From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 22, 1996: The Cult of Home Pages

Without a home page you're a nobody. That seems to be the common knowledge of internet culture. As it so frequently happens (and especially in the Boidem), Doonesbury seems to have said it most concisely:

A web presence is something you have to have because that's the way the world works today.

But that only makes the issue of what you put on a web page all the more problematic. Of course it's not much of a problem if you're a company trying to sell something. Thousands of companies by now have their own web sites, each investing substantial sums of money in order to make the site attractive enough for someone who surfs over to the site to stay. It's still too early in the history of the web to be able to tell whether or not this form of advertising pays off, but it's clear that a web presence has become a necessity for any self-respecting company, if only because without one nobody will take you seriously.

The problem of why companies need a web presence is not, however, what concerns us at the moment. (As a personal aside, I should add that I try to steer away from sites with the ending "com". They're simply not what I'm interested in seing.) What concerns us is why individuals need a web presence. In today's world a home page has become the mandatory blurb about the author that can be found on the dust cover of a book. With one major difference: the home page "dust cover" more often than not doesn't have a book inside it.

So we end up telling about ourselves to people whom we don't know, and even without any assurance that anyone is going to find our page. Yet we keep telling and telling. Since becoming internet savvy has become a necessary part of a college education it should come as no surprise that countless beginnings of home pages that started out as class assignments and then fell into neglect after the semester ended clutter the web. These home pages basically are of the "name, rank and serial number" variety, perhaps with a photograph thrown in for fun, or because in one class session the professor explained how to digitize an image and link it to a web page. Though "under construction" has become a much overused term in relation to the web, these pages often seem as though a group of builders working on a house put down the foundations and went on their lunch break, and forgot to return to the job.

It's doubtful that surfers spend much time looking for pages of this sort, but they're there to be found in bulk, and the major question they seem to raise is "is this the way this person chose to present him/herself?".

But there definitely are ways of telling about yourself on the web. Sadly, there are numerous example of people who have nothing to say, but who succeed in doing so over a very extensive amount of disk space. With a minimum of writing skills, and what appears to be an inverse amount of ego, significant numbers of people have put themselves up on the web for us to find them. If one goes looking for them, one can find life stories that would probably have been better left untold. There are diarists who tell the world what they did at each hour of the day, even though their lives are incredibly uneventful, and their abilities to tell about those lives are just as incredibly limited. But sometimes something truly remarkable can be found, such as Jennifer's life story.

Jennifer is, apparently, a 19 year old former drug addict who comes from a "poor white trash" broken home, worked a number of years as a prostitute, lived on the streets, and is now HIV positive. Her story is told in the first person in a stream of consciousness sort of fashion which is much closer to just plain run-on sentences than an artistic touch. Her story goes on and on, until the reader begins to realize that there really isn't any point and that she probably doesn't learn from experience. (But as of May, 1997, these comments are in need of an update).

One of the more fascinating aspects of this web site is the fact that very clearly Jennifer herself didn't type it, and certainly doesn't know the basic minimal HTML involved in preparing her story as a web page. And if that's the case, who did prepare it and upload it to a server, and why, if this person was able to do all this for Jennifer, can't this same person help her get her act together better than she has?

But it really is possible to put one's life up on the web, and to do so in a way that someone surfing the web will find fascinating and involving, creating the desire to return again and again to an evolving story in order to learn not only about what happens next, but in what ways the person telling about him/herself has chosen to present his/her life. There's a certain fascination involved in trying to guess where a link will lead. One of the best examples of this sort of "life lived on the web" is that of Justin Hall.

Undoubtedly there are many who'll find Justin's musings little more than the rantings of someone with too much time on his hands. But there really is a purpose to the madness. Much of that purpose is explained in a page/link entitled Why the Web?, an excerpt of which appears here (but by all means, read it all!):

The possibilities of telling about oneself via the web have become a significant area of media studies. In addition to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life we now have The Presentation of Self in Web Pages. One of the people attempting to do serious research into this area is Daniel Chandler from The University of Wales. In one small corner of his very extensive (and fascinating) web site (well worth an extended visit), Chandler asks: Do you feel that constructing your own Home Pages enables you to shape your identity? and he invites people to send him the URLs of their home pages so that he can view them. A short look at Chandler's bibliography related to this topic gives a picture of how this field is growing.

Chandler has a lot to say, so we'll bring here only one short point among many:

But after all this (and don't worry, there's much, much more) it's possible to still have the lingering feeling that there really isn't any point to all this. So you've got a home page. So what! Still, few seem to reach the conclusion reached by someone who aptly dubs him/herself eV@p0r8. (That link seems to be permanently inactive. If it doesn't connect to anything, here's an in-line link to it.) There's nothing I can add to that.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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