In Praise of Serendipity

After last month’s post on website maintenance, I figured I’d move on to other topics. While driving this weekend, however, I listened to a Freakonomics Radio podcast called “In Praise of Maintenance.”


You can listen to the entire episode above or just skim the transcript. The host, Stephen Dubner, spends time discussing how our cultural obsession with innovation tends to gloss over the sheer volume of maintenance work we all encounter in our daily lives. I saw many parallels to tasks outside of work, but I think it bears a striking resemblance to how websites are created and kept.

Maintenance Is Hard Work

I work on many smaller sites for small businesses and nonprofits which need updating. Nowhere is this more obvious, though, than when I work as a Content Strategist on Federal government websites. I can’t tell you how often I see poorly maintained sites. Stakeholders obsessively plan new sites or redesigns. They ruthlessly exorcise typos and fret over each pixel before launch. New content development is easy at first, but after a while, it’s harder to get it through the approval process. Worst of all, we may not consider the workflow for updating old content or removing it entirely. By the time I am brought in to do an inventory, I see page after page of necessary updates, removals, and changes. Often it feels easier to raze it to the ground and start over.

The incredible thing about the web is how little it can take in cost and energy a site going. But what keeps it going – paid domain and hosting fees – is not what keeps a website ALIVE. Only attention from human beings can do that well. We need to keep eyes on the contact information, the program and product offerings, the return policies, and the finer points of staff biographies. Only our focused attention, at least a few times a year, can keep a website healthy and brimming with the valuable information our visitors seek.

This why I always give training to my new WordPress website owners. I want my clients to be at least a little familiar with the dashboard of their websites so they can take on maintenance themselves, should they choose. I also integrate on-demand tutorials into the dashboard so that they have a helping hand when they need it. Either way, I demystify the tools so they can get the business of maintenance done.

Maintenance is Noble

This past weekend, the occasion for driving and listening to the podcast at all was a family birthday. My father-in-law celebrated his 60th birthday, and my husband and I drove up to surprise him.

Dad is famous for renovating homes and making them new again in the service of his family. His latest venture is an admirable mix of innovation and maintenance. He purchased an old duplex where his youngest daughter lives. He removed the turn-of-the-century knob and tube electrical system and updated it, but he is preserving the original floors and moldings. All of his efforts are making this home safer and more streamlined than ever but still full of the beauty and strength of the original materials. That’s not a perfect metaphor, but it reminds me that what maintenance lacks in excitement, it makes up for in nobility. As Dubner put it in the podcast:

There’s not only a need but a certain nobility in taking care of what you’ve already created. And maybe we shouldn’t look at maintenance as the enemy of innovation.

P.S. The next episode on incremental change is also worth a listen and probably a post in itself!