Today is a landmark of sorts. After 15 years posting a personal journal on the web, I’m finally bringing the curtain down on it. Four and a half thousand posts – mostly about nothing in particular. Stories of early mornings, late nights, days out, parenting struggles, frustrations, airline flights, distant hotels, foreign cities, laughter, tears, hilarity, sadness, and everything in-between.
When I started publishing my writing on the web, the term “blog” had not yet entered the common vernacular. I was afforded some web-space as part of a hosting package by the internet service provider I signed up with after buying my first apartment. I used it to teach myself HTML, and put a page up called “Thought Café”. A few months later the single page was replaced by a collection of pages after I wrote some programming to interrogate a database, and generate HTML files from it’s content. People would email me contributions to the website, I would add them to the database, run the programming, and the content would appear on the web.
It’s almost laughable, looking back.
After some time I had signed up for a professional web hosting account, and started learning about Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. I bought several books from Amazon, and read them cover to cover. The result was a website for writers – again called “ThoughtCafé” – where visitors could sign up for free accounts, and post their writing for others to read and comment on. Not long after I began writing a monthly newsletter for the members. Thousands of them, all over the world.
I never set out to run a website, and it inevitably came crashing down. A number of members went rogue, and turned what had been a quiet haven for writers into a dystopian nightmare. It was my first experience of trolls on the internet, and has disuaded me from running anything ever again. Whenever I tell this story to people in the real world, I invariably shorten the reason for the demise of the site to a single sentence – “people are assholes”.
Not long after shutting ThoughtCafe down, I knocked some code together one lunchtime to post a journal on a webpage. I showed it to a co-worker. “That’s a blog!”. “A what?”. I had no idea what the word even meant, and had to look it up. As is often the way with hobby projects, over the course of a few weeks the programming turned into a polished solution that anybody could install and use. It had a templating system, search, tagging, comments, email notifications, statistics – I added anything I thought of as I went along.
While showing the same co-worker the progress I had made one day, he suggested I should release it as “open source”. I knew about open source software – the movement that gave rise to Linux – but had never really been involved in it. I did a bit of research, and uploaded the blog script to an online repository of open source projects (this was at least a decade before anything like GitHub existed). Within days I was receiving email from all over the world – from users installing it, making suggestions for new features, or reporting issues.
Then one day a system administrator emailed me – he had just installed a Linux server, and was trying out the example web application that shipped with it. Novell had chosen to distribute it with their servers without telling me. By now the script had been downloaded almost a quarter of a million times.
Somewhere along the way, I obviously started writing. The furthest my records go are 2003, but I suspect I have perhaps a year’s worth of posts missing. In some ways it’s miraculous that I have managed to keep the old posts over so many years – because we all know what happened a couple of years later – a student called Matt Mullenweg forked one of the other popular blog scripts, and re-badged it as “WordPress”. A web designer I knew in San Francisco told me she was trying it out, and I switched over to it a few months later.
The thing about “blogging” is that I never set out to attract attention, readers, comments, or anything like that. I was writing because I liked being a part of the community of bloggers that had grown like a weed across the internet. There were thousands of us, posting personal journal entries to a variety of platforms. As the internet changed society, the circles of friends formed through the blogs became comparable to those forged in the real world. We shared the days of our lives with each other.
Looking back now, it seemed like such an innocent time. I suppose in many ways blogging was the vanguard of what we now call the “Social Internet”. A tipping point was reached though – blogs started to fit into niches, with their custodians concerning themselves with search engine optimisation, paid posts, advertising, and recycling of content written by others. You might say “blogging” died during that period.
I carried on writing – for years – but while I was still having fun posting my daily adventures to be discovered by whoever might stumble upon them, it became increasingly obvious that the once vast community was dwindling. Alongside this of course I was getting older – bringing up children – becoming ever so slightly more cynical about the internet as a whole – and filling my days with innumerable obligations away from the computer.
And so we reach the present.
For quite some time I have been asking myself why I continue to post a personal journal on the web. I have an archive that many people would be jealous of – an almost daily record of my thoughts, opinions, ideas, and adventures stretching back over 15 years. It’s flawed though – significantly flawed. Almost every post is heavily filtered. There are no children’s names, no stories about family members, nothing about the stresses of work, none of the “foaming invective” that might have landed me in a world of trouble.
If I was filtering the most interesting parts of my life from the published journal, it brings into question the reason for it’s existence. The most interesting stories involve happiness, sadness, conflict, larger than life characters, unexpected situations, and above all truth. If a journal is only portraying a version of the truth, it significantly erodes it’s reason for being.
So this is a fresh start. A reboot. A new beginning. I will no longer by posting the stories of the days of my life – but I will be posting the things I have been turning over in my head – subjects I have found interesting, causes I care about, and lessons I have learned. I won’t be posting anything like as often as I have done in recent years, and that’s no bad thing – because at least then I might have something to say when I do post, instead of attempting to conjure something from nothing.