I love the idea of static site generators (sometimes known as SSGs or SSBs – static site builders). They eschew the complexity of modern CMSes such as Wordpress. Instead of server-side code and databases, a static site generator is a script that, when run, transforms a folder of text files and templates into HTML.

There are advantages to SSGs over CMSes:

  • They’re portable and cheap: You can host an SSG site anywhere that can host HTML files – including many free services.
  • They have a built-in escape strategy: If you decide to switch platforms later, you can take your folder of Markdown (or similar text-formatted) files elsewhere. No complicated database migrations or exports are required.
  • They’re fast: All the processing happens at build time so the server doesn’t need to run custom code to serve the files.

There’s also some disadvantages. Namely: you can’t include features that typically require server-side code, such as native commenting or search. They’re not ideal for complicated multi-user setups with permissions and editorial workflows. They also aren’t appropriate for non-technical authors since they’re generally run from a command-line and require committing to a git repository¹.

I’ve long used Jekyll, a venerable and capable SSG, for small projects and blogs. Jekyll is simple to use and has been supported out-of-the-box by GitHub Pages for many years.

For this blog I experimented with Eleventy, stylized “11ty.” It has commonalities with Jekyll but offers more hooks for deeper customization. It’s also written in Javascript — a language I know well and can use to customize the setup to my heart’s content.

It’s similar enough to Jekyll that I was able to migrate over my contra dance caller and organizer site with almost no modifications. It’s flexible enough that I almost feel not like I’m using a prebuilt system and more like I’m constructing my own system out of the building blocks Eleventy provides. You can see my entire Eleventy configuration, but here’s a few custom things I’m doing:

  • Using Markdown footnotes and customizing how they display
  • Using indented SASS instead of CSS and Pug for my HTML templates²
  • Adding my own custom filters for formatting dates and numbers

I’m excited to push the boundaries of what SSGs can do. Here’s a few things I’m looking forward to experimenting with:

  • Blog posts in formats other than Markdown: In particular, I do a lot of data visualization using Observable notebooks and I’m interested in devising a way to natively self-host those.
  • Pulling comments on posts from other platforms such as Mastodon³. I imagine this will take the form of a periodically run GitHub Action that looks for comments on other platforms and commits them to the repo.
  • Integrating some sort of search. I’m planning to explore client-side search engines, like Lunr, but if that turns out to be too bandwidth intensive, I’ll investigate hosted options, like Google Programmable Search Engine.

Overall, I’m very happy with how Eleventy is working out for me and excited about exploring its possibilities.

(Someday soon, I will write a blog post that isn’t a meta-post about the blog itself. In the meantime, I just migrated over an old blog post about my life a decade ago, if you want something different.)

  1. I don’t think these are necessarily inherent to the concept of SSGs – and there have been attempts at user-friendly GUI editors – but it is at least how they are typically generated and hosted now. ↩︎

  2. I’ve been a sucker for indented languages, ever since I learned Python in college. I think they look more elegant and they eliminate whole classes of syntax errors. I may have to give up on Pug though – it’s a somewhat fussy language that’s not well documented or maintained and doesn’t play nice with Eleventy’s default filters. ↩︎

  3. Inspired by Jeff who pulls in comments from various platforms to display on his blog. ↩︎

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