I’ve been developing web pages since Mosaic first rolled out. I ran gopher sites before that. I work at a University in the College of Education and the internet has always been considered a great educational tool. First, before the World Wide Web, it was just email, UseNet and FTP. When home pages and HTML came on the scene, educators immediately took to the idea that all students should become writers, publishers and graphic designers and those skills should be universal like knowing how to do basic math.
This wonderful ideal was quickly shot down when it was discovered that most students hated creating web pages in HTML, or even with WYSIWYG HTML editors. Millions of home pages were created and then left to die of neglect. Most web users prefer browsing commercial sites, or sites created by highly motivated amateurs. Entertaining pages are hard to write and develop. A few years later blogging became all the rage because it allows the ordinary person to create web sites with limited technical skills that appealed to people you know. Blogging has since exploded into a creative outlet of many forms. Years ago the idea of anyone reading your diary would cause extreme emotional distress – now people think nothing of confessing their most personal activities, including sexual and criminal, as well as their favorite tedious boring ones too.
Most blogs have limited appeal and also die the great static death of neglect, but they are far more popular because they are much easier to create and they have actually proven to be purposeful. It doesn’t matter if the whole world isn’t watching as long as a few friends are. To inspire people to create web sites really means giving them a useful purpose that people will value. Higher Education keeps promoting web development to students but they have yet to find a purpose that students appreciate. The big thing now is student portfolios. Except for educators who like the concept of student portfolios, there seems to be no one else, including students, who see a purpose in visiting them. They remain a solution looking for a problem.
Blogs succeed, in their very limited fashion, because many people do have a slight drive to express themselves, and because blogs provide for a certain amount of social bonding. Yet, I wonder about their long term success. Back in the 1950s everyone liked trying out the hula hoop but few people stuck with the toy. Email is a natural success replacing the age old letter. Its purpose is evident to all. Photo sharing sites are succeeding because they serve an obvious purpose. The success of online gaming is a no-brainer. But be honest, how many blogs do you read faithfully? What about Wikis? Wikipedia is a huge success because a big encyclopedia has obvious purpose. Online shopping, online banking, online shopping – are all concepts that have obvious purpose. But think for a moment – how many sites do you visit that were created by amateurs? They have their limited appeal, but is creating web sites a skill that should be promote to all kids?
That leads me to wonder if there is anything about creating personal web sites that have obvious long term purpose. Are there any reasons for the average person to express themselves on the web that has lasting value? Famous people maintain web sites to manage their fame. Experts like to keep websites to focus on special topics. Politicians like web sites to gather voters. I have a web site about the classics of science fiction that’s been up for years getting a constant 40-50 hits a day from people wanting to find a list of top science fiction books. I maintain another web site about Lady Dorothy Mills, a long dead and forgotten writer of fifteen books from the 1920s. I maintain this site to find her last few readers. It gets handful of hits a month, and about one email a year. Both of these sites have extremely minor purpose, but enough. So do people find a purpose in maintaining web sites about what they watched on TV last night? Or jotting down a few lines each day about their moods?
What aspect of human nature would lend itself to the creation of personal web sites of lasting value? We know friendship motivates blogging and it might have a limited long term value, but it may end up being a fad. Most people prefer phones, email and IM. Scrap booking is a hot fad right now, and photo albums have been a part of family treasures since the invention of the camera. Diaries and journals have always been kept by a small fragment of the population which accounts for some of the appeal of blogging. List making is a habit of some people so it might have a certain appeal – but probably to people who also have a collecting habit.
The only additional trait of human nature I can think of now that might motivate people to create personal web sites is the desire to be remembered. Genealogy is a popular hobby, and a good percentage of people like to hear stories about their ancestors. I’d love to be able to read a blog written by my father while he was growing up in Miami in the 1920s and 1930s. Or one written by my grandmother, who was born in 1881, and came to Memphis in 1902, to find office work as a single woman. I have to be realistic though. How many people would put in the hard work at maintaining a readable diary with the thought it might be read by their descendants? My idea of creating a Wiki to store my own memories for me to read as a help to remembering might be of more realistic value since people are living longer and forgetting more.
No one really predicted the massive success of the World Wide Web. Science fiction writers never saw it coming. For the most part they failed to predict the impact of the computer. It’s very hard to predict what the web will mean to people in 20 or 50 or 100 years – it’s been around for a dozen years and become integral to society. It’s now taken for granted like electricity or automobiles. The internet is always finding new uses – look how international terrorists have found new ways to use it. I just wonder how many people will find a personal reason to publish on the internet.
Finally, can a personal website last a lifetime and longer? Will any blogging site still be up and running 100 years form now? Unless some governmental agency, like the Library of Congress, offers to host web sites with the charter of preserving them forever, I doubt personal web sites will have a long term existence. If the web had been invented in 600 B.C., would sites of Homer, Jesus, Caesar, Galileo, etc. still be up? I doubt it. It’s going to be very hard to preserve the web. The knowledge of history we do have comes mainly from recorded history. Would the major religions have survived without their various bibles? Anthropologists learn a lot about ancient societies from their business records, tax records and shopping lists. A thousand years into the future a lot could be said about our times from the database of Amazon.com.
I think personal web sites, for whatever purpose, won’t achieve critical mass of value until they are considered permanent. If people knew they were writing for their children, grandchildren and future genealogists and historians, then personal web sites might take on a whole new meaning.