Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Remember Your First Time? (Part 3)

I just had to figure out something called HTML...

My first chance to create a website came when I was an Ohio University grad student, receiving a message from the campus email system. Each student had been allotted a megabyte of space to store web content; they figured we'd like to know. Though written in blandly functional prose, the email nevertheless reminded me of Roy Neary's discovery in Close Encounters of the Third Kind: "This means something. This is important." Hunching over my keyboard, I got busy - wanting to join the revolution I'd read about and begun to see on campus.

I don't remember exactly how I learned enough hypertext markup language (HTML) to get started, but I surely used the Lynx browser that came with OU's telnet-based email system, scouring the web for an online tutorial. Then I set about constructing the creaky beams and girders of my site. One problem with that approach? I had no idea what I was doing. Lynx was (and is) text-only, which meant I could "read" the web but couldn't see it. Only the hours spent playing with Mosaic on campus allowed me to visualize the thing I hoped to build at home.

The process wasn't too hard, though, just a matter of using the Pico editor on the campus PINE system to initialize a public folder and add files to that domain, documents sufficiently "marked up" with HTML to be readable as web pages. The mouse was useless for that job, by the way; Lynx was a keyboard-only app. As I churned through my training, I called the email-system help desk at least once or twice, likely provoking a wry smile among the dedicated campus computer nerds. In 1994, most people still didn't know what the internet was, and I was determined to complete a website that afternoon.

Fiddling around with all those new "tags" (weird stuff like IMG SRC and A HREF) took two or three hours, but somehow I completed my first draft, which included a link to someone's "Under Construction" graphic, just to test the process of adding images to my page. I'd built a website, but I couldn't see how it looked. It was a weird feeling.

Flustered, and not wanting to drive from our rural apartment back to campus, I phoned a pal who lived in Arkansas, reasoning that he - more of a would-be netizen than I - was the only person with easy access to Mosaic's graphics-friendly browser. Practically shivering with anticipation, I asked him to visit my site.

Here's the address, though don't look for it; it's long gone:


What do you see?

Uh, hold on, it's loading. OK. I see an "Under Construction" sign.

I beamed with pride.

I made that!

It wasn't all that thrilling, I suppose. All the same, the pieces were coming together. The next step was to plan a website around some sort of project, something more useful than a mere "I am here" billboard. The open nature of the web allowed me to build pretty much anything I wanted. There were no gatekeepers and few reviewers, no risk in thinking big.

Since I was interested in utopian literature, I decided to call my site "Andy Wood's Center for Utopian/Dystopian Studies" and then began crafting pages to gather primary sources, cool links, and some pictures of imagined communities throughout history. My page was an ambitious effort - later renamed the "Center for Utopian Studies" - though hardly a professional venture. No matter. CFUS was one of the earliest sites to take an academic look at utopianism. Believe it or not, I received occasional emails from people wanting to work at my "Center."

Along the way, I tried to share my enthusiasm for the web with Jenny. Sure it wasn't scintillating, this clickable internet. It was simply a network designed to deliver knowledge by way of computer (and modem, and browser, and some degree of tech-savvy). At this point, the World Wide Web was the province of a strange few. Yet there was something elemental and profound in its potential. All Jenny needed was to see Mosaic; then she'd know.

I remember driving onto campus one day to visit the computer lab. Among those rows of boxy PowerMacs, I sat Jenny down and made my announcement: "We're going to visit The Louvre." I said it again with flourish, "The Louvre!" With a hush, I typed the web address and we watched the opening graphic slowly assemble itself, line by line. I asked with a proud smile, "So where do you want to go?"

All those links to all those paintings... I figured that Jenny was overwhelmed. She set silently and just looked at the browser and its tiny thumbnail pictures. At last, she rendered her verdict:

"This is it?"

"Of course this is it," I exclaimed, "and it's amazing! It's like watching television for the first time. You're seeing a revolution here. The World Wide Web will change, well, the world!"

Jenny wasn't impressed. And maybe she was a little embarrassed for me, getting all worked up over something so obvious. "I figured that computers could always do this," she explained. And that was it. She'd finally seen the web that I'd been gushing about, but she found it to be less than earth-shattering, if only because it was so inevitable. She asked, what else would computers do but communicate with each other? And pictures? Sure, they'd have pictures - movies, too, right?

After a while, Jenny would admit that this web stuff was actually pretty cool. And in the following year, 1995, she caught enough of the vision to join me in creating Motel Americana, an online homage to roadside Mom and Pop lodging. The site's quirky nature earned plenty of praise in those early years: a notice on USA Today's "cyberlistings" page, a Wall Street Journal shout-out by Walt Mossberg, and even a coveted listing on the original "Cool Site of the Day." We ran Motel Americana (our home page was naturally called "the lobby") for about ten years, managing to publish two books on the topic before moving on to pursue new adventures. It's now an archive that we rarely visit.

In fact, most of my old web pages have disappeared, except for occasional bits and pieces that somehow got saved in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine [link]. By the time I took a position as a communication studies professor at San José State University, I'd let most of my early pages fade into oblivion. The only real souvenir from those days is a 1996 or '97-era logo from my Center for Utopian Studies. For some reason, an Italian website maintains the image on its servers, like graffiti waiting to be wiped clean.

I'm glad to find some of that history floating around today, because my initial experiences with the web launched a research agenda that led to my current job, indeed to my livelihood. More importantly, those old pieces of detritus remind me of a time when everything - really, no hyperbole here - everything was changing. Many web historians are even willing to lump the early WWW alongside the Gutenberg Bible as an example of transformational technology.

With a broader perspective, we may reveal deeper layers of strata that connect other points of memory, coming to see the web as little more than a middle-ground between broader epochs not yet named. And yet, I still take pleasure in remembering 1994-1995 as a time when I wandered an open frontier of potential and forged worlds of my own on the World Wide Web. That's a memory worth storing.

How often can we say I was there, when anything seemed possible?


Jenny Wood said...

That is so very cool, Andy! I enjoyed reading those memories. You're right that I wasn't impressed - I should have been since I use the www all the time! We gotta make sure to properly archive Motel Americana so that we never lose it!

Janet S. said...

My first website was designed in 1997 (I was 12 years old). I created a resource for Japanese animation, featuring Sailor Moon and other popular anime. AOL was promoting a new software, Hometown, to insert pictures and enter text with a WYSIWYG interface. I remember putting all of the files in one folder, with no organizational structure. It was horribly trying to navigate my website!!

Instead of naming my portal I chose . I had MIDI files play on start up and put a tacky black and white image for my background.

Although this website is no longer on the internet, I remembered to download it before my parents canceled our AOL subscription. I like to look at it every now and then and think about how my website skills have improved over the years. I basically taught myself HTML from the ground up!

Anyways, thanks for sharing your stories and letting me reflect on mine for a few moments.

Andrew Wood said...

I so appreciate your detailed reply, Janet!

I'd love for other folks to follow your inspiration and share their first-time narratives. :-)