Photo by Joanna St. Jacques
Chris Healey on how the Guerilla website heralded the future of the Internet
You may not realize it, but the paper these words are printed on is a very important part of the early history of the world wide web. Or, you may not realize that the website you are reading right now is very important to the end of the history of the printed magazine. What you probably do realize is Guerilla magazine is the most important cultural magazine about Ottawa. Like, ever.
I know this because one day almost ten years ago I was working at the Ottawa School of Art. I was working there not because I was a talented artist (though of course I am), a passionate instructor (true too, of course) or even an ambitious gallerist (ok, you get the picture) but because I knew how to make a website. So the OSA gave me a job teaching art and running the gallery as long as I would help them build and maintain the OSA site. Little did I know that this modest bit of HTML knowledge, combined with a dedication to the arts, would lead me into a life-long career that combined these two worlds—including work with Guerilla magazinethat represented the future of the Internet as we know it today.
Ok, let me back up a little. One day in 2006 at the OSA this guy walks in and introduces himself as the publisher and editor of Guerilla. He seemed a really nice and sincere kind of chap and he really needed a “web master” to help with a website version of his magazine. Ok, cool, but I was immediately dreading the idea of hand-coding every page of this kind of website. (Remember that? When you had to hand-code every page?)
However, I had heard about something called a “Content Management System” (CMS) and thought maybe this was a good opportunity to learn how to design a website this way. If I could, creating web pages would become as easy as pasting or typing text into an online form and uploading a jpeg. If you are thinking, “That sounds very commonplace, like a blog or social media,” you would be right—except it was not commonplace at all at that time. I’m very proud that getguerrilla.ca was one of the first (like, ever) independent arts and culture magazines to do this.
The CMS was a success and as a result Tony Martins, editor and publisher, was able to edit and publish a lot more articles than he would have if he depended solely on some poor sap to hand-code each issue. Some publications cheated and used images of text to quickly upload content, but I knew that search engines much preferred HTML text, unique content, and a regular publishing schedule. If you are thinking, “Gosh, that sounds like that huge industry right now called SEO (Search Engine Optimization),” you would be right again—except, like the CMS, it was not commonplace practice at all at the time. Again, Guerilla was way ahead of the online game compared to other magazines.
I have to point out that at this time the design of the magazine was very minimal, text-based and clean with lots of white space, where as most art direction of websites in that era was very confused and used lots of texture and colours and silly things like frames (if you don’t know what frames were, don’t worry, you are better off not knowing). I’ll always remember one person telling me, “If you have white space in your web page, then you are wasting web space.” I thought treating a website like a print design was a waste and it was important to have a clean design that was flexible enough to be translated well onto a variety of screens, resolutions and browsers. I’ll always be grateful to Tony for sticking with our approach.
This clean, flexible user interface, SEO-friendly structure and regularly updated website resulted in a big boost in traffic to the website. So much so, in fact, that Tony and some print art director guy decided they could launch a print version based on this success—and they did! It was gorgeous, smart, a complete success, though I was a little sad to not be included in the mast head at that time. It is funny to think that back in those days, web workers like me were often under appreciated and shunted to behind the curtain. Print was still considered king even though there was a digital revolution brewing outside the palace gates. However, Guerilla remains the only magazine I know to spin off a successful print version from a website rather than the other way around—and this again makes me very proud to have been involved.
So we kept pushing the Guerilla website with new web technologies such as audio files (gasp!) and embedded videos (wow!) and then we took a big leap and actually started a Facebook page and even started a Blog section (boom!). Again, (and I can’t emphasize this enough) these initiatives at that time were some of the first ever attempted by an online magazine. (However, I am still not sure if Tony is convinced about Twitter.)
Eventually, I moved on and landed myself many opportunities based on what I learned by messing around the Guerilla website. I even worked at Canadian Art magazine developing their website systems and social media accounts. Only then did I start to realize how innovative we were at Guerilla compared to the larger publications that were, and to a large extent are still are, struggling to catch up to an online audience that Guerilla had figured out years earlier.
Online arts and culture, from museums and newspapers to social media platforms such as Instagram or YouTube, are huge, ubiquitous and only getting bigger. The more I see the web grow and arts and culture flourish online, the more I see what we did with getguerilla.ca as a harbinger to the future of digital publishing and a fascinating piece of web history. Ottawa, you are lucky to have Guerilla in your midst.