A screenshot of Stephen King on the Net appeared this week on the One Terabyte Of Kilobyte Age Tumblr blog. The page was last updated on the 14th of October 2000. The screenshot didn’t go unnoticed: 52 users reblogged and liked it. I tagged it as “my,” ”fan,” and “clipart,” looked through the news and links section, read the promise of the author to update soon again—my everyday routine. But this time there is a history to this case that makes it special.
Half a year ago in Tel Aviv, after my talk about immersion and the early WWW, the generous Dr. Lior Zalmanson gave me a tour of the town. After a short talk he mentioned that when he was a teenager, he had his page on the GeoCities too. It’s not a rare thing to hear from people I encounter, but it’s usually the case that they don’t really remember what and where exactly it was. Lior on the contrary was quite precise in his memories. Not only that, he could remember details that made it obvious that this website was a big deal and a big part of his life. So I’ve asked Lior for an interview that ended up taking place on the 28th of October 2016 in New York.
Olia Lialina: How old were you when you started to make the page?
Lior Zalmanson: I got thirteen in December 1996, and the page was created in the beginning of 1997.
Honestly, I didn’t have to ask, I remember you referring to it in Tel-Aviv, and it was in that moment that I’ve decided I should really talk to you. There is this arrogant phrase that I found in 2008 on a generator that made fun of the early web pages. It’s banner shouted: “Make Any Webpage Look Like It Was Made By A 13 Year-Old In 1996!” It was repeated many times in articles and blog posts, and became sort of a stamp of sarcasm they put on GeoCities pages. Now to the real question:
Were there other 13-year-olds around you who were making webpages at that time?
LZ: I think I was relatively early. I remember vaguely there were a few other computer geeks in class that have been experimenting with HTML or building pages. But I don’t remember anyone of them to have any content other than a page with their picture, their first name, saying what are their hobbies, “my favorite links.” I think I was the only one that I knew of in my class that has really done a webpage for something.
OL: Did your classmates know about your page?
LZ: I don’t think so. Maybe my best friends. The web was another universe, my page was made for people out there.
OL: You proudly state that you had a purpose. And the purpose was…
LZ: …Stephen King. I was in the eighth or seventh grade when I started to read Misery, a very famous book of his. But I remember not finishing that book (don’t remember why, though) and went on to start from the beginning, reading his first ever published book from the 70s—Carrie. Very famous book which became a very successful film later. I’ve just been in love with it but my English level at that time was poor. It was never published in Hebrew so reading it in English required me to sit with a translator and a dictionary. I needed to search the meaning of almost every other word and that’s how I basically taught myself English.
I became an avid collector of Stephen King much more than I was an avid reader. I was interested in everything that has to do with Stephen King even though I didn’t have enough time to actually read all the books. He published something like 40 books by the time I encountered him. When I started the website I think I only read three or four of his novels but I was already very, very into making an online shrine for him.
OL: So this was not like you wanted to make a webpage and you were looking for some good reason—but the opposite. How did you start? Were you collecting the objects for your future shrine online or in the physical world?
LZ: I was collecting his books and his movies offline. Of course I also wanted to experiment with the website and online artifacts. So I remember when GeoCities opened, and everybody talked about this free and open way to do and host websites, I remember I wanted to be part of that. However, apart from Stephen King artifact collection, I wanted to be part of GeoCities and I recall I wanted some online presence.
OL: Who told you about GeoCities? Your parents?
LZ: No, my parents never used the Internet that time. I don’t remember using search engines back then so I guess I probably read about it on somebody’s website.
OL: Why did you choose the Hollywood neighborhood and Hills suburb? Do you remember how this decision was made?
LZ: First of all, I now remember that it was a mistake. My site was totally in the wrong neighborhood because Hollywood was supposed to be about cinema and actors. Stephen King maybe participated in a few films as an actor or he did get some credit as a screenwriter but most of all he’s a literary figure. He is not necessarily a Hollywood figure. So, you know what? …I don’t remember clearly. Maybe Stephen King wasn’t my first idea. I opened the space. I wanted to do something about a favorite celebrity so I opened this in Hollywood and then I decided Stephen King so I left it there.
OL: What we know now about your webpage from meta data is that it was last updated on October 14, 2000 and that you started it on the 19th of February 1997. What was happening in between 1997 and 2000? Three and half years of maintaining your shrine?
LZ: Let me state something. This page got famous. It’s bad but it was really, famous. Look, if you scroll to the bottom of the page… ahh, the counter is not in your archive. We can’t see anymore how many people were there, right? But I can tell you by the end there were hundred of thousands if not millions of visitors.
OL: I’ve never seen a counter with seven digits, I should say :)
LZ: Yeah, exactly. To this day, I’m trying to understand that success and the success was probably due to how early I was in building this online presentation for King. Now I’m kind of ashamed of it because it was such a poor kind of presentation. But this was, I think, one of the first of maybe ten or twenty websites that were dedicated to him and since the Internet in the 90s was so geeky, a lot of the first users were interested in horror films and books.
When I look at it now I see it’s a very minimal website. It doesn’t have a lot of pages. But what I wanted to convey to other people interested in Stephen King is what other books are out there, what they should read… Basically this page is like a Wikipedia, a one-Wikipedia article on Stephen King.
I updated often, you see I had a news section? Unfortunately I erased the old news, things that were not relevant anymore, or at least so I thought back then.
OL: Can I ask you something? When you now say that you are ashamed and it’s poor, you mean design or provided information?
LZ: Well, design of course. This page is a Word Document! This is Word. I was very lazy when I was 13. What I did was I saved the Word document as HTML.
OL: OMG… but you were not alone.
LZ: I was not alone. Yeah, I know. But! At least I can say I did look at the code and changed it a bit. So you can see here is an affiliate link to Amazon which I’ve added to the HTML code.
I used to get money from Amazon if people bought books through my website.
OL: There was no Amazon in 1997.
LZ: This is later, around 2000, in the last year of the website. It started to make money. I think I made like $6 or $7.
OL: Would you say that in between you started it and until the end, it was the constant process of working on it. Or rather you opened in 1997 and then nothing and then in 2000, you forced yourself to make a last upgrade…?
LZ: In the first year, ’97, ’98, I think I updated it quite a lot. So a lot of the things—I started with the books and then I added more recommendations and I added news regularly. But it’s true that the last update came after a long period of not doing anything on the site. I actually say it on the page in your archive: “O.K O.K… i’m to blame for the delay in updates… i had a really tough call if to close this site due to lack of time or try to update it once in a while… anyway i chose the latter due to the nice feedback i got from U guys.Please forgive me too for the delay in replying to your letters, it’s the most busy year iv’e ever had.”
OL: Let’s talk a bit about the graphics. Where are all these GIFs coming from? Can you remember?
LZ: So let’s start with the purple buttons. These were done in PowerPoint actually. I do remember.
OL: OMG… PowerPoint!! Why would one make graphics in Powerpoint?
LZ: I don’t know why I couldn’t do it in Paint. I think because of the fonts or because Paint doesn’t work good with letters. Other pictures come from Word clipart. I don’t remember where I got the animated GIF from, I just remember looking for a scary monster and found something that looked like a monster in one of his books called The Langoliers. This was a novella which was published in 1990. The film after it was made in the mid 90s. There’s a creature in The Langoliers that look kind of like this. They’re like round, small and they have big teeth. So …
OL: What about the header of the website?
LZ: The one under the title is a traditional Microsoft clipart. This was the only scary clipart they had in the Microsoft Word collection, probably for Halloween.
OL: What about the text over it?
LZ: This is WordArt.
OL: Let’s come back to the navigation. I was making my first webpage around the same time, in ’95. I was older than you. But it doesn’t matter. For web design we are the same generation
LZ: Yeah, the same software.
OL: Exactly, and the same zero-experience. So I remember this urge I felt to make navigation in buttons, not text.
LZ: True. I tried to make graphics for navigation and have them huge. Today they look bizarre, more like banners than navigation. Like an advertising. Almost looks like you shouldn’t click on them because it’s like it’s not part of the page.
OL: What resolution you were aiming for? Probably 640×480? Was it your screen size?
LZ: Can’t say if I thought about that. But now, as you resize the browser I see that it looks optimal only when the window is very very small.
OL: Do you remember some choices you were making about the colors, the fonts, and if it has changed during three years??
LZ: I believe the website was always gray. I didn’t want white. For some reason, I thought white was like not aesthetic or boring or – but I want it to be readable. I wanted to be not scary-scary. A lot of Stephen King websites are black, black with red letters. So it’s like scary-scary. I wanted to do something that is not—let’s say—too happy.
I believe the most horrible page design-wise is the Hebrew covers, which includes all the covers of Stephen King published in Israel in Hebrew. If you look at the Hebrew covers, it’s so bad in terms of color choice – I chose this wood-like pattern in Word. I probably found it fun because Word had all these backgrounds options to play with. I also don’t know why all the text in this page is meshed, I don’t know why I couldn’t separate it.
The Hebrew page was a key attraction on my website because it was the only place online where you could find Stephen King editions in Hebrew. Nobody knew of them at that time and a lot of collectors or fans were interested in observing the pictures of how the different books look in different languages.
OL: When you say that the page was popular, you mean statistics or feedback your got?
LZ: Let’s go to the guestbook. the only story I remember about the guestbook was that one time I found that there was some sort of a troll who started posting like Nazi comments. I was a Jew in Israel. Very alarmed at first to find such a thing, so I immediately erased the guestbook. That’s why the current guestbook in your archive doesn’t go very far. It is the new one I opened later.
OL: They are rarely preserved… Great yours is here!
LZ: I had thousands of entries in the guest book. There was I think a burst of visitors in the beginning, like around ’97, ’98, because it was still very rare to see such an informative website on Stephen King. But close to 2000, there were better websites. By the way, Stephen King got his official website in the beginning of 2000. After that other websites seemed less important.
OL: Were you getting emails?
LZ: Yeah, yeah, people could email me. firstname.lastname@example.org was my email that time. I don’t know how to log in to it anymore. I stopped paying for netvision. Also, you can’t see it on the latest version, but my site was part of the web ring. It was called The SKEMERS Ring—Stephen King emailers. So it was a discussion list in an email dedicated to like Stephen King writings and fans. I was part of it. A lot of traffic came from that community. You can see the links in my links page are to different websites of friends that I met online. This website helped me to be part of the group, mainly with Americans, which quite evidently, were the biggest group of fans in terms of geography.
OL: Were you ever contacted by someone official, or even Stephen King himself?
LZ: No. I always dreamed I would but no … never.
OL: Did you dream that Stephen King would see …
LZ: Yeah, Stephen King or his agent. I thought it can’t be that he doesn’t know that my site exists. Probably he has seen this website because it was one of the few that existed back in the day. Also, I remember that other Stephen King websites took notice. Including one that wrote about the funny use of graphics in my page. I don’t know if it was an insult or a compliment
This is by the way an interesting image because this was done in PaintShop. There
you could do these interesting layers. So, it was black and you can like apply to it a brush effect, but the brush looks like – almost like neon lights. I made this entire page later than 1997. I think in that period, it symbolizes this part of me that wanted to belong and to make it to look like other Stephen king websites that as I was saying, were in black and red.
OL: Was there anything you tried out, wanted to achieve but it didn’t work design-wise or code-wise?
LZ: I never knew how to do frames—and I’m glad I didn’t do it. It was really popular back in the day to have more than one frame but it was actually so ugly.
OL: What happened after you stopped to update your GeoCities page?
LZ: I was in the 11th grade, finals, also getting to have real high school friends and just having new relationships and being a teenager. I didn’t have the full capacity to invest in that. I stopped reading around that time or at least stopped extensively reading Stephen King. I realized that the books had affected me and not always in a good way. His books are very, very dark. I don’t know if you ever read them. But they usually concern evil and I think I was maybe scarred. Everything I read afterwards, I always thought, “OK, when is the evil part going to happen?”
So, I said: I’m stopping with this. I need to read other books, other kinds of books.
I lost interest in him and I lost interest in the community. I also recall now that a lot of interactions around the website and the Stephen King community were happening on ICQ. I had my school ICQ friends, but I had also had 60 Stephen King related people I’ve talked to frequently (but never met) in ICQ, and that too had died out sometime during high-school.
OL: I see… my question was rather about your presence on the web after. Did you buy a domain name later? Did you move to LiveJournal? Where did you spend the years left before Facebook arrived?
LZ: I think only around 2006, I started experimenting with blogs. But I never really maintained them—I had a few Hebrew blogs. The most extensive of them is like 30 posts. I was never interested in my own diary online.
In between 2000 and 2006, I did not really had an online presence. I joined the university in 2001. So I guess I automatically got a webpage on my university server. It still exists as I spent on and off about 15 years in that university and recently officially graduated with a PhD.
OL: Yes, your university page is where it should be http://www.tau.ac.il/~zalmanso/
LZ: Exactly! ~zalmanso, my username at the university.
Funny enough, this webpage is also a Word document. So my HTML skills have not really improved. But academics need a bad website, right? All the professors have bad websites.
OL: I call it Prof.Dr. Style :)
My last question is about 2009. Have you noticed at all that GeoCity was closing? How and when did you get to know it and what was your reaction and action?
LZ: I don’t have a good answer to when and how I heard about it, as I recall generally I read about it and did not really do anything, just checked that the Internet Archive saved the website, that’s it.
OL: Thank you Lior!
And to all the readers out there, if you would like to talk about your home page, contact me at email@example.com!