The Magic Potion: How to become l33t

People keep asking me about this “great” web course I took at Ryerson a few years ago. They want to improve their web skills for work, and they need something to put in their performance and education plans.

They know I moved from a pure Communications job to a New Media role, and they think this web course must have been the Magic Potion that transformed me from English major to Elite Nerd.

I am here to dispell those illusions. There is no magic potion.

Truth: “Great” web courses are few and far between.

They are too software-specific; mine was completely about the Adobe software suite, which includes Dreamweaver and Fireworks. Learning an expensive, fancy program like Dreamweaver won’t help you go from being a n00b (what geeks call normal people) to l337 (what geeks call themselves).

Truth: The web evolves daily, as do the skills needed to use it; courses in classrooms can’t keep pace with the rate of change.

It’s not just about being able to code in HTML anymore. A monkey can learn how to add HTML tags to a word to make it into <i>italics</i>. That’s just not enough. There web is rich and dynamic now. Code is changing.

Truth: The optimal way to learn about the web is by playing with it on your own computer, in your own free time.

If you want to learn about websites, skip the classroom and take the time to teach yourself a few things. The magic potion is your own relentless, raging curiosity about how things work and why. It’s a willingness to Read the Freaking Manual. It’s about dedicating yourself to experimenting fearlessly and making mistakes, breaking code and then tinkering until it works again.

I now hand you the Keys to Nerdtown. Use them, if you’re keen…


  • Browsers. Please tell me you’re not using IE6 at home.
  1. Download and learn to use ALL the functions of the most modern browsers at home on your own computer (Firefox, Chrome), including the most popular plugins and extensions.
  2. Read articles about them. Figure out why Chrome is such a big deal, such a step up from IE6.
  3. Find out why so many people don’t like IE6. What do you mean, security holes? What are security patches?
  4. Learn about the Mozilla Corporation, and why Firefox doesn’t cost money, and how open source works.
  • Social Media. Try creating accounts on every “web 2.0” site you can think of – and then use them, edit them, read more about them.
  1. If you have never created a Wikipedia account, or tried to edit or look at the history of a Wikipedia article, go do that right now.
  2. If you have never created a Twitter account, or tweeted, or @ replied, or DMed or twitpicced, or don’t know what those terms mean, go try it out.
  3. If you have never used an RSS feed, or an RSS aggregator, or are puzzled by the little orange box in the address bar on some websites, go sign up for Google Reader and add some things to it right now.
  • Programming. Find a website you’re interested in, and do one (or all) of these things…
  1. Using Windows? Download and install “Notepad++”.
    Using Mac? Good for you. Download and install “Smultron”.
  2. Use your mouse to right click on the site you like, then select “View Source Code”, to see how the developer designed it.
  3. Keep clicking back and forth between the website and its source until you can see how the two relate to one another.
  4. Use the web browser Firefox and install the plugin called “Firebug”; click on a particular element (like the header or footer) and then view all the different files and folders that relate to that part of the website (CSS, images, etc).
  5. Try changing a number or text in the little Firebug window at the bottom of your screen to see how it instantly affects the look of the page you are on.
  6. Use programs like Xenu Link Sleuth to create a local map of the whole site on your computer, or HTTrack (Windows only, alas) to pull down all the files that were used to create the site so you can pick it apart and sort of “backwards engineer” it, like breaking open a clock to see how it ticks.
  1. Mashable
  2. ReadWriteWeb
  3. TechCrunch
  4. Gizmodo
  5. Start looking at photos of funny cats. Lots of them. Preferably eating cheeseburgers.
  1. Play on the hosting service “dashboard”, which will help you build a cracking site using open source software – use their Advanced “one click installs” process to add programs like WordPress and MediaWiki to your website. Goof around with the settings, learning what works and what doesn’t.
  2. Add some content (blogs, web pages, wiki entries) to your site. Tag them, categorize them. Create users. Link to other sites. Make some of your stuff “private”. Learn how to password restrict things. Search for and try out some plugins. Search for free themes, and add them to your site.
  3. Once you’ve tried adding content to a WordPress blog or a MediaWiki install, try changing the look of the site. Tweak templates to be a different colour, display different things, etc.
  4. To add photos to your site, learn how to use the online free site called Picnik to edit and adjust photos, and then you can store them in photo albums at either Google’s Picasa (which also has great downloadable software for editing/sorting), or Yahoo’s Flickr.
  5. To add audio to your site, download the free program called Audacity and record and edit yourself talking, singing or reading aloud.


  • Accessibility. Search for “cascading style sheets” on Google, and read up on using CSS to define website layout – read as much as you can on the “W3C” website.
  • Analytics. You can’t make something better if you don’t have any way to measure how good or bad it is. Set up Google Analytics on your website and watch the videos for the Individual Qualification (IQ) test from Conversion University.
  • Mobile. Next time you get a new cell phone, consider getting a smartphone with a data plan. A BlackBerry will do, or if you have disposable income you could splash out on an iPhone. Install some apps. Try using the GPS locator function for FourSquare or Google Latitude, just to see how localized the Internet is becoming – not just on your desk anymore, it’s where you are right now.
  • Metadata. Learn how to describe your website so a computer understands it. Look up “metadata”. Go read the DublinCore site.
  • Higher-level programming. Search for “PHP” (a programming language) and “MySQL” (a database type) on Google. Maybe buy a book on it; the Visual Blueprint guides are good. Learn what a LAMPstack is.

These are my best suggestions for learning more about the technical and social workings of websites, on your own time, with a shoestring budget ($10 for domain registration, maybe $100 for hosting – unless you can piggyback on a friendly nerd’s existing account).

And if you don’t know what something is or means, just Google for it.

Everything you have ever wanted to know about the web is already ON the web. It is, in fact, the most informative and current source of information about itself.

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