Why to make home pages today
Transcript of my talk given at superglue.it launch on the 3rd of October 2014 at WORM, Rotterdam
It is a great feeling to speak at the event which launches a device packed in a box that instructs:
“Make your own webpages and host them at home.”
Sounds simple and humble. But there is so much in this sentence – a 20 year history of love-hate relations between users and developers, users and providers, users and the internet, users and the www.
It also contributes to a long web debate about what a home page should be.
Let me explain and argue why you should actually still make one.
“Make your own home page” is an old appeal. It is older than the mid 90’s. Not even 1994, but 1992. On the internet, one year is equal to ten astronomical years, there is a century between 1992 and 1994.
So in 1992, the home page was a document that you saw when you opened your browser – which at that time was WWW on the NEXT computer.
As the author of “The Whole Internet” noticed in 1992: “The home page provided by CERN is a good entry point into the web; it points you to a lot of resources fairly quickly. However, there are lots of reasons to want your own home page.”
He meant that maybe the links provided by CERN are far from your interests and you’d prefer, for example, links to medicine rather than physics resources when you open your browser. So you could edit the CERN page, filling it with your links and notes and it would be your home page.
So 50 years later :), in 1993, with the arrival of the Mosaic browser, the web left academia. Web users got ideas and tools to extend home pages, and turn them into websites. The term “home page” started to change its meaning. It became the first page of a website. Then as a sort of metonymy, it started to mean personal web pages. Making a home page soon meant not making the first document of your website, but making your personal website, your home page, YOUR HOME ON THE WEB.
Early web users were very busy imagining what their cyber homes should look like. How to design a space which is cozy, but in a galaxy far away. Many worked with the metaphor literally, using images of houses with porches and roofs, bedrooms and kitchens, over starry backgrounds. A half open door to the universe is quite a frequent motif.
Cyber homes made at home. At your personal computer. Superglue suggests that you should not only make your home page at home, but also host it at home, to turn your actual house into a cyber home.
This page was last updated in 1999. Fifteen years ago. Fifteen years which were marked by the growth of the idea that you as an individual should not make your hands dirty with HTML or with making your home page at all. Month by month, building homes was replaced by generating content. Livejournal, Friendstr, Myspace, Facebook, Hyves, Twitter, Instagram. All these platforms brought and still bring millions of people online. People who communicate, express themselves, generate… sometimes they question underlying structures, sometimes not.
We are active, but we don’t build the web.
I have followed this alienation since 1999. At that time, social networks were already around but they did not look like a threat to the amateur web world. It was professional graphic/web design world which was ridiculing people who would put outer space backgrounds and under construction signs on their pages. At that time, my interest was mostly aesthetic. I was collecting elements, using them in my art and design projects. I taught students not to be afraid of under construction signs and external links (basements of cyber homes).
In 2004, ten years ago, when Blogger, Livejournal, and Myspace became popular, I saw that not just the aesthetics but the culture of making home pages – welcoming users to “my corner of cyberspace” – was disappearing. I initiated a home page award, the $1,000 Page.
I got quite some entries. It was nice to give prizes to long-standing personal pages. In 2005, together with my students and other artists we announced the prize again. But it was too late. People still wanted to get 1,000 dollars, but they were applying with their blogs. By todays standards, this would still be quite valuable input. I can imagine that if I were to make this call today, I would get a link to an Instagram account, or a selfie.
Since 2004, I have been writing about the vernacular web and collecting amateur productions of the 90’s. Since 2011, I have had access to the Geocities Archive – almost 400,000 home pages. I look at them every day. For the last year and a half, I have looked at 72 home pages per day – to keep up with the speed of our “One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Tumblr”, which is feeding the internet with its own history every 20 minutes.
So I see a lot of pages. I know what I’m talking about when I say that losing them is a big loss, and losing the idea that we should make home pages is dramatic.
Believe me, I’m not nostalgic and I’m not the type that thinks everything only gets worse. A photo on Instagram can better represent you than a personal web page. A timely selfie can make you more popular than the perfect personal web page. One tweet can be worth 1,000 web pages… this is all clear, even to me.
Home pages are important for something else, namely three points.
Learning how things work. Even if you make your home page in a WYSIWYG editor, you have to think structurally and algorithmically. You have to think, predict, and ask questions like – what resolution am I targeting? Will it work in another browser? Will it work in one year? It is not about having answers to these questions, but raising these questions bonds you to the medium you are working with. Making a web page is a very medium conscious activity. It is an exam in media literacy.
Making a web page is not only a technical or design task, but a philosophical one. Historically, making a home page required answering existential questions. Do I have something to say to the world? What can that be? It is a bit more than the questions offered by social networks – “what are u doing today?” or, “who is in this photo?”
Early web users thought about what they wanted to say to the world, and shared the answers at the front of their site.
“I have made this web site because I will be a student in the Walt Disney World College Program this Fall.”
“This page is where we started expressing our love for each other long before we were living together, it was our home while we had no mutual home.”
“Hopefully my life isn’t as pitifully boring as I think and a few people will come and read about it.”
“Okay, I finally broke down and decided to setup my own website. (Hey, it’s free… why not?)”
Answers were very different.
Last two are defensive, but I want to quote them here, because in the event that you realized you had nothing to say or add, you could still decide to make a page, just to be a node in the network. Making your own web page was an activity that turned you into a person who was building the web. You could provide links to other pages. It was a noble role.
The earliest screenshot in our archive. A slightly modified sample page, filled with Geocities clipart… and “links to the other sites on the web.”
Here is a home page that conceptually is unimaginable today. A web user provides links to search engines, seeing their personal page as a portal. First of all, today there is only one search engine. Second, it is no longer the user’s job to provide infrastructure. I think today’s equivalent of such a “portal” would be the personal domains where instead of content, you put links to your own profiles on different networks. Though it is rather a form of aggregating than networking.
Yes, people still register domain names for their names and put up at least some index.html file. There are reasons to have web pages, personal and commercial. That is why there are services out there that offer tools to host and create them. These tools are really abusive. Because you are supposed to deal with templates. These templates impose styles and, whats even more damaging – structure, for what a successful page should be.
Fortunately, there are counter initiatives. I should mention Neocities, which motivates users to write html. Newhive, which pushes its users to make pages as if Jacob Nielsen were never born. (Update from 17.10.14: tilde.club – brings back idea of an active web user, a web ring and file transfer protocol )
Superglue’s design toolkit offers the possibility to start from a clear/empty screen. You can go on building your page in WYSIWYG or in a plain text editor and
with open source code from other Superglue pages, you can edit and create yours. Precious. Give it a try.
Don’t see that short period in the 90’s, when everybody made web pages as a short period in history before we got “real tools for publishing and communication online”. Make home pages and fill them with links to other home pages.