The Seven Dollar Website

You wanna know where I’m sitting as I write this? In the CBC Broadcast Bunker in downtown Toronto. According to a gaffer-type guy I overheard crossing the atrium, somewhere high above me the very last episode of Mr. Dressup is being taped. Truly the end of an era.

And the dawn of another. I’m sitting here in the midst of the Communications-The New Media conference, (a 2-day, $1000 event into which I’ve scammed myself for free…ah, the glories of a press pass), trying to glean some useful information for a story I’m supposed to be writing for my real job. So far the only slightly interesting thing I’ve gleaned is Nicholas Negroponte’s autograph, and that thrill is fading fast.

TSN is here at this conference to talk about the Web as a new revenue stream. If you’ve never been to the TSN website, you might not be aware that it contains one of the Net’s highest concentrations of stupid Netscape tricks and useless slow-loading graphics.

Wanna know how much this electric monstrosity costs them? Seven hundred thousand dollars a year. Kinda makes you catch your breath, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, knock off those five zeroes and you’ve about got the budget we had to work with to get the broken pencil website off the ground. But we did it, and you might as well too. Here now, broken pencil presents the official $7 website guide:

1) You need some stuff to put up there. You self-publishing types probably don’t have any shortage of that. Here’s just two bits of advice: add new stuff whenever you can; don’t hold back your best stuff just because you don’t want to give it away for free. Truly, you’re not going to make any money off of a website in the near future, but you can at least build a reputation for quality content. Cost: Incalculable, but probably less than $7.

2) You need a computer. Anything will do. Contrary to what Intel would have you believe, you don’t need a spanking-new Pentium Pro to crank out Web pages. We used a six-year-old Mac IIcx and a couple of 386’s various people had lying around. You don’t even have to own the gear in question, just get to it. We scammed time on the Mac from my boss evenings and weekends. Almost any school or workplace will have enough silicon in it to get you by. Find out who keeps the keys after hours and start wheedling. Failing that, call up your parents, your brainy kid sister, your nerdy pal from high school. It’s 1996; somebody you know has a computer. Cost: Free if you look around hard enough. Damn expensive if you just break down and buy one.

3) You need brains enough to pick up some basic HTML. If you’ve got enough of them to get past the requirements of Item One, you won’t have any problem here. If you’ve already got Net access (see Item Four) you can find dozens of good tutorials and reference manuals, free for the browsing. Yahoo is always a good place to start. If you prefer the comfort of an actual book that you can throw across the room when your eyes glaze over, I can highly recommend Teach Yourself Web Publishing with HTML in a Week by Laura Lemay. Cost: About an hour of sitcom time per night for a couple of weeks.

4) You need a tap into the Net. This can be the trickiest part to pull off on the cheap, but it can be done. Basic Net access can be had at little or no charge from the friendly local FreeNets now operating in most major cities, but the majority of them won’t let you install Web pages of your own. Still, you never know. Ask and you may receive. If you’re a student and lucky, you may be able to co-opt some space on the school’s server. Likewise, if you work for a company that has a website itself, you may be able to piggyback your pages on that larger site if they don’t take up too much space. Whether or not you’re willing to do the necessary kissing-up to pull off these last two possibilities is up to you. Your honor and dignity may be worth more than $7. If that is the case, you’ll just have to fork over the cash for access from a local Internet Service Provider , most of which throw some sort of Web space into the package these days. Stay away from ISPs that look like they’re catering to the nuveau-Net business crowd; they’ll soak you for all they can get. Try to find the services where the old-time geeks hang out. They’re getting harder and harder to find, but they’ve got their priorities straight. The broken pencil website lives at Internex Online in Toronto, a somewhat notorious ISP with an unconventional concept of “reliable service”, but dirt cheap. To be fair, they’ve been much better lately. The monthly bill comes in at around $15. (Okay, so we blew our own budget. Call it the $17 website). Cost: Maybe free, maybe around $20 a month.

So there you have it. It may not be pretty, it may not be slick, but you have it. This is guerrilla Web-building, using the materials at hand. If you’ve gone the truly El Cheapo route, you now have a fully functional website, capable of carrying your thoughts to millions of people, for free. Congratulations. Take that $7 and go buy a couple of beers to celebrate. Even if you’ve been forced to actually spend some money, you now have a fully functional website for less than the cost of cable TV, and that ain’t half bad. Go nuts, and don’t forget to throw in a link to us.

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