Evolution of the homepage

Once upon a time, when the web was new (and was called by its full moniker, the World Wide Web), people had homepages. Like little artist studios open to the street, homepages were personal playgrounds made public, space both private and personal. In the days before search engines, we’d visit someone’s homepage because they’d invited us, or someone else had invited us. Discovered not by centralized indexing and retrieval, but instead by wandering and word of mouth, homepages were often magical little rooms, filled with strange objects and stranger stories.

Akin to the houses built into the castle walls, the early personal homepages were homely and homemade. The architecture was vernacular, the materials simple: hand-coded HTML and simple GIF images. We gained access through the twisted doorways of the tilde characters in the URLs; an address like http://meer.net/~johnl/writings/icecream.html was a common sight. It was a time before domain names became brand names, and before URLs became inscrutable.

Those days before the browser wars were primitive but invigorating. Web publishing technology was simple and relatively accessible. If you could run a text editor, you could learn enough HTML to design your first page in just a few hours. Browser bugs and incompatibilities existed, but the markup syntax and layout model was so simple that bugs could be worked around. No one considered pixel-level positioning, custom fonts, scripting, or stylesheets. There was simply no way to do it, short of large graphic files with image-maps. A page changed only when the creator changed it; the web was expansive, but static. The worldview of the early web was about description; we described the way we wanted the page laid out, and so it was.

Many years have passed. The kingdom of the hobbyists and hackers has scattered; the castle walls have come down, replaced with carefully designed monuments expertly built with exotic materials. No one hand-hews raw HTML tags, or lifts their files into place using FTP. Most of the old personal homepages were left behind; some still exist in dark corners of the Internet, their simplicity holding them together like baling wire and tin cans.

The movement towards WYSIWYG authoring tools (the words themselves should have been a warning) began the industrialization of the web. Like a buyer of a Sears Craftsman house, a homepage author could begin by searching through a library of designs, templates into which their personal vision would be slotted. The raw materials of HTML would be hidden from him: he would need only to design with the abstract GUI tools of DreamWeaver, FrontPage, and other desktop and web-based applications too many to mention. These are still with us, still uploading horrendous, hacky code to homepages.

But even templates could not satisfy. We needed the machines to not just blindly copy, but create. The age of informational robotics, of dynamic content, was upon us. Calendars! Menus! Forms! Widgets! Plugins! Action! A webpage was not just a description, but directions in many languages to many players: the backend code creating brand-new and perfectly adapted content for each viewer, the web server constantly shuffling data, the stylesheet converter prettying up the elements, the layout engine placing boxes to and fro, the JavaScript perversely modifying its own document, and way back in the rear of the hall, tired and overworked, the decrepit HTML attempting to glue it all together.

In the sprawl, we lost track of the open space, the squats where the personal homepages had largely existed. Gone was the open access in the free space of a borrowed server; schools and companies no longer permitted personal use. Evolution through generations of ISPs left us with the shiny but controlled and corporate expanse of the AOLs, Earthlinks, Yahoos, and Googles. Creating a ‘profile page’ in those super-franchised spaces offered only the illusion of a web-room of one’s own.

If we found our way to the real estate being hawked by the commercial webhosting services, we pressured ourselves to make a big splash. Our own domain, custom code, a database, mailing lists, RSS feeds, perhaps even a saleable product or two… We became celebrities of our own making, abandoning the simplicity of the homepage signed with a tilde at the back of a borrowed server, and lit out for the bright lights of the owned and paid-for personal site. But even that was ultimately unsatisfying, even frustrating: the technology had grown so complex, and the interface expectations so high, that one spent more time debugging browser bugs than creating a personal space.

Yet through all this the homepage survived. Industrialization, automation, centralized hosting, and the desire for an online personal space finally created that awkwardly and anti-climactically-named prime construct of the early 21st century: the blog.

The modern blog is as rigid and formal as the pioneering homepages were fluid and diverse. Almost no one, save the geeks, creates a blog from scratch, purpoase-built to fit their purpose; only a few people customize their blogs beyond selecting from a tiny catalog of ‘designer’ themes and choosing a few widgets. Most of the millions of blogs are hosted on the same half-dozen server farms. Creating a blog is easier than finding parking in the mall.

We could almost just stop here. The architecture of the blog is simple, but useable; it’s flexible, but not overwhelming. I’ve seen amazing websites built on top of blogging platforms, and the simple abstractions of posts and pages (plus decent widgets for WYSIWYG editing) finally rises above the tedious construction of HTML files.

But a blog is, in the end, just a notebook. It’s perfect for some people, a reasonable compromise for others. But often a blog ends up where it started: a personal journal, in reverse chronological order. Its constraints can be freeing, or frustrating.

However, such criticism ignores two important elements of blogs that point away from the self-centered act of journaling, and towards the new personal homepage. Those two elements are feeds and comments.

Comments (and trackbacks, to a lesser extent) enable the blog to not only exist as an individual online space (which may have ‘active’ widgets, as per the second-generation web), but as an interactive space. No longer is a visitor a passive viewer in a homepage; they can record their reactions, and far beyond the old-school ‘guestbooks’ that gave a brief nod towards interaction, the comments become a part of the space itself. Granted, comments are a limited tool in a shared space, but they’re important nonetheless.

Feeds allow a long-term, long-range view into the space of the blog. Feeds effectively expand the space of a site, and let me see a part of what happens in your space. The seeing is mediated by the limitation of the data that goes into the feeds, which makes certain that reading a feed does not (in most cases) replace the real experience of actually visiting your space.

And so, starting from the early static homepages, moving through the dynamic but still independent spaces, then adding a little local participation and remote observation, we now arrive in what seems to be a nomadic online world. This is not pioneering; we’re not hewing our own log walls out of the cybernetic wilderness. This is not homesteading; our MySpace or Facebook page is rarely the only place we hang our online hats. And this is not suburban consumerism; we are spending much more time in places other than Amazon and porn sites.

It’s far more effective and interesting for me to share my photos on Flickr or SmugMug than it is to install a gallery on my own site. And posting my travel tales on a shared travel-blog site like TravellersPoint is ultimately more effective than perfecting my own travel-blogging engine. The effort in getting my photos seen or my travel tales read is so much less when I chose a context that encourages that specific kind of content, and more importantly, encourages interaction between the members. I am participating not just in the general online world, but in shared contextual spaces. This is a new dimension in participating online: not only do I decide what and how to express myself, I must consider where to express myself. If I want to start creating songs, it’s probably most effective for me to find a network of other people who are fellow musicians, and who want to share and participate.

As we participate in all these blogs, networking sites, forums, and other communities, we each create and build this network that reflects ourselves. If all this content and interaction was gathered together, it might be similar to the stories told on those early static HTML homepages.

Of course, this isn’t entirely new. Since the earliest use of online forums (bulletin boards, mailing lists, and so on) in the 1970s and 1980s, anyone’s collected participation could be looked at as a sort of dispersed personal space. But that space could not be readily identified, described, or maintained, much less managed.

And I don’t mean managed by an IT staff. The breakthrough of social networks, and what the hullaballoo is largely about, is that these networks represent (and mediate) the relationships between me and all the people I interact with, and I can make choices about which connections to encourage, which to reject, and which to simply ignore. In the past, connecting all my postings, chats, and other online interactions together would have been done by inaccurate webscraping and spidering, postdated notes of memberships, and heuristic searching of archives for common email addresses or nicknames; now, by importing and exporting the definitive (for each site) information through published APIs, many sites allow me to connect together several sub-identities into a super-identity I can call the ‘online John.’

This is, in a sense, ‘John’s homepage.’ The network as a whole contains the strange objects and stranger stories that I have collected, along with the people who have witnessed them. But it is dispersed, and although more navigable and connected than in the past, still without a good starting point.

And that leads me to the original inspiration for this essay: what a personal homepage looks like to me now, and how that differs from the homepages I created in the past.

I believe there is still a purpose for a personal homepage. I still want to hand out a business card to a person I’ve just met, and say, “This is where you’ll find me.” I still want to shape the impression, show the network strands of my online personality. Currently, I can think of no way to do this except for setting down a particular place on the net where I can gather the aspects of the ‘online John,’ perhaps give a preview of where I’ve been, what I’m doing now, and where I’m going.

But while my personal homepage is a starting point — a portal,
dare I say — it is not the center. The homepage is not the content of my online identity; it points to aspects of that identity.

And so, technically speaking, my homepage is a thin skin on top of a few of my online identities and spaces: email, IM/Skype, Twitter (new for me), my photography work, my travels, and my technical work. The entire homepage is dynamic and based on external feeds and APIs: there is no local data (save for some of the overall descriptions, where I don’t have access to the appropriate APIs on the related sites; for example, Flickr doesn’t allow me to access the text of my profile via an API).

As we used to say in the old days: Please check out my homepage, at http://johnlabovitz.com.

Published in: on 23 May 2008 at 8:07 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Most people consider their MySpace or Facebook page to be their “homepage” today — or maybe the “About” page on their blog.

  2. This is one of the most intriguing and delightful meditations I’ve read on the development of the homepage since the rise of the Web. The writing is such a pleasure, the language so alive, the perspective so refreshing that I am forced to engage it as poetry or meditation, rather than straight-up description or argument—though clearly it contains these, too.

    From “wandering and word of mouth”
    “We gained access through the twisted doorways of the tilde characters in the URLs”
    Now “No one hand-hews raw HTML”
    “Like a buyer of a Sears Craftsman house”
    “uploading horrendous, hacky code”

    Within the poetry are many keen observations, for example, of the move from page description to directions to many players. Players in the literal, i.e. technical, sense but also, as I read the line, in figurative and metaphoric senses. Or, “We needed the machines to not just blindly copy, but create.” I’m not entirely sure what is meant here, but it rings a lot of bells. Deep sub-harmonics resonate in the architecture of this piece.

    Your meditation on “the evolution of the homepage” raises a few questions for me as an ethnographer of the early Web. For example, when you describe “ the AOLs, Earthlinks, Yahoos, and Googles” as “super-franchised spaces” that offer “only the illusion of a web-room of one’s own,” I wonder on what basis you, or I, can judge them as illusory, if those who live in these rooms feel otherwise? Even if we assume that I share the same sense that something meaningful has been lost in translation, the question I come to is how to a persuade those who didn’t know the pre-Web Internet, or pre-browser wars Web, that things were once otherwise? In what sense were they less of an illusion back in the day?

    Yet these are not exactly objections, for how could (and why would) I object to a meditation. Raising questions is part of the point, no?

    My last note is more like an objection, but I offer it in the spirit of dialog. I’m not sure how widespread the desire for a single “portal,” an umbrella URL one can put on a business card, is. That would seem to me a matter for empirical research. Anecdotally, I know several people who cherish the ability to have a number of distinct homepages, profiles, and sites—i.e., a number of different Web presences, some overlapping, some quite separate.

    But that seems tangential to the keynote of my comment: joy and appreciation for your musings here on the evolution of the homepage.

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