No page like home 

Whatever happened to the humble home page?

No, I’m not referring to sony.com. Or the front page of CNN’s Internet edition. Rather, I’m thinking about the lowly personal home page, the Web’s first official foray into personal publishing.

Ah, the home page. Back in the Web’s formative years, the personal home page was quite the status symbol among early Internet adopters. But more than status, the home page offered convenience. In a time before Palm Pilots and privacy concerns, here was a handy place to store your friends’ e-mail addresses. Or your manifesto on death metal. Or your favorite Bauhaus links.

The home page was also great fun at parties. Back in the mid-’90s, I remember having one particularly heady cocktail-party chat about time travel. “Oh, I wrote a term paper about that subject back in college,” one friend casually offered at the pretzel bowl. “It’s on my home page … you should read it sometime.”

Needless to say, I was impressed.

The personal home page was the Web’s first widespread experiment in the democratization of publishing. It was the inaugural response to the Web’s rallying call for mass social change. “On the Internet,” the pundits claimed, “everyone will be a publisher!” And for a while, everyone published.

But not necessarily very well. Thinking back, these shameless exercises in ego and HTML weren’t usually very good. Who can forget the garish magenta backgrounds? The poorly chosen font sizes? The endless photographs of Rex the Dog?

It wasn’t all babble and baby pictures, though. Some personal home pages were actually worth visiting. Even if you didn’t know the Web master personally.

One example still sticks with me: Back at my old auto-industry job, the bosses wouldn’t let you surf the Web. “We can’t do that,” they explained, “No one will get any work done.” (This was 1996. What did they know?) The office computers could only access a small selection of “approved” Web sites. One of these approved sites was netscape.com.

In a few short weeks, I was very familiar with netscape.com. See, Netscape was an enlightened company back then. They encouraged all of their employees to maintain personal home pages. And nearly everyone did.

True to the classic format, most of these pages were filled with bad poetry and pet photography. But not Jamie Zawinski’s page. For the uninitiated, Zawinski was one of Netscape’s earliest employees — a regular Internet pioneer. He helped program their first browser. Today, he’s a rich post-dot commer who runs a night club in San Francisco.

Noted one visitor to Zawinski’s page: “I have yet to come across so much self-righteous bullshit as when I gaze upon the massive heap of crap that is (Zawinski’s) Web experience.” But actually, Zawinski’s page was great. Rather than fill it with Web links and vacation snapshots, he wrote great personal stories about his adventures with fish heads, comic books and California’s urban sprawl.

Zawinski’s page was more like a journal, really entertaining to read, but still very intimate. I didn’t know Zawinski. Still don’t. But his page was worth reading, even if it hadn’t been approved by one of the Big Three.

Zawinski’s home page still exists in a somewhat altered form at www.jwz.org/gruntle/. But most of the earliest home pages have long disappeared, deleted from the Net and gone to server heaven.

So what happened to the personal home page? Did it die?

No, it just changed.

Instead of home pages, today’s budding Web publishers create Web logs (or “blogs,” as they are often called). Essentially, a blog is a daily journal — each day, the blogger posts a short thought, comment or Web link. The next day, a new entry appears.

It’s a technique borrowed from popular tech destinations like slashdot.com and earlier, more aesthetically successful home pages created by people such as Zawinski. Gone are the crude photo scans and address books. In their place — a more readable experience that’s usually topically focused and organized.

Because Web logs are such a huge improvement over the classic home page style, the format has essentially taken over personal publishing on the Web. Video game sites, celebrity shrines, pages about cooking — they’re almost all blogs now. Want to build your own blog? It’s free at blogger.com, the Net’s most popular blogging service — which also provides surfers with links to blogs by the hundreds.

With the emergence of the Web log, the individual has finally become a more sophisticated personal publisher. Web logs are often indistinguishable from more professional content sites. And the big surprise: it’s an experience many strangers actually enjoy (one of my favorites, linesandsplines.com, is about the esoteric subject of typography. Yet it’s still fun to read).

Still, I miss the personal home pages of yore. Their clunky charm was the prototype for the Web’s emerging power to communicate. And now that so many of them are gone (or turned into Web logs), I wish somebody had saved the original models, if only for history’s sake.

Like old photo albums from the ’80s, the inaugural home pages are a time capsule from a more innocent time. Sure, the haircuts are embarrassing. But aren’t you glad you kept the pictures?

Adam Druckman wanders the Web for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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