Sabotaging the Beautiful Web

At the peak of FontBurner’s success it was delivering fonts to thousands of websites. I was so proud of that tool. That’s why what happened next broke my heart almost completely.

I built FontBurner because I believed the web should be beautiful. This was in 2004, back when a website’s only font options were Times New Roman, Arial and the tiny set of fonts that shipped with people's computers.

There was a new technique, a hack really, called sIFR that let you use any font on your website. I won't bore you with the details, but to use sIFR you needed to own Flash and be able to complete a technical conversion process. FontBurner allowed anyone to use the sIFR hack. You simply picked one of the 1,000+ fonts that I had pre-converted, then pasted a chunk of code on your website. I thought I was making the web more beautiful.

FontBurner took off. I knew it was popular but it wasn’t until a year or so after launch that I took the time to study my traffic logs to see which websites were using my free service. What I learned appalled me.

According to my logs, the amount of traffic my top “customer” received was stunning. I pasted his url into my browser and was immediately presented with extremely disturbing pornography. To my horror I realized that I was basically sponsoring filth by serving free fonts to this disgusting website. I was barely covering my hosting costs, but the money this guy was making, well, I don’t even want to think about it.

I went down the list of the other popular websites using FontBurner. While none were as offensive as the top user, none of the websites were beautiful, either. FontBurner wasn’t making the web better. If anything it was making it uglier, putting the power of typographic control into the hands of people who didn’t understand or respect the art of typography. I wasn’t enabling beautiful typography, I was sabotaging the web by allowing people to easily fill their pages with questionable font selections.

In other words, FontBurner did the exact opposite of what I intended.

I have never really come to terms with that failure. It is crushing to see your work backfire, to realize that you are further from your goal than when you started. It can be devastating to realize that you may never create something as popular as the filth that thrives in the dark corners of the web. It’s hard to carry on when you are presented with evidence that contradicts your core guiding principles. Is the web destined to be ugly? Will the filth always be the top destination of web traffic? FontBurner was eventually obsoleted by TypeKit and Google Fonts, but those questions have stuck with me. It’s 2017 and so much of the web is still ugly. Filth is still only a click away. The thing that gets me through, the reason I keep writing, the fuel that drives me to keep creating is a stubborn belief that I refuse to abandon. The web can be beautiful. I still believe it. Stay creative.


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