2017: Twenty years online
Remember AngelFire? It was 20 years ago when I signed up to host my first little web page, establishing my initial presence on the internet. I’ve spoken before about my blogging progression, but for this auspicious anniversary I thought I’d do something a little more special. I’ve uploaded all of my high-school era web pages for your perusal!
Let’s dig in…
It was with a Windows 3.1 computer that I first started making web pages, assembling them by hand with Notepad.exe. Remember that? An
.html file extension was too long, so you had to stick with
.htm. And eight letters was all you got for the filename, so you had files like
finlstry.txt instead of something a little more self-explanatory, like
This was my first exploration into the world of making web pages, and you can tell. It hadn’t been too long since since getting access to the internet at home (via 14.4k dial-up), but I had already spent enough time on ICQ and in chat rooms. Now it was time to create!
Sadly, I had no concept of archiving until it was too late for this one. I had to extract this from the examples section of another one of my pages.
This Geocities site was my attempt to create a community of kids. A place where they could be in charge, and were “heard when they gave ideas.” As you might have guessed, my friends and I took the name directly from the very popular C/NET. The D stood for ‘disenthrallment,’ which means ‘to free from bondage; liberate.’ You can tell we were feeling a bit downtrodden, after all, we were underclassmen in high school.
This was my first experience trying to maintain something long-term for the use of other people. I amassed a good set of kids’ homepages, but it was tough - both to stay engaged myself, and to get traffic! I retired it about a year later.
With a couple initial efforts under my belt, it was time to get serious. I had spent a good amount of time visiting the pages created by people I encountered in chatrooms and the people they linked to - remember webrings and guestbooks? It was time for a real homepage.
In June 1997, I claimed the space that came along with my family’s internet service, and put up a page that had all the requisite components: a counter, random funny articles, and a downloads page linking directly to executables. Scary!
Yes, there is some animation, but it was honestly pretty restrained compared to its peers. I really loved that repeating paper background, but various computers I used at the time couldn’t properly render all of its colors!
I did two things with my page that most others didn’t do:
- Frequent journal updates - I started with very mechanical updates about my comings and goings (and of course changes to the site), but over time my entries became more involved. It’s quite a snapshot of my High School experience.
- Mini-ravings - I periodically decided that some of my thoughts shouldn’t fade into obscurity like my journal entries. Funny enough, each of these is about the right size and tone for a tweet or facebook post.
I can see parts of myself in these old entries, but other parts are quite unfamiliar. Either way, you can see both my ignorance and my suburban California privilege coming through. I like to think that I’ve matured quite a bit in the 20 years since then.
The guide is a good starting place.
In late summer 1997, I realized that there weren’t many good resources on the web for learning HTML. I had learned myself by trial-and-error and the oh-so-important ‘View page source’ button, but not everyone had that kind of time.
This site was an attempt to equip everyone with the means to create their own little slice of the internet. And a way for me to get really crisp with my knowledge.
It’s interesting to note that at this point I hadn’t fully internalized the reality of text on the internet:
- No blank lines between paragraphs
- Two spaces between every period and the start of the next sentence, even though it didn’t actually render in the browser!
- Indentation of the first line of paragraphs, painstakingly rendered with
Not long after releasing my HTML Help site, I released another very similar site. This was an upgrade to include some of the new capabilities being released in new browsers. Of course, I needed two sites because not every browser supported advanced technologies like Cascading Style Sheets!
Out of all of these sites, only my homepage survived. I regularly updated it from its creation in June 1997 all the way until I went to college in fall 1999.
Yes, it is very blog-like. But the difference is that every update was completely manual! If I wanted to make a new journal entry, I would copy the HTML from the ‘today’ page into an archive page, sometimes creating a new archive page when needed.
And occasionally I would make wider changes, like I did in October 1998. I moved the entire site from the lighter paper background to a dark blue background, with smaller text and a simpler, streamlined design. I had to update every page. I couldn’t use style sheets if I wanted to support the majority of browsers. Thanks to my nedstat tracker I had a browser traffic breakdown for my site.
My homepage was a great platform for creative expression of all kinds: thoughts as well as design. I didn’t change the whole site very often, but I did experiment in the small. Most of these are lost to history, sadly. The good news is that one very notable experiment stuck around: my avante-garde homepage!
- Click ‘Cancel’ to get rid of my obnoxious “This is your first time here, right?” popup
- Hover over the randomly-generated spray of letters.
- Click ‘text on/off’ in the top right to see all the names show up
- Click ‘reshuffle’ in the top right to get a new random arrangement
- Click ‘save’ to store the current arrangement of images and the current text display setting
Pretty fancy stuff, eh? It was the landing page for my homepage for a couple of months in 1999. I even used it to get into advanced programming classes at CalPoly, SLO.
Two things caused the end of my homepage. First, in September 1999 its space on JPS was deleted, and re-added with the correct username. It was extremely disheartening because I had no way to tell my loyal readers! My traffic dropped off precipitously. I had a choice: either build up a following again, or give it up.
That decision was made for me by my new environment: college. So many things to do! It was hard to justify spending time on my site. I officially retired it in January 2000.
It was the end of quite an era.
A word on archival
I have quite a few different archival copies of my homepage - just two of them are linked above. But I’ve got nothing from 1997. Only as I started to retire my first generation of sites in 1998 did I realize the importance of periodically snapshotting an ever-changing collection of files. By then my early steps had been lost.
You might have noticed links to Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine above. It’s a great tool, but it’s not comprehensive. It doesn’t have a lot of the images required to fully render all of my old pages, nor many different copies of each page over time. And I did a quick test of the sites listed on my homepage’s links page, but many were missing and the rest were partially archived.
So it really is up to us to archive the past. Now, with free tools like Git and cheap disk storage, it’s a whole lot easier to capture your first, halting steps in a new medium. Use these tools! Don’t wait until it’s too late!
Cloud services are another story. My guestbooks, counters and site tracking data are all totally gone. It’s a good idea to extract data from services like this every once in a while. Especially since I was so interested in getting more people to sign my guestbook.
Since the 1990s the web has been an amazing medium for self-expression, even for the young. And I continue to be amazed that these pages still look the same in modern browsers. Yes, they were designed for far smaller screens, but with very few exceptions they look exactly as they did so long ago.
We’ll see where the next 20 years takes us. One thing is for sure: I probably won’t be sharing that kind of detailed information on the open internet!