Web Work and the Insidious Balance of Automation, Control, or Gobs and Gobs of Money

This has been on my mind of late and so I wanted to write it down.

I have worked with the Web now since probably 1996, both for fun and for, well, profit. Mostly for fun because even if I’m earning a living at it, I find it is work I enjoy. It incorporates both sides of my brain; it allows me to write and edit, to organize information, and also to code and troubleshoot. I have run blogs on several platforms, I have created my own MYSQL queries, I have run the Web presence for a large national trade association. My CV runs pretty well in and around the Interwebs.

So I thought I would take a moment and explain what I’ve found to be the most essential balancing act of it all. Because it can help explain to a non-webbie why your developer scrunches up his nose at you like that.

Web work is, essentially, a balancing act between automation and control.

If I want a Web tool to do the work for me, I might have to accept that the formatting might be incorrect at points. Or that the data might not come out the way I want it to. Or that it might not just look just right somehow.

If I want to exercise more control over those factors, I might have to get in there and exercise a bit of elbow grease. It might involve some labor. You might have to tweak some code here and there or do a bit of editing. It might require some time and effort.

Here’s a simple example. On most WYSIWYG editors, there is a button that is supposed to create a bulleted list. You highlight your text and click on the button and it creates the bullets for you. However, I find this button, which is an automation, to be generally useless in HTML. It usually gets the spacing wrong, or it mis-attributes the bullets. And if you’re doing nested bullets, well, ferget it.

I have stopped bothering to use Web editors to create bullets and just do them all by hand. That means code. UL LI LI UL. That means time and effort and expertise. And it is a pain in the ass. But it is the only way I can get the bullets to look

  • Exactly
    • as I want them to look.

Another example: This blogging platform has a thingie you can use to upload a picture and insert it into a post. It’s handy. But I never use it. Because I am particular about how I want a photo placed, generally. Or because I want to see it spaced in a certain way in relation to my text. Or because I want to include a cutline, and I have a way to do that in an exacting way using tables. And yes, I know that tables aren’t cool anymore. But I like them and can use them adeptly. I can make a nested table in an eighth of the time it would take you to place that element using style sheets. So screw it. Tables it is.

That is the balance you’re striking any time you’re working with the Web. Do I want to rely on the available automation, or do I need to finesse it and, therefore, do I have to do some work?

The problem is that most people want both.

Most people you deal with if you’re a webbie do not understand this balance. They think it should just work. They think they should just be able to wiggle their fingers and have it look or feel or behave exactly the way they think it should. If they’re working with an automated system, they are stunned when they’re told that they can’t fix this or that part of the template without additional work. It somehow stymies everybody. But it is the grand universal truth of Web work. You can have automation. Or you can have control. You cannot have both.


Yes, there is an exception.

The exception, my friends, comes down to what is often in life the great equalizer. The exception is that you have gobs and gobs of money to throw at the thing.

If I had zillions of dollars, I could pay a developer to create a modified version of WordPress with a plug-in that would import pictures and place them exactly as I prefer them to be placed, and there would be a field where I could put in a cutline and it would put it right there, just so. I would get my control, I would get my automation, and I would just be happy as a clam. Though I would no longer have all that nice munny.

That is the only exception. If you do not have a budget for the project, it will require you either to accept the platform out-of-the-box as it is, or it will require you to edit some code. You can do one or the other, but unless you can support a developer’s happening lifestyle for six months or so, there’s no other way around it.

Suffer the balance or get out your checkbook. There is no other way.

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