Innovator Interview: Ethan McElroy

Ethan McElroyAs a teenager in the ’90s, Ethan had access to the nascent World Wide Web through a local ISP and Netscape Navigator. His curiosity led him to learn HTML by copying web pages as a template for creating his own. An English and fine arts major at the University of New Hampshire, he tried formatting poetry on the Web. One early puzzle was figuring out how to right align text. “That’s child’s play,” he observes, but at the time, without WYSIWYG editors or an obvious source for the answer, he had to work at it. That challenge—and his interest in solving it—would launch him into a career. Ethan has been the Concord Consortium’s webmaster since 2010.

Ethan took his first job at a market research firm in Boston after college, part receptionist and part “web trainee,” because of the learning opportunities it promised. When the webmaster assigned to teach him the tricks of the trade left, Ethan learned Perl, PHP, and JavaScript on his own and with the help of his computer-savvy boss. He was also a regular visitor to the “incredibly informative and fun, but sadly long defunct” tutorial website Webmonkey.

Ethan describes the early days of the Web as “fragmented, a sort of Wild West.” At the time, he drew inspiration from sites like with its quirky experiments, and what seemed like a never-ending parade of new technical developments and tricks appearing all around the Web. Reading Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing with Web Standards and discovering the Web Standards Project and A List Apart mailing list helped him to learn “the craftsmanship of creating well-structured and semantically meaningful HTML.”

According to Ethan, one of the most exciting changes over the history of Web development has been the ability to do things in the browser without plugins. “The evolution of JavaScript is pretty amazing—from simple things like making images change on mouseover to becoming more of a full-fledged development language.” These days Ethan checks,, and Webdesigner News to keep up with the creative ways the web is developing.

One important lesson he has learned about creativity came from a college art instructor who taught drawing “as discovery, the act of finding.” For Ethan, a natural artist who had always been very careful with his drawings, tossing them out if they weren’t perfect, the idea of leaving sketch lines as the history of his search for the “correct” line or shape was freeing.

Though he doesn’t draw or paint a lot these days, Ethan still creates art in the digital realm. He has also picked up photography, in large part to document a progressive 19th century psychiatric hospital building design advocated by Philadelphia psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride. Fascinated by the contrast between the rational and irrational represented by these buildings, Ethan has visited and documented most of the few remaining Kirkbride sites throughout the U.S.

He has also nurtured a longstanding love of music, writing and recording his own songs—even creating an original recording of the late Freddie Mercury! Taking voice clips from the lead Queen vocalist, Ethan broke them into words, syllables, and single vowels and consonants, arranged them into lyrics he had composed, then used pitch correction to form them into a unique melody. During the process, Mercury’s words and voice sparked ideas for a new verse and an original bit of improvisational scat singing. Like searching for the correct shape in his artwork, Ethan has sketched in phonemes to find the music. He says, “It’s all about discovery.”