For me it all began in the late 1980s, with the explosion of Compuserve and AOL, and the lowering of the bar to a point where everybody could understand how to get “online”, and begin communicating with each other. Almost overnight the somewhat secret world of the “Bulletin Boards” became extinct. If I could reclaim the hours I spent doing writing exercises in the Compuserve Literary Forum, I might have discovered girls far earlier.
Over time, Compuserve and AOL began fighting each other to the death and were so consumed with their battle that they completely missed the world around them changing in response to an academic network appearing called the “World Wide Web”, and a program to access it called “Mosaic”.
For a couple of years I couldnt figure out why anybody would want a “web site” - what they would use it for, or what purpose it would serve. I remember being offered webspace while opening my first account with an “Internet Service Provider”, and asking them why I would ever need it. “People like to write stuff, and share it with the world”
I still didnt get it.
Fast forward a couple of years, and the World Wide Web had become ubiquitous. I had built the company website, and was spending increasing amounts of time online away from work. I’m not entirely sure how, when or why it happened, but I became interested in building a website. I do recall a clear decision that the easiest thing to build would be something to do with writing, because all you had to deal with was text. I didn’t know anything about web servers, or the programming languages they used. I did know about databases, and I knew HTML so I set about building a righteous hack.
I would ask people to email me short stories, I would add them to the database, and then run a macro to turn it all into HTML files essentially a huge ass cardboard cutout website. I think the first week we had five stories three of which were probably my own. I called it “Thoughtcaf”, and quite unexpectedly in much the same manner as the famous Field of Dreams quote, people began to arrive in their thousands.
The wheels began to fall off when the community reached the peculiar tipping point that allowed the “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory” to kick in; the theory (invented by Penny Arcade) states that any normal person, when handed anonymity, a platform, and an audience, will essentially become a complete asshole. That’s exactly what happened to a number of the “authors”.
Thoughtcaf closed its doors one Sunday afternoon. It was no longer fun. I had set out to experiment with the web, and ended up babysitting a community of thousands.For months I hardly used the internet. Hardly touched the computer away from work. But then a curious thing happened
One Friday morning a colleague pointed me towards an article in a magazine about people sharing their lives online; writing a public diary on a website called LiveJournal. He made a throwaway comment that would be far reaching;
“You could build that”.
By the end of lunchtime I had a personal version of LiveJournal hacked together with the software equivalent of bubblegum and sticky tape. It was online, and it worked. I showed it to the same colleague.
“oh cool that’s a Blog!”
It turned out he had been playing with a website by a startup called Pyra Labs - “Blogger”.
“You should release that as open source”
“What’s open source?”
And so began a two year odyssey. I ended up writing a PHP script called BLOG, that became one of the popular early blogging solutions. As these things tend to do, it evolved, grew, and slowly consumed all of my free time. One day in 2003 some perspective kicked in - what on earth was I doing? I had hacked together an online journal so I could have something of my own on the web. I had ended up building a software platform, and supporting hundreds of people using it. History was repeating itself.
In order to prevent the temptation of tinkering with my creation any further, I asked a friend on the other side of the world what she was using to run her blog.
“Oh, its this new thing called WordPress its still very new, and a bit unstable, but it’s really cool”.
And so it was the journey began - taking in WordPress, Blogger, Vox, LiveJournal, TypePad, Yahoo 360, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Pownce, Jaiku, Idenitica, FriendFeed, Posterous, and more along the way.
I always seem to return to WordPress.
During the first run of NaBloPoMo back in 2006 I made my first “real” blogging friendships, and many of them have endured. After spending a slightly mad month emptying our head into the keyboard each day, we forged relationships that have stood the test of time. I have seen several “celebrity” bloggers come and go, and been close friends with one or two.
There is a nagging feeling that if I had not thrown my writing between platforms like a hot potato over the years, I might have grown a readership. I’ve been a difficult person to follow at the best of times - and impossible at others. Of course life has intervened along the way too - with the arrival of children into our lives, and a re-assessment of everything we thought we knew about ourselves.
Maybe it’s time to stop tinkering. Time to stop monkeying with the mechanics of the internet, and just concentrate on writing. Perhaps it’s time to tell stories, share thoughts, and explore ideas. Time to reach out, to read, to comment, and to become a part of the community. Time to endure.