Much Ado About 5K

It was an unassuming little web page that posed a singular challenge: could you build a complete website using less than 5 kilobytes?

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5K? Was contest creator Stewart Butterfield nuts? The rules of the 5K Awards, in their entirety, read as follows: “All HTML, script, image, style, and any other associated files must collectively total less than 5 kilobytes in size and be entirely self-contained (employing no server-side processing).” Great. All he left out was the part about not using a monitor or keyboard. And the flagellation, of course.

One of the most-respected designers on the web told us privately: “It can’t be done.”

We nodded sagely. After all, we routinely lavish at least 5K per page on JavaScript alone. And not fancy JavaScript, either. We’re talking basic stuff: sniffer scripts, event handlers, maybe a rollover or two.

5K? That’s a comment above a table cell.

5K for an entire site? The very idea was … was … brilliant.

The original 5K call for entries explained the thinking behind the contest:

[R]igid constraints of designing for the web … force us to get truly creative. Between servers and bandwidth, clients and users, HTML and the DOM, browsers and platforms, our conscience and our ego, we’re left in a very small space to find highly optimal solutions. Since the space we have to explore is so small, we have to look harder, get more creative; and that’s what makes it all interesting.

The challenge and its rationale electrified the web design community like nothing had done in a long, long time. With no budget, no PR firm, no sponsors, no caterers, no rented hall, no celebrity judges, no entry fees, no TV cameras, and no real prizes (not even tee shirts), the 5K Awards and its humble call for entries conjured an outpouring of amazing work.

Halfway through the judging, we hated this contest. Not because the work was bad. But because so much of it was so very, very good. Arguably, more great work was submitted to this contest than to many of this year’s big-time awards shows. It was nearly impossible to pick a clear winner from among so many instances of sheer creative excellence.

And we couldn’t help feeling unworthy, as one artist after another did more with their 5K than we typically pull off with 50. Deep, hurtful shame was what we felt. Like that time after swimming class. With that kid. But we digress.

Why the big to-do?#section2

Never before had so many given so much to create so little. Why was everybody so inspired?

Theory number one:#section3

Designers and web users alike have burned out on big, bloated commercial sites requiring ever-greater connection speeds to deliver ever-diminishing returns.

Here was a chance to get back to the basics of clarity, brevity, and bandwidth. A chance to escape, however temporarily, the terrible info-glut that the web has become.

And maybe to rub our clients’ and project managers’ faces in what the web could be if designers and programmers were in charge.

Theory number two:#section4

Contestants dug it because they got to lose the power tools, and work with their hands again.

Think about the tools we’ve been given in the past couple of years. Photoshop and ImageReady not only get the web, they will cut our images apart for us, and code the rollovers if we want them to. If we wish, we’ve got Dreamweaver, Fireworks, GoLive and beyond to do still more of the heavy lifting for us. And with Flash, Shockwave, and Quicktime, we can create nearly any effect we desire.

In a strange way, all that power may inhibit us from imagining differently. It becomes so easy to open our favorite application, perform our usual tricks, and push the button.

Sure, the 5k reminded us that most of our viewers do not enjoy unlimited bandwidth. But on a deeper level, it brought back the roots and spirit of the web.

The 5K was a blast from the (recent) past, when we had no serious tools with which to build the web. When the medium itself was funky and experimental, and millions of dollars did not ride on every click of the mouse. When we knocked ourselves out to communicate, and maybe even to create beauty, in spite of the medium’s appalling limitations.

Maybe, like aged and bloated Charles Foster Kanes, we felt trapped in a bubble of success. And maybe we were longing for Rosebud.

The contestants – and not just the winners – were so into it, one even went so far as to assign single-letter names to his JavaScript variables, in order to shave a few extra bytes. That’s dedication. Actually, that’s frightening dedication. We hear this contestant later stuck his hand in the fire because he thought Richard Nixon had asked him to.

Not only did all contestants find ingenious ways to build complete sites in less than 5K, many actually created sites that were emotionally moving, visually dazzling, sardonically pointed – or all three.

In other words, many of these works would have been better than much of what’s on the web even if they had used 100K (or a thousand) to make their points.

Indeed, the winning site offered a witty yet powerful critique of the current state of the web via a fully functional e-commerce shopping cart. In less than 5K. Bastards.

The winners,  determined by calculating the median values of numerical scores assigned by the judges, are available for your viewing pleasure.

The lessons of 5k#section5

  1. Limitations are the soil from which creativity grows.
  2. It is possible to create engaging work – witty, pointed, charming, poignant, dazzling, gripping, moving – while respecting the bandwidth and other limitations of the medium.
  3. Since it is possible to do so, and since doing so serves both the audience and the medium, we ought to do more of this, and less of what we usually do. If we really believe in the web as a powerful, dynamic, and democratic medium, let’s put our money where our bandwidth isn’t.

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