Last week, some of us finally made Directionlessgov.com, a search engine as your interface to the UK government. Have a go, it’s actually quite useful. It’s a bit of an in-joke, but makes a simple point well; these days everyone finds everything by Google. Normal people don’t go to fat, carefully crafted “web portals” like Directgov.
I saw this myself yesterday when my Mum was trying to give towards relief after the Tsunami. At the time the appeal website wasn’t yet up, and she searched for all sorts of things on Google, none of which got anywhere. In the end going to Oxfam’s home page first, then following the prominant link, worked well. But it was far harder than it should have been.
Most of my websites get most of their traffic from Google. If you search for the name of your MP you’ll find TheyWorkForYou and/or PublicWhip in the first few hits. When you’re making a website, it’s worth remembering that from your user’s point of view the <title> is actually a menu entry within Google. To most people, your content is just a part of the Internet. Not the part of your site which you think it is, with your excessive attachment to what you made.
The twist in the tale is, of course, that the Internet is now excessively centralised. Everyone from the nerdiest nerd to the grandest grandmother uses Google. That’s fine for now, but it’s dangerous when somebody with fewer scruples takes them over. Or when your business collapses because of a tweak in their page ranking algorithm. Endlessly the good consumer looks for alternatives…
There’s one strange thing which makes the job of writing software quite unlike any other sort of artisan. You can finely craft something just once, yet thousands, even millions of people end up using it.
Four years ago, I spent maybe ten evenings making the first version of a useful tool that I wanted myself. And then the occasional evening every few weeks for the next two years improving it. Ever so slightly obsessive, but not compared to the amateur mechanic who spends all summer in the garage building a kit car.
Then I go back and look, and it turns out 600,000 people have downloaded it in the last two and a half years. OK, I’m cheating, lots of them downloaded it twice or more. But that’s still at least 100,000 people, and many of them use it every day to help them get their work done. I know, because sometimes I meet them at parties.
So crazy is this modern world, there’s an entire, sprawling, incomprehensible website (called SourceForge) for people like me. We all put things we made for ourselves up there, so anyone else in the world can use them. And it doesn’t cost us anything. Anyway, the tool that I made is called TortoiseCVS. The news today is that this December it is SourceForge Project of the Month. Have a look, there’s a photo of me and everything.
What does this weird turtle thing do? Oh you don’t care, something to do with helping programmers keep track of changes they made to source code. If you want to try out one of these bits of “open source” software, go for something useful like a secure web browser to replace Internet Explorer.