“BTW — That house in the “HOME” button below really *is* my house!”
There are several reasons why you read an interview with Mike Gates.
First: his page attracted my attention when on the 1st of August 2019 its screenshot appeared in the 1Tb of Kb Age timeline. Its design is a great example of an amateur webmaster making a step in the direction of the professionally looking web: less eclectic, more homogeneous appearance; less HTML, more Photoshop.
Second: I got charmed by the comment Mike Gates left in the bottom of the About Me page. It became the epigraph for this interview.
Third: Mike revealed his real name and the place he lives, I could find him.
And last but not least: Mike agreed to talk to me! That’s not always the case, since people were made believe that making a home page is something they should rather be ashamed of. One of the goals of this interview series is to change the situation. I think Mike’s memories and thoughts about his web past and present can help a lot in understanding what a great role making a web page can have in one’s life.
Our conversation took place on the 3rd of August 2019 via appear.in, with some corrections added in the following days via email and Google Docs.
Olia Lialina: Mike, thank you for agreeing to talk to me. My first question is: the 2nd of February 1999 is the first snapshot of your page in the Internet Archive. Do you think it’s any close to the time when you started your page?
Mike Gates: It’s probably pretty close, it might be just a little bit earlier than that, but that’s pretty damn close.
OL: The early version of your page as in the archive is almost unreadable. Neon green text is put over white background. Probably there was a wallpaper that is missing now, right?
MG: Sure. There must have been a background on there…
OL: But you don’t remember what was it?
MG: No, I don’t recall it.
OL: Did you ever make a copy, an archive of your home page?
MG: No, I never did. I should have had as my daughters would enjoy the look into my past. My youngest will be visiting in a couple of weeks, and I’ll definitely share with her the archive that you showed me….
OL: Why did you decide to make a web page in the first place? What events preceded February 1999?
MG: Well, locally here in Ketchikan, I ran a BBS. People would call up and connect to play online games, download files, chat via RelayNet and so on. I had four dedicated phone lines coming into the house and a network of computers to handle the calls.
The internet existed and was available here in Ketchikan by dialup, but there wasn’t much more than a blinking cursor on the screen, and you had to have knowledge of Unix commands to use it.
But about 1997 a couple things happened.
Internet-wise, a local internet carrier set up shop, and suddenly there was the WEB. My computer BBS, which was my creative project, suddenly went from over a hundred calls from users each day to maybe a dozen or so. Big changes for me personally, and big changes for me as an online presence. My BBS users had migrated almost en-masse to the Internet, and I guess I followed the herd.
For me, personally, in 1997 my marriage of several years came crashing down and I became a single dad to two young daughters. I was a lot on ICQ. I decided since I wasn’t doing my Bulletin Board anymore, I’d start up a web page so people could see who I was. It was just a form of expression.
OL: Sorry to interrupt you, would it be correct to say that the main reason for your web page was to introduce yourself to people you met on ICQ?
MG: Absolutely! I was an insomniac, so I was up till the wee hours every morning looking at pages or whatever and yes, ICQ is always running so if anyone asked who I am I could send them off to GeoCities to look at my page: “I don’t have any secrets! Just me and my kids.”
So, I was up late and I was on the computer a whole lot and like building things so I started building my page. I found GeoCities, there were a couple other options out there, like Tripod, Angelfire and what not.
OL: Were you considering Tripod or Angelfire or did you immediately go to GeoCities?
MG: I don’t remember how I found GeoCities, may be someone recommended it. I looked around at what others were doing on Tripod and Angelfire, but I got a strong sense of family from GeoCities, in particular on the Prairie in the Heartland.
The GeoCities was where I learned nearly all of my web skills. It gave me a chance to express myself, and it gave me something to get better at. I enjoyed pulling apart animated GIF files and reworking them, and I enjoyed making satire pages.
OL: Can you say some words about the special redesign you made for your page some time in 2000, which was active until the page was deleted? I wonder how would you describe this arrangement? What did you want it to look like?
MG: I was fascinated with the technology behind building pages and really wanted to teach myself how to do it. I had a few different HTML programs that I enjoyed using and I really wanted to learn how to make things like buttons that changed color or did things as you moused over them, and I liked taking up a big image and then slicing it and putting it back that it would load up with that different elements.
OL: Can you say anything about the colors and the form?
MG: I used lots of black, because I like a darker colored web pages, and I used lots of greens, because they were earthier. Muskeg is an ecosystem that is part of the rainforest (I live in a rainforest still). As such, there is much lush greenery here. Many of the other colors, well, I just played and experimented. It would be interesting to see what I would put together today, if I was still building pages.
OL: Why did you put the menu on the right? That’s quite extravagant!
MG: I’m still a big fan of a menu on the right! I look back on the layout, and I think I would do it just the same today. It would look a lot nicer now—my tools are much better. With age, I’ve doubtless become more conservative, too… My choices in color might be the same across all the sub-chapters that make up the whole page, instead of as eclectic as they were back then.
OL: Exactly, the homogeneous appearance of you front page, its aesthetic, is gone on the next pages. Actually, every other page looks different!
MG: Yes. I didn’t really have a theme that I ran with, did I?
It was such a testing bed and training ground for me. I really wanted to see what I could do with the tools that I had. There was no rhyme or reason that ran throughout the page. Each sub-page looked different than those above or around it.
Looking back, I was surprised to see the big chains on the Links page—I had completely forgotten about them. They were really garish, weren’t they? *chuckle* Still, I’m not sure who my audience was, other than myself. I so wish that my computer BBS was stored away on some internet archive—it would be great to look back at the graphics I made for that!
OL: Let’s talk about the biggest contradiction of your home page, that you yourself actually did address in the first paragraph of the “About Me” section: you say, you are a humble person, but you understand that it is very easy to guess the opposite “considering all the pictures of me all over the place.”
OL: Well, indeed, pictures of you of all ages and all filters scattered throughout the website. But the most exaggerated appearance is on the front page, where every mouse over in the menu reveals an image of you in a new outfit. Do you have some comments on this?
MG: Yes, I’m a model that doesn’t complain much. (laughs) I love shooting pictures of other people but I am also conscious, a little bit shy in that department. So, I don’t shoot as many pictures of others as I could but I was there so I shot pictures of me. I am not Cindy Scherman, but … (laughs) …
OL: …but (laughs) true, after all it was your personal home page, the right place to do it.
MG: It’s funny, but still some of my better portraits are self-portraits. I am still very, very, humble. I’m still a creative—a photographer—but my biggest problem is imposter syndrome. I think I take myself far too seriously today. When I was building my GeoCities page, my approach was more tongue-in-cheek, with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
OL: My next question is did it work? Did you succeed in finding a partner?
MG: Not with the page, really. I met people through the page and through ICQ. I have people I chatted with regularly but as far as any real relationships, those have always been in real life and not connected to the web.
OL: What about your “Mike’s Alaskan Retreat For Single Moms”? No single mom has accepted your invitation?!
MG: No! That was strictly to be funny! As well as the Lonely Men Of The Great North Wet ’98-’99 World Tour. That was also my attempt at being funny.
OL: I see! The CI (corporate identity) of the page made me think you were dead serious! What did you use for making graphics and animations btw?
MG: I don’t know if I was using Photoshop back then yet or not, might have been the beginning of my Photoshop days, otherwise I was using PC Paintbrush a whole lot. And then for the sizing up of the pictures for loading in the web page I use Fireworks which kind of adds up to the Dreamweaver package.
OL: It also looks to me like you used Cool 3D or something like this.
MG: I used probably not so much Cool 3D, as Xara had some programs and I had a few of their programs. One for specifically building buttons and bars and another one I had—Xara Webstyle (I think that was the name)—helped me build custom buttons that worked with rollovers. I also used that or Xara 3D for banners and animated titles. I was, and still am, a terrible font junkie. I LOVE fonts. So, I would go out and hunt for textures and for fonts that I thought were kind of cool and would load those into Xara which I believe was bought out by Corel—they’re still around.
OL: In the “About Me” section you wrote “I made all the graphics for *this* site, didn’t I?” But I’m sure this chain background you didn’t make yourself, and some other bars, bullets and backgrounds.
MG: No. The graphics I made were all like cut outs of me with the golden glow behind and things like that, I made those graphics and the buttons although a program helped me make the actual buttons. Things like the background for the page… I didn’t make that.
OL: That’s what I thought. But I was not sure about the background on your “Ketchikan and Alaska Links” page. It’s very special, I think I’ve never seen this combination of clouds and chain before. Did you create it?
MG: Okay. I see a page with chains over clouds. No! I didn’t create that. I did the fonts, but not that, and I didn’t create the little Alaska Flags, I found those someplace.
OL: What about Mona Lisa on your photo page? I don’t ask if you made the painting, but was the animation yours?
MG: No, I’m sorry to say that the Mona Lisa was an objet trouvé… Just something I found that tickled my funny bone. I didn’t make that one—I just found it and appropriated it.
OL: Let me quote you as of February 1999: “Sorry there is so little on this page I’ve only just started it and I intend to add a whole lot more to it including links to sites that have something to do with some of my hobbies…” You obviously had bigger plans for the page. Also, in the 2003 version in your link section, there are some buttons that were there but were never linked to anything.
MG: I absolutely did have bigger plans. I was organized in such a way that there were many, many areas on the BBS, resources for different things and that kind of structure followed me on my web page. I had links for software that I tried using, I would have wanted to share things like any tutorial, they’re not as common as they are now. Now you pop on the internet and you can find a tutorial on anything easily or on your phone, you know, but back then you were actually had to look a little bit harder.
And if I found anything that had anything to do with using Dreamweaver or Hot Dog or Coffee Cup—those are the three main HTML programs—if I had anything at all for links for that I would include that, as well as, any resources for just getting through life as a single parent.
OL: I wonder if you remember what prevented you from keeping working on the page?
MG: I think in about 2003, I actually got into a relationship, and that took up much of my creative time. It only lasted a couple years, but I think it veered me a bit off the course I was on. I remained an insomniac, but I think my real-life encounters with people bumped me a bit out of doing quite so much online.
I guess I should note that, while much of the theme of my GeoCities site was about being a single dad, and the silly pages about single moms and single dads of the Great North Wet, I was really grieving the demise of my marriage. It really caught me off guard, and I grieved hard for more than a decade. I am happy to report that I am much better now. The whole GeoCities thing was part of my own therapy in a way, and a way to deal with a tough time, and to make myself happier by putting out a happy vibe.
OL: If to believe our metadata, but it’s not always accurate, you last updated your webpage on the 20th of March 2003.
MG: I might have started one of my other pages by then. And I started using my camera a lot more and enjoying creating more from photographs than I did from just making web pages, I think.
OL: It’s interesting that when I look at your presence on the web now, it’s all about photography but then in 1998 – 2003 you didn’t mention photography even as a hobby.
MG: That is hugely interesting to me! I was a photographer as a teen, and into my twenties. It was my whole life. When I got together with my kids’ mom, it took a bit of a backseat, and when my kids were born, my family life was everything, and photography was more of a memory than an active pursuit. It was only when my grief over the demise of my marriage began to subside, and when my kids started getting big enough to look after themselves a bit, that my photography came back to me. It’s now the main thing that I identify with. It is my main source of pleasure, my main source of frustration and my main source of self-expression.
OL: Is that the real reason you left Heartland and registered mikegatesphotography.com?
MG: No, first was muskeg.com.
OL: Yeah! I’ve noticed you called yourself Muskeg a lot. And you’ve already mentioned that the green in your color palette is a tribute to this mysterious (for me) ecosystem, not a Unix terminal. I saw the question “What does the word muskeg mean anyway?” on one of the earlier versions of your page, but it was not linked to anything, so one wonders.
MG: Muskeg is a spongy, mossy sort of ecosystem that’s a lot like a swamp but is not really warm enough to be a swamp. I don’t know how I settle on that but I did, it was easy to spell and it was short and I figured I was muskeg Mike.
Back in those days it was if you found a handle that you could use online and if it wasn’t taken you kind of use that everywhere. muskeg at that time was available and not in heavy use, in fact I registered muskeg.com I just lost that last year. Hopefully, someday I’ll get it back again but I had that particular domain for 19 years and through lots of circumstances I lost a couple of my domains this last January, including that one. I’m still muskeg in a couple of places, on Deviantart I’m still Muskeg.
OL: In the email you mentioned that there was a short Myspace period in your life?
MG: Yes. I still have stuff there but I couldn’t get logged in. If you go look in there, my username is bigbrainmike and there are some things there but I can’t get in to see everything on there.
OL: And then came mikegatesphotography.com right?
MG: Yes. That’s one of the domains that I lost this year. Now I moved to mikegatesphotographer.com.
OL: I see you are also active on Facebook and Instagram these days, actually more active than on your own web site. I wonder what you think about it? Do you think that Instagram is maybe enough? Don’t you get there everything that you would need to represent yourself as a photographer?
MG: Yes… Instagram has been a lot of fun, last year I made a point of posting a picture every single day, this year I’m a little bit more sporadic.
But I always tempted to do some blogging and I have not blogged. I want to get back to doing a little bit more of that as far as what’s going on with me rather than just images.
I need to revamp my web site and put some life into it because it has not been updated regularly. I’ve got a private folder on there that’s kind of a dumping ground for the recent work that I print up and take to galleries. Other than that, the page is very nice, but it’s stagnant.
It is not easy to update.Things got way too complicated, moved away from simple HTML. Today there is too much programming have to be involved … And I am not a programmer.
Still, I would love to build up a nifty blog someday—maybe learn my way around WordPress… Your email the other day reminded me that making a web page was so much fun before!
OL: True, the fun is over. Speaking of that, In 2009 Yahoo announced that they would close GeoCities. Do you remember hearing it?
MG: I do remember hearing it but by then I had moved on to other things. It was already another era. There were so many things changing at that time. I was kind of sad, but it was pretty much over for me anyway.
OL: I clicked through the links to your friends pages. None of the sites was alive, which I expected, but are you still in contact with any of the people? Jimmy26? Barb and Allie? Moxie?…
MG: Let me check… at least one of them has since passed away. Yeah, some of them are my IRL friends. I am still in touch with the most on Instagram and Facebook.
OL: How do you feel about us republishing your web page (even if it is just a screenshot, but one can find the rest on the Internet Archive)?
MG: Sure! Share it as much as you want. I am an open book.
The time I spent on GeoCities was hugely important to me. It was cathartic and therapeutic.
I now have a web page that lacks the amateur charm of my GeoCities time, and this particular look back at that time makes me rethink the seriousness of my current online presence, in fact the seriousness of my creative work in general. I think maybe it’s time for a slight shift in direction, as well as a whole new focus on my online presence—at least as far as my personal page goes. There are enough pretty photos on the net. It might well be time for more of my personality to show through in my work. Life is short. It should have meaning, but it should also be fun.
OL: Mike, thank you so much for your precious memories and thoughts. I wish you a lot of luck with revamping and reinventing mikegatesphotographer.com and may it live longer than social networks profiles!
And to all the readers out there, if you would like to talk about your home page, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org!