It was a sticky July afternoon during summer break in middle school. I was at my dad’s house on a Toshiba Infinia connected to America Online, making my first website in AOLpress, which was then hosted at members.aol.com.
I was 11 years old and didn’t have a whole lot to say. But that’s what a lot of personal websites were back then — some words about our lives, random pictures, and links to other pages that we found interesting. Having an online presence back then was a real nerdy thing to do — when the word “nerd” was usually used as a means to bully. Back then, you needed to know some code to get a website up — not as simple as getting a Facebook account.
There was no real plan or goal when it came to personal websites. I remember moving hosts almost monthly — members.aol.com, Tripod, HyperMart, theGlobe, a short stint on GeoCities, Homestead, Homepad, and a lot more I’m probably forgetting. At one point, I ran a search engine and a news aggregator and had grand ambitions to be the next Yahoo. I named the site “Kevin’s CyberSnake” — a name that my pre-teen self didn’t really grasp the concept of double-meaning.
Once, after updating my site on members.aol.com, it got hijacked by someone and replaced with porn. Getting summoned to the computer downstairs by your mom with that on the screen and trying to explain that it’s your site but you didn’t put that there…
A few years later, in my freshman year of high school in 2000, I stopped at a convenience store and got a money order for $15 to mail to directNIC, registering kevinsanders.net as my first domain name and moving to pair.
Right around this time, blogging took off. Like many others, the platform for my personal website was Blogger. I recall the service being overloaded (not unlike Twitter’s fail whale), Blogger’s parent company Pyra begging for server money, the Pyra layoffs, and finally, Google acquiring Blogger.
With Blogger, I was able to easily make updates to quickly post what I was thinking, and it wasn’t great. I touched on a lot of topics — high school debate, weather, pro wrestling, politics, technology — it was all over the place, and looking deep into the archives now I wonder why I got any traffic at all.
The web is a different place now.
People like me — who have nothing to sell, like developers or graphic designers — but still have some things to say, personal websites have largely been reduced to landing pages with links to Facebook or Twitter. The fall of RSS readers and the rise of Facebook and mega-blogs have undercut the allure of maintaining a personal website.
Social media platforms of today don’t convey the character of a person like personal websites did because they have such tight design and use constraints, paired with the self-imposed curation many users put themselves through on social media to put their best faces forward (in most cases).
This is why I still appreciate personal websites with good design and interesting content. I still use an RSS reader to let me know when new posts go up. I still try to find new personal websites with common interests of people just like me.
As I turn 31 today, I reflect on the events I witnessed throughout my life. Having digital homeownership for 20 years this summer is something I think of fondly now not just because it’s a milestone — but simply because I was able to experience and be a part of Web 1.0 — before Web 2.0 turned the world into what it is today, for better or for worse.
Featured photo: The very first time I experienced the internet was using America Online dial-up at the law firm my mom worked at. I was mostly excited to see live doppler radar on-demand.