chicago screening, so I knew it had been posted through one of T&E’s social media outlets.
Thinking I would be clever and avoid the task of wading through old Facebook posts, I went to TimandEric.com. Right in the top navigation is a link called “Calendar,” and when you roll over it, it offers both “Upcoming Events” and “Past Events.” Not sure which I wanted to see, I just clicked on “Calendar,” which led me to a blank page with the sentence “No Events to show.” “Upcoming Events” yielded the same result. “Past Events” finally gave me something, but the last thing that had been posted there was T&E’s appearances in London last summer.
“Hmm,” I said to myself. “Maybe they have a special page dedicated to just Billion Dollar Movie, their first feature film! That page could potentially have all the information I want related to that topic!” At this point, I noticed a decently large graphic in the right column labeled “Tim & Eric Billion Dollar Movie.” I smelled success. But when I clicked on it, it led me instead AWAY FROM THE SITE to the IMDb page for B$M.
My subsequent unsuccessful attempt to sort through Magnolia Pictures’ site, Magnet’s official webpage for the movie, the Billion Dollar Movie Facebook page, the Official Tim and Eric Facebook page, and the Zittwins Facebook page in order to find those dates doesn’t warrant full documentation. Needless to say, the fundamental failing here lay in a lack of respect for the power of a website as a comprehensive reference source and too much faith in the ability of Facebook to archive information.
More than anything, this example makes me sad. TimandEric.com used to be the crown jewel of the Tim & Eric media empire, and now it’s basically a superficial, under-maintained appendix to a successful Twitter strategy. Which isn’t to say, of course, that it can’t be fixed! When it was redesigned several months ago, a pretty solid structure was put in place, albeit one that gives a little too much weight to graphics and not enough space for text. [A/N: Did you notice the link to the list of theaters where B$M is playing or the instructions for the Billion Dollar Pledge? I didn’t, because you have to scroll ALLLLLLL the way to the bottom of the homepage to find them!] So really all it needs is some TLC, a little more of a sense of purpose, and an understanding of the role it should occupy in the web ecosystem.
In summation, don’t neglect your website. It’s more valuable than you think. It might even save your life one day.*

Websites not known to save lives

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