More addictive than pornography, Wordpress themes are truly the crack cocaine of the web

 

I’VE FINALLY FOUND something on the internet more addictive than pornography.

If you’re not a blogger this will mean nothing to you. But for those who are in the business of self-promotion – perhaps in the vain hope of turning a buck in the digital era – chances are you too will have spent hour upon hour looking at Wordpress themes, truly the crack cocaine of the web.

I run a blog called Unofficial Partner ( unofficialpartner.co.uk). It started out as a pub conversation about why the Olympics takes money from McDonald’s, fighting obesity via the medium of a Big Mac and chips.

The name is an oh-so-clever take on the cult of the Official Partner, a term devised largely to avoid using the word sponsor, which is seen as a bit old hat, with connotations of kids coming to the door asking for donations for the half marathon.

The aim of Unofficial Partner was to position the blog – and by extension me – as a maverick outsider fighting corporate double-speak; the classic flawed anti-hero railing against the capitalist system while simultaneously trying to make enough money to pay for a new iPad.

A designer friend did me a logo – a suitably lo-fi scrawl – and I went in search of a website to match.

This, as X Factor contestants often put it, was the start of an emotional journey. Bloggers have quite a few choices in terms of which platform to use. Blogger, Google’s offering, feels a bit too much like I really am an amateur, as opposed to a faux amateur, which is a very fine distinction but one that keeps my sanity when I go to work in the morning.

The hip choice is Tumblr, which is great for shorter stuff and photoblogs, but struggles a bit if you want to upscale to a more magazine- style thing. This leaves you with LiveJournal, TypePad and Drupal – too American and a bit weird – and Wordpress, which is the big beast of the blogging market, and has the most mature developer ecosystem.

So I went for WP, as we call it, and set about customising my front end, which is a saucy way of saying I tried to find a template, or theme, for my website.

It’s at this point I lost two months of my life. Far from being a creative hotbed, the blogosphere has been homogenised by the two most cantankerous types of people known to man: designers and developers.

To become a blogger is to enter in to the middle of these two professions, who are waging a catfight to the death over the future of the internet. Designers are obsessed with the look of a site and developers are the ones who do the coding to make it work. It’s a words and music type of thing.

There are cultural differences, too. Designers wear Japanese denim, T-shirts with ironic logos and use phrases such as “authentic white space”. Developers wear Gap combat trousers, tend to rank rather high on the autistic spectrum and smirk when you ask simple questions.

Developers can earn more money than designers and are largely responsible for the rise of the theme market, which has flourished because most people who want to write a blog can’t – and don’t want to – learn how to code. This has the added benefit of not needing to come into contact with developers.

Designers view themes as being anti-creative and, more importantly, to have taken the money from their pockets, as it allows anyone to start blogging in minutes without needing their services.

This is largely their own fault. Most designers are like hairdressers – you go in asking for a particular style and come out with the one they can do.

They, like journalists, photographers, musicians and film-makers, are being undermined by the internet’s ability to disrupt their world just because it can. The web is asking a question that many are struggling to answer: what is a professional designer?

In simple terms, to earn a living designers must come up with something both bespoke and scalable, and have to be better, cheaper, and just more creative than what’s available free in the theme forests of the web (tap “Wordpress theme” in to Google and you get about 78,700,000 results).

But, as I’ve grazed endless themes, with their promises of cool minimalism or an urban modern take on grunge, I’ve realised that none of them are exactly what I want.

The best blogs, like the very best magazines, capture a spirit that is hard to pin down until you experience it. Despite all the rubbish on the internet, there remains a genuine excitement about coming across a group of people who are articulating a world view that matches or challenges your own, whether that’s the Huffington Post or the woman in Ranelagh posting cake recipes and pictures of her daughter’s wedding.

There were 555 million websites on the internet in 2011, according to Pingdom, and because of themes many of them look and feel exactly the same. The coders and developers have won out.

But the next era must surely be about differentiation and the reinvention of the designer’s craft. If the last few months has taught me anything at all, it’s that it’s better to work with human beings than lines of XTML or CSS code. Yes, they’re a pain in the arse, expensive and difficult to work with. But, aren’t we all?