Personal Websites

This presentation was first given at the American Center for Design’s Living Surfaces Conference in 1997. It was repeated and enhanced at the Digital Storytelling Festival in 1998. Parts of it are referred to in the premiere issue of Net Company, a quarterly journal from Fast Company.

Personal websites are one of the few new forms of personal expression to arise out of the last few decades–certainly out of the computer and media industries. No longer a simple curiosity, the growth in personal websites points to some inherent need people have for self-expression. However, there is a wide gulf between those who find this medium an exciting opportunity and those who see it as yet another form of self-absorption.

For designers, personal websites are, at once, a new phenomenon (a type of design project never before existing), and at the same time, merely the latest take on that old, established product: the self promotion. There are already a number of issues surrounding this new application, but if anything, personal websites are probably the quintessential fin-de-siècle product as they reflect the natural evolution of Andy Warhol’s ideas of fame, blended with Tom Peter’s realization that the most important brand is “you.”

A personal website may be the best tool with which to build your own brand since it’s on 24-7 and accessible to everyone in the world who can touch the Internet . However, this creates its own problems as we’ll soon see.

Why Would Someone Want Their Own Website Anyway?

There aren’t a lot of related statistics, but according to a poll by NFO Interactive published in WIRED magazine in October 1997,

62% of those with personal sites simply what to provide information about themselves and their families, presumably to friends and other family members.

48% are using their personal sites to find others on the Internet (in other words, in the world) with similar interests.

28% just want to be “cool” (well, at least they’re honest)

28% want to conduct personal business

28% want to share their ideas, philosophies, and beliefs

6% want to show their childrens’ accomplishments

and, lastly, 4% want to search for a new relationship (thankfully, this is a low number).

While commenting on these figures, in an uncharacteristically non-supportive but characteristically snotty view of technology, WIRED “Sadly, most pages are simply self-aggrandizing autobiographies or digital photo albums.” But just what is it that WIRED expected personal websites to be? Even if this were true, what’s so wrong with it? Why is “sad?” Why the need for the high-brow sarcasm? WIRED’s own digital offerings are hardly faring much better than the best of the personal websites—if at all. I suspect that this is a reaction to a perceived threat, and perhaps WIRED and the rest of the publishing world does, indeed, have something to worry about.

As is usual with new media and technology, we tend to wrongly view the new as different than what has come before merely because it is unusual. However, personal websites are close cousins to journals, photo albums, diaries, and holiday letters. In all the important ways, they are not new at all, but merely the latest evolution of personal expression. Would WIRED have said the same about family reunions? Would their expectations for a family’s personal history retold be of selfless devotion to issues other than their families, or to journalism’s myth of objectivity? What’s wrong with people describing themselves and telling their own stories–especially in a medium that requires the audience to consciously come to it (after all, personal websites don’t just pop-up intrusively like television ads or the dreaded interstitial?)

I suspect that the entire publishing industry–especially The New York Times and even WIRED–is threatened by the thought that people might be happy to communicate with each other, to share their own ideas, stories, and beliefs. For every eyeball and minute spent interacting with the work of another person, it is one less spent with more sanctioned, published opinions. It is as if the publishing industry, or WIRED at least, believes that their voices–their perspectives and relevance–will be diminished when everyone has the opportunity to have their own voice. Of course, the media have nothing to worry about, in some senses. People will always look to reasoned, interesting, insightful opinions and analysis, but what traditional publishers do need to worry about is that when everyone has a voice, they will feel incredible pressure (and competition) that will require them to become more insightful, more relevant, and more valuable. They will no longer have a monopoly on publishing and personal websites will force them to finally offer quality reporting and information instead of merely showing up with gossip in a timely fashion.

There are already many kinds of personal websites and the lines are hazily drawn between what could be called a “professional” website and a “personal” one. These days, it has gotten increasingly difficult to separate the personal and the professional in our lives, and our websites are no different. In fact, they make a good bellwether of what we consider personal and not. This division will either get more distinct in the near future, or become irrelevant altogether. SO let’s go on a bit of a tour…

The Types of Personal Websites:

The Professional

It is so common now for celebrities and professionals to have websites that those without are viewed with more suspicion than those with. A celebrity without their own site is in danger of being viewed as unaware of the hip and current, and unwilling to participate in the future. Most celebrities, of course, understand this medium no better than their own and, correspondingly, their websites are about as personal as a FAX from their publicists. What differentiates, for me, a personal site from a professional one is a sense of authenticity and genuineness as opposed to mere officiality. Most professional sites and, basically, all celebrity sites have such a stench of publicity as to turn away even the most devoted fan.

Of the professional sites, there seems to be about six different kinds: professionals, celebrities, porn stars, resumé pages, thoughts and insights, and portfolios.

First, there are the technology and business professionals.

Some professional sites are fun and interesting, like Matthew Cooper’s, an escape artist. Some are even insightful, like Harry Knowel’s Aint-it-cool News, becoming a destination for many people (in this case the film industry and those who follow it).

Compare these to the worst of the professional sites, the PR vehicles without a cause, like Paul Allen’s noisy, busy, almost completely unilluminating site. Imagine an autobiography composed only of press releases and built with television in mind. This is a site in search of an understanding of interactive media-something most students at SFSU’S Multimedia Studies Program “get” after their first course when they set-off to build their own personal sites with a fraction of the funds available to Mr. Allen. Perhaps I’m being to hard on these guys (mostly), but this is their medium. If professionals (nee, celebrities) in the technology and media industries can’t create a good personal site, then what exactly is it that they know about their own businesses and investments?

A second type of professional site is the star site.

These are a mega-celebrity’s online vehicle. Unfortunately, these are also some of the worst offenders. Witness Michael Bolton and Diana Ross’ sites. You get the impression that neither of these performers have ever even seen their own sites, let alone visit on a regular basis. They aren’t updated very often, they don’t sound personal, and they make you feel like a customer instead of a fan. At least at Shaq’s site there’s, a feeling that some of the information is fresh. While there’s a place to talk with other Shaq fans online, there isn’t a single place to even email the star, Shaq himself. This, more than anything else, betrays the intentions of Shaq and his “management.” His site turns out to be yet another cheesy promotion for site sponsor, CBS Sportsline, and a poor use of an otherwise interesting medium.

These sites ascribe to the ideal that identity is an aggressive strategy more similar to Marketing and PR departments, than a passive one that respects the two-sided nature of a conversation.

Next, of course, are the porn stars.

While their sites are probably more revealing than other professional sites, the scariest fact of all is that many are much more personal than the sites of more mainstream stars or professionals. Compare paulallen.com to auntpeg.com and you tell me which you feel represents a person better. Intimacy is one thing, but the lesson to be learned by these professional sites is that authenticity and updating makes more of a difference in the tone of a site being personal than PR details.

Fourth are the simple resumé, job-hunting sites.

There are probably a million or more of these. Almost every college grad or soon-to-be-grad has one of these. These are serviceable and typical but they work because they’re unassuming. They don’t give you a good impression of what these people are like, but at least they cover the basics in a clear, unpretentious way. There is as much a variety of these sites as there are resumes, but most seem to strive to duplicate their paper-based cousins rather than take the opportunity to innovate.

A fifth type of site are the portfolio sites.

These are probably most interesting to designers. Personal sites are a great medium for displaying and discussing your work. Here is where the self-promo pedigree truly shines. While some sites are perfectly well-done portfolios of a designers’ work, like Beth O’Rourke’s site, others have found a way to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary in ways that self-promos could never be before. Matt Owen’s Volume One is an example of this. Aside from being a beautiful website, it is more than merely a portfolio but a kind of online magazine about design. His views, experiences, and tastes come through as much as his work, giving potential clients and other designers a sense of him as an artist as well as a sample of his work. This is the kind of successful site that skirts the line between the personal and the professional with grace and intelligence.

Lastly, there are the insight sites.

This is a kind of professional site that doesn’t have any real correlation in other media. They attempt to not only describe opinions, but offer examples, links, and resources about a particular subject matter. For example, if you want to learn about online storytelling, one of the best places to start is Abbe Don’s website. Coming from the “old school” of interface design, she still sees the value tracing her path with breadcrumbs for others to follow and build-upon. Most professionals either cannot make the time to seed the community or next generation, or are too afraid that doing so might endanger their own competitiveness. Instead, Abbe happily offers her own observations and insight alongside helpful links and her reward is the conversation that comes back to here from those who have their own resources and opinions to share with her. Her site isn’t so much a portfolio as it is a magnet, attracting like-minded professionals and students to engage in conversation as well as a legitimizing site to set potential clients’ fears to rest.

The Types of Personal Websites: The Personal

Then, there are the personal sites. These are the most interesting and most vibrant of the medium. There are three basic types: family sites, individual sites, and diaries.

The family sites are the natural evolution of the photo album.

They are intensely personal and idiosyncratic. If you don’t know Josh and Rena Malkosfy-Berger, for example, you probably couldn’t care less about their son Jeffrey’s pictures and accomplishments. However, if you’re a friend or family member, it can be engrossing. This site isn’t trying to be the cool site of the day and it’s exactly that honesty and lack of pretense that makes it so wonderful. No, it’s not HOTWIRED, but it’s a whole lot more meaningful to those whom it is built for, than HOTWIRED will ever be. Their site will never when any design awards, but you know, they don’t care! Like most people in the world, they aren’t trying to win awards, they’re just trying to tell their stories.

Perhaps the fact that some cats have their own webpages is a horror to WIRED and the traditional publishing companies. I’m sure that they don’t consider this publishing. But the fact is that it is publishing and it’s the wave of the future. Personal publishing came a long way with the invention of desktop publishing. It changed the world of publishing as well as personal expression. The large publishing companies (mostly in New York) were dragged kicking and screaming, all the time decreeing that it was just a toy. They explained that people weren’t ready to become their own content publishers, that they couldn’t spell or write well enough. They still complain that people aren’t interested in normal peoples’ little stories, that common folk don’t understand the rules of dramatic plot construction. But they are being proven wrong everyday. Television, radio, and newspaper usage is dropping significantly and will continue to, and this is why. Publishers will someday come around and learn to embrace these tools like they have desktop publishing tools, but most will never understand why these, the most personal pages on the Internet, will remain important and vital parts of online life.

Likewise, the individual sites do the same for personalities what the sites above do for families.

Some of these people’s online self-descriptions you may find interesting, like Drue Miller, and some you may not. However, you will base your opinions on the person and not the persona, because these sites have personality. They don’t just describe statistics and interests the way that resumés do, they describe people in as well-rounded a way possible, short of meeting them over coffee in a leisurely conversation.

Lastly, the personal sites that chronicle a person’s life are some of the most interesting.

These are often daily diaries of feelings, observations, opinions, and experiences. Magdalena Donea’s Water isn’t just a personal site, it’s a personal history, played-out in near realtime. I feel I know Maggy in ways I don’t know some of my coworkers and I’ve only ever spoken to her face to face for about 3 sentences. Her Moments site is a literal attempt to capture her life for the future, to transfer some of her important memories before they fade too much from her brain, and in the process share them with others. Likewise, Alex Massie’s and Halcyon’s Prehensile are two other examples of what could have become tedious and “self-aggrandizing,” but instead became beautiful, sensitive, funny, and enthralling. What characterizes these sites is that they are as much for their owners as for an audience, and this focus enforces a type of intimacy and authenticity that other sites dare not venture.

The Types of Personal Websites: The Communal

There are three basic types of community sites: a place for others, metasites, and review sites.

In his book, Interface Culture, Stephen Johnson aptly states that the Internet is “the first major technology of the 20th Century to actually bring people together rather than push them apart.” What is truly heartening about personal sites is that some do just this. While they are classifiable as personal sites because they reflect an intense, personal commitment and vision, they are really community sites since they are built for others. Some of them are touching, like Abbe Don’s Bubbe’s Back Porch and Derek Powazek’s Fray. Others are frivolous but still, somehow, satisfying, like Derek’s Kvetch. However, all of these offer the audience a voice. They are truly interactive in what is supposed to be an interactive medium. These, are the successful sites that point to the Internet’s real future, as a medium of communication more profound than any before, but more like the telephone than the television. True, one need not actually participate to encounter and even enjoy these sites. But as publishers are already starting to learn, without the possibility to participate, viewers will either move on or simply retreat back to traditional, non-interactive media.

Another trend are the mega sites who are trying to capitalize on this need for self expression by creating a place for people to create and post their own personal sites, and in the process trying to establish an online community. Curiously, HOTWIRED does this, as do, in a sense, every ISP (Internet Service Provider). However, it is the companies like AOL (America OnLine) and, especially, GeoCities who have created the largest “communities” of personal sites. The word community here is used pretty loosely, though. A mere collection of personal websites, no matter how large, does not a community make. The Fray and Bubbe’s Back Porch, are both more of a community than GeoCities or HOTWIRED’s members’ pages may ever be.

The Issues around Personal Websites:

This genre is highlighting some very important issues about self expression and the creation of identity. In particular, issues of identity, privacy, prestige, and personality are being redefined with these new tools. These effects are not just occuring online but throughout the various media used for personal expression.

Identity

The most important issue with personal sites is one of identity. As Sherry Turkle explained in her book, Life on the Screen, everyone is a combination of different personas. There are many sides to ourselves, and we are actually different people to our family, friends, colleagues, co-workers, strangers, etc. You would never tell each of these groups the same story. In real conversation, you would respond to their different interests, your level of comfort, and the context between you. However, on the Internet, building an identity for yourself makes this difficult. This medium, has a flattening affect that we don’t have easy ways to counteract. Unless you build separate sites and can control who can get to which one, your site will server everyone equally. This constuction and evolution of identity is probably the most important issue for the coming decade.

In a medium that gives us the ability to disguise issues or gender, age, culture, sexuality, nationality, beliefs, language, etc., it may be more important to go out of our way to express them. Likewise, the representation of the body is an important part of our identity development in realspace–it helps make us more real. The question remains, how important will this be online?

Identity is traditionally defined more from behavior than details or backstory. Who you are is never expressed as powerfully, as completely, or as verifiably in words as in actions. Most personal sites are nothing but backstory at the moment, but the ones that seem most successful are those that are beginning to offer interaction that defines behavior. Some of these do so merely with primitive forms of communication (such as guestbooks) but others are forging ahead with more sophisticated forms.

Some artists are going as far as creating digital persona that are self-contained characters existing only online. One such persona is the_living who interacts with others mainly over CUSeeMe. She is the creation of Debra Solomon but lives online whether she is netcasting from underwater in a pool, from an apartment in Amsterdam, or traveling around the world. Her website is a complete separation from her real identity represented by another website.

Sometimes the very URL helps identify who you are and what you’re interested in. Aside from the prestige associated with some URLs, there are times when the URL you choose is based on what your interests are or what defines you. This is the case at GeoCities, an online suburbia of neighborhoods where people set-up house (create their websites) in neighborhoods based on topics from philosophy to UFOs to sexuality.

Privacy

The first split most people try to make is between their “professional” information and their “personal” life. This usually ends-up creating a schizophrenic separation in a site not unlike many people’s lives. Guiding people from one side to another is a challenge. This creates a “faith vs. security” connundrum. Some people take the Faith approach, trusting employers to click here and friends to click there. However, I can only imagine that the compulsion a potential employer must feel when they see “Employers don’t click here” sign must be too much to prevent them from not exploring that side of someone (often in extremely intimate detail). This boundary between the public and the private is probably best protected with password access (the Security approach). For example, on my own site, I have an area that is meant for my own access—especially when I travel. A very few close friends have the password but I continually get requests—often from complete strangers—for the password even though the site is labeled as “private.” Incredibly, sometimes these strangers are offended when I won’t relinquish my private password to them.

Personality

More than anything a personal site should have personality, that is, a voice that sounds like it originated from a person instead of a staff of PR experts. A personal site, above all else, should reflect a personal vision, and the most successful sites do just this. People should not be afraid to express who they are. It is not possible to appeal to everyone without appealing to no one.

When creating your own site, think about what your predominant personality is–or what you wish it to be. Is it Friendly? Professional? Personal? Fun? Unique? Beautiful? Your site’s pesonality will reflect your own and it does this through every aspect of the presentation: the words, the images, the layout, the tone, the thoughts, etc.

Communication

Since the Internet is a communications medium, personal sites have the opportunity–and almost the imperative–to create communications between the owner and his or her audience. Even a simply email mailto or guestbook is a start. Halcyn has taken this idea to new heights by offering a paging system from his website. Some form of feedback should be mandatory. The objective it to create some form of conversation–even among the audience themselves. This conversation doesn’t necessarily need to be realtime or unlimited. In fact, communications of this sort work poorly when unedited or require realtime response. Instead, dialog can often be better when it doesn’t need a constant, high pace to be interesting. As always, the more personal the conversation, the better, but to make this work requires involvement and accessibility, something than scares most people.

Unfortunately, this is for good reason. The kind of feedback many people get from their own sites is usually encouraging, interesting, and thoughtful, but often it can be vitriolic and nasty. Often, having a site is seen as an open invitation by some people to be mean on a personal level for no apparent reason. But this is the danger one takes when opening oneself to others and shouldn’t be a reason not to.

Change

The most difficult part of a site to maintain is a sense of change. A personal site represents a person and the site should represent a person’s emotions and interests as they change over time. It takes a lot of commitment and there are few good tools to manage this change well, but sites that change daily seem more personal. Diary sites are easy to reflect this change, but in the future, imagine sites might express a person’s activity almost intimately. Some sites express the state of time and change using webcams.

How often does your site change? Daily? Weekly? Occasionally? Not Often? There’s no correct rules here, but a general one is that your site should change to reflect significant changes in yourself–it’s up to you to decide how granular this detail should be.

Time and Place

While webcams and other tools can help express change, they can also describe a sense of time and place. The most common way to indicate a sense–or change–in location is to update the site by hand–a tedious process. There are really no tools to do this automatically, though you could easily imagine how they might work.

Imagine a site served from your computer, reflecting bits about yourself as a kind of digital mood ring. Your computer already knows a great deal about you: how busy you are at times, how frantic or relaxed you are, whether you are there or not. If your site were served from your computer, or linked to it, that activity could be reflected in your site. There are technologies already available, such as ICQ, that let others know when you are online. It isn’t much of a stretch to build tools that tell people more than simply when you’re online, but perhaps where you are and what you are working on. These are some of the things that will make sites in the future seem more personal.

Prestige

Domain names, the word between the @ and the period, have always been a source of prestige. Years ago, an email address at The WELL, one of the oldest and most vibrant online communities spoke volumes about your abilities, your commitment, and your interests. It was a kind of Park Place address (from Monopoly) compared to the more pedestrian addresses at AOL or Prodigy. In fact, the lowliest of addresses were those at CompuServe and Prodigy where for years you were only a number and could not even have a “name” assigned to your account. Domains of the tonier ISPs, like Sirius or Earthlink, spoke of your independence and technological savvy. Corporate domains indicated that you might be online all the time (or that you surfed primarily from work), that the professional and personal had already begun to blur for you. And, of course, personal domains—especially those with only a first name–have become the most coveted and prestigious domains to have associated with either your email address or URL—so much so that people are having to register domains in other countries since their desired domains are already taken in the USA.

Content

What you put in your site, of course, is entirely up to you. Personal sites run the gamut through all aspects of personal intetrests. These include Diaries, Biographies, Travel, Thoughts and Rants, Resources on various topics, pictures and descriptions of Friends, descriptions of work such as projects or portfolios, Favorite interests or inspirations (a perrenial site component), or weird associations. There is no limit to what might go in a personal site and the variety attests to the diversity of interests and identities inherent in what it means to be human at the close of the 20th Century.

The Future of Personality

Perhaps someday almost everyone will have a personal website the same way that most everyone (at least in the developed world) has a phone number. These sites are already a new way to express ourselves but may evolve to be as much a part of us as our clothing instead of merely a new form of resume or portfolio. Andy Warhol once said, now infamously, that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Had he lived to see the Internet, perhaps he would have seen he very medium that could actually make this true. However, time is not an issue on the Internet. A better expectation might be that everyone in the future will be famous for 15 pages, but to make those pages count, they must reflect who we are personally and how much we’re willing to share with each other.

Another interesting figure from the same study I cited in the beginning is that while 20% of those already online already have personal websites (that’s a lot of sites) and 14% are planning a personal site, but that still leaves about 66%? The truly interesting story here is what their thoughts are for this medium and their involvement, why they don’t want a site. Is it that they have nothing to say to the rest of us? Are they too shy? Do they not think they have something to share or maybe they don’t know how to make a personal site? Perhaps they just have better things to do with their time.

My guess is that, in time, they will discover their voices, throw-off their fears and self-doubts, and join the rest of us with their own sites, messages, stories, and experiences. I’ld like to end with a quote from Eduardo Galeano from his Book of the Embraces that captures the power and importance of this genre:

“When it is genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop the human voice. When denied a mouth, it speaks with the hands or the eyes, or the pores, or anything at all. Because every single one of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated or forgiven by others.”

 

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