I'd gone to Borders Books find myself a copy of the Ruby Pocket Reference. I've long liked having paper books for some things; I don't need the tactility of paper for fiction, but for reference it's absolutely critical, especially when I've reached the point of having so many tabs open on the browser that I've lost track of where I put the reference page for CGI and the one for IOStreams.
While I was looking through the shelves to see if there was anything I could learn that I wanted to learn (not generally), I saw a man browsing through the web development section. He was looking at a book on Dreamweaver. Since I'm not a fan of Dreamweaver, I asked him what he was looking for.
"I don't know," he said. "I don't own a copy of Dreamweaver."
We got into a conversation about what he was looking for. He wanted to learn how to put pages up on the web, he said. He didn't know a think about it. I explained my prejudices, and then we discussed the different layers of web development: HTML describes what goes on a page, and CSS describes how it'll look. The limitations of the web server can constrain your site's page-to-page architecture, and an application server like PHP, Rails, or Django (there were Django books everywhere) will allow you to provide pages that react, with things like logins, preferences, per-user views.
He seemed a little overwhelmed with the depth of knowledge needed. And then I pointed out that I wasn't a graphic designer; the visuals I usually just adapted from OSWD or a similar site, or bought outright from one of the many template stores available online.
And then I finally got around to asking him why he wanted to know.
"I thought I would put up a site for different cities that had deals on cars and other things, and would let members know right then that if they went down to some dealer somewhere they might find the right salesguy having a good day, or the right store with a very low price. You know, same day kind of stuff. I heard that there were these sites that had, what's it called, Adwords, down the side and I heard about these guys who put up a site and it made two or three dollars a day, which doesn't seem like much but if I put up a hundred sites like that it would make a lot of money, wouldn't it?"
I sighed and explained that it doesn't work like that. Only a fraction of sites make even a dollar a day. I said that there's a limit to automating the kind of site he was describing, along with policing it for griefers, spammers, and porn hackers (I had to explain griefer to him). What he really needed was a compelling difference from the rest of the market, how to stand out from the noise, and make your site different from everyone else's, something that would generate a lot of interest. "You've got three options: create content, which makes people want to read what you've got to say, create a community where lots of people want to read what each other has to say, or create an application that makes each and every user's lives better or easier in some way."
He seemed very disheartened by the responsibility of running a business. But then he brightened. "Some sites are just collections of links to other stuff. And they make money."
"Yeah, they cheat. And Google's figuring out how to kill them, because they don't actually add to the sum knowledge of the world. They just steal. Someday, Google will cut them out of the search field."
He kinda shrugged and said, "Well, there's still room for people like me, I guess." He pulled out the Dreamweaver book and walked away. "Thanks for the talk."