It's funny because I think if you asked me that a year ago, I'd say yes, without question. Much like the newsletter, the timeline is constantly shifting, and I honestly doubt it will ever be fully complete. My first newsletter posts always included one or two or three timeline entries that accompanied it. The general idea was that my research was actually in pursuit of filling out the timeline, little by little. And the newsletter was really just a side effect of that, fun and interesting stories I dug up while building that timeline out.
More recently however, the site, the timeline, and the newsletter have become more like different parts of a more disparate whole. I'm continuing to add to the timeline, and not always as a direct result of the newsletter. And in the last few months, I've been using the newsletter as a place to take a much longer view of the web's history and spell out the whole story, in order, chapter by chapter. Of course, the newsletter and site has plenty of the old stuff, a fun interesting tidbit from the web's history and a few more milestones to add to the timeline. But it's really evolved, and I recently re-designed the site to try and express the way in which the different parts connect (though I'm always open to feedback there).
How do you identify and research the History of the Web?
My research process is haphazard at best, but there are a few common threads that I think could helpful if anyone out there is attempting some amateur research of their own.
Every idea begins with a single thread, and my goal in research is to pull on that thread until I get to something interesting. So sometimes that's a single article, or a website that someone mentioned, or a little known factoid I found on Twitter or Wikipedia. When I have an idea like this, I create a new draft post in WordPress and jot down a paragraph or two about it. That bit is important. Just giving it a title isn't enough, I'll forget it later if I do that. I take a bit of time to write down a good description of exactly what the idea is.
I go in with almost no preconceived notion of what the story is going to be. I just start searching through the web. Every link I collect, I index on Pinboard, along with some notes about the link. Take notes copiously. You never know what's going to be important later, so it's better to throw a bunch of quotes into the same place so you can view the whole
Slowly, but surely, an idea comes into focus. I let that guide the ultimate story. And then it's just a matter of writing a draft, destroying that draft and rewriting it, doing that maybe one or two more times, then publishing what I've got.
Do you ever reach out to do interviews with first-person oral histories? Or do you utilize books, magazines, archived sites, or other vintage publications?
I sure have. I've had wonderful correspondence with people that have played a part in building the web's history, who are usually more than happy to tell me their side of the story. I'm fortunate to be working in such an open and transparent industry, and I love the opportunity to get feedback, notes, or research firsthand. Sometimes, this is a result of me reaching out. Other times, I've had people reach out to me. so special thanks to everybody who's taken the time to have a conversation with me. Coincidentally, if anyone reading this has a story to share, I'm happy to hear it!
Most of my research, perhaps unsurprisingly, happens on the web. But a lot of it happens from deep Google searches, or digging through old mailing lists, or taking a site and using the web archive to really trace it back as far as I can go. I've used a few books or magazines here or there, but almost all of it happens on the web.
Why do you think it’s so important to make a comprehensive History of the Web accessible (as opposed to writing an academic textbook or doing a one-off shorter piece)?
That's a tremendous question. I've thought about it, and maybe the biggest thing is that this is a side project for me, a labor of love. It would be great to turn it into a more focused book one day maybe, but that's not really my area of expertise.
Still, I find myself coming back time and time again to the same thing. The web is open and accessible. That it's ideological bedrock. And however much that spirit has been diluted, it's as clear as day when you look at the web's history. I respect that. I believe in that. I think we need a comprehensive written record of web history, because it vanishes beneath our feet all the time. And I want everyone to be able to share in that history with me. So the site's free, and the newsletter's accessible to everyone, and I have no plans to change that.
What are some of the most interesting factoids you’ve stumbled across in your journey thus far?
Okay, almost too many to count, and I encourage anyone interested to dig through the archives for some really great little facts, but I'll drop a few here in no particular order.
The Mozilla logo, that dinosaur we're all probably familiar with, was created by the street artist Shepard Fairey. And it came into being because one of the developers on Mozilla, Jamie Zawiniski, simply gave him a call, got him to agree to do it, and basically snuck it into the
project at a moment of chaos to make it the official logo.
One of the most popular early web tutorial sites, Lissa Explains it All, was created, designed, developed, and written by 11 year old Alyssa Daniels.
The first major attempt at selling something online was a site created by Pizza Hut which
let you order pizzas by filling out a form on the web and paying the delivery person directly when they miraculously came to your door.
The creator of Humans of New York, a really popular photo blog that chronicles the real life experiences of random people that photographer Brandon Stanton finds on the street, was walking around one day and happened upon a random stranger sitting on a bench. When he asked for the guy's name, he was told it was David Bohnett, the founder of Geocities, the exact website where Stanton himself created his first ever website. That's an incredible coincidence to me.
Do you think that there’s a lot we can learn a lot from past internet companies, ideas and sites? For example, Kozmo.com was so ahead of its time: are there other companies like that that perhaps have faded into history? Will blogs make a comeback?
Timing on the web is an interesting thing. There are many instances of just being there too early, or fading before a true moment of glory. One of the first major attempts at a magazine on the web was called Word magazine, created by Jamie Levy and Marissa Bowe. It was a place with unique graphics, interesting designs, offbeat stories, games, and quizzes all wrapped in a more edgy and relatable tone that's become familiar on the web. This was in 1995, way before anyone was doing anything remotely similar. Yet we hardly ever hear about it. Thankfully, journalist and writer Clare Evans has been writing about it, and featured it in her book Broad Band published a couple of years ago, but there are plenty of others. Kozmo's another great example, and you can find quite a few buried in the gold rush just before the dot-com bubble burst.
I think a lot of great ideas were unfortunately steamrolled by more commercially viable ones. The web held a different kind of promise in the early days, that it would be a great connector and a bridge of ideas and viewpoints imbued with free creative expression. We've largely
failed to deliver on that promise. But if you dig deep enough, and I do plenty of that, you can find some truly great examples of it in action. And hopefully we can find enough examples to use as a jumping off point for the next phase of the web.
As for blogs, I sure hope so! The walled gardens of social media platforms were never, in my opinion, a healthy use case of the web. People are finding that the privacy infringements and lack of protection of these sites just wasn't worth it, so you're seeing more and more web folks turn back to blogs. The next step, I think, is to find a way for that experience to be more accessible to non-technical users. Amazingly, it's about as hard to create a blog or personal website now as it was 10 years ago. Not your average business website or online store, there's plenty of tools for that. But just a simple creative canvas for people to express their ideas and share them with friends, just like they do every day on social media. That doesn't really exist, and that's a real shame, because if we made it easy to do, we'd see a lot more people doing it. Then we could have the truly diverse and decentralized experience we all originally wanted.
Where do you hope to take the project?
I've been thinking about that a lot lately. First and foremost, I just want to keep going. I recently switched to a more semi-regular schedule, instead of weekly, to give myself time to fully explore and write about each topic. As I mentioned earlier, I've also taken to longer form posts
that are a much more comprehensive and in-depth look at web history. I want to write more of those, to give people something that resembles an online book, chapters and all, that really spells out the big moments of the web.
But I also want to find ways of staying with the small stuff too, be that with short punctuated stories, or guest posts, or more of what I've been doing. I guess, for now, I'd just love for people to keep reading.
How can we best stay up to date with you? (and yes, we're leaving this panel open for questions)!
Well the best way to get some fascinating tidbits of web history is to sign up for my newsletter,
or browse the archives on my site. New posts go out every couple of weeks there. If you're looking to catch up, earlier this year I compiled about two years worth of posts into a single ebook, which you can buy over at Leanpub. If that's not enough, you can follow me on Twitter, which I kind of go in and out of, but I'm hoping to start posting even more smaller factoids to in the next month or so. And if you ever want to reach me with a story or a fact check or just with a question, you can email me at email@example.com.
My first computer was a Gateway PC, I don't remember the exact model, but I do remember it was special for two reasons. One, it was something I went and picked up with my Dad, and two it was something we setup together. I was basically the only kid I knew that had an actual computer in their room (not the usual family computer somewhere in the den, if anything), and I doubt very much I'd have my career or my passion for the web if I didn't have all that time to tinker around on a computer whenever I wanted. Of course, Internet access was still tied to the phone line, but that's another story altogether :)
Thanks for the question!
If I'm being honest, I can't say I knew much about any of these. Thank you so, so much for this list of links. I think you're 100% right, there are definitely lessons in there, and it's important that we don't let what was lost and forgotten get left behind in our history. We don't often, for instance, think about an h7 element (and similarly, that a blackface element was ever even considered is atrocious). So, long story short, I wasn't originally planning on it, but you've got my interest fully piqued. I'll be diving into these links soon.
Alternatively, I publish guest posts from time to time on the newsletter, and if it's something you're fascinated with and would want to share a bit about, I'd be happy to include it. If that's something that interests you, please do get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org)!