The Long Term Value of Personal Web Sites

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. 

Wiki as Artificial Memories

In science fiction there is a concept of mind transfer which deals with the uploading of human minds into computers – in essence a technological solution for creating immortality by providing an artificial life after death.  This concept has one major flaw.  The entity that is you still dies, but you get the comforting warm fuzzy feeling that your personality will live on.  Of course, I believe the chance that science will one day be able to record our personalities is equal to the chance of people having natural life after death.  Both are fascinating concepts but unfortunately mostly suitable for idle daydreaming and wishing.

 
That doesn’t stop me from wondering about the concept of personality.  If I could be recorded or if I could survive death, what is the essence of my personality?  From the outside people sees a middle-aged bald fat guy.  If they get to know me they will get to know a personality that’s interested in a lot of ideas and books.  If an android could be created that had all my opinions, memories and interests, would people tell the difference between the human me and the artificial me?  From the inside, being me feels like a history of experiences and memories that observes reality with a certain range of senses that is always affected by the quality of my health.  An artificial me, would have to feel like me when I wake up in the morning and want to do the same things I normally do.  It would have to feel about situations in the same way I feel.

 
I don’t think it’s possible to build an artificial internal me.  Nor do I see any reason to do so.  If I can’t experience the reality of being me why would I care if science could create an artificial me?  What I love about being me is being alive and having my unique experiences of reality – I’d have to be rather egotistical to create another me – and if I could, it wouldn’t be me, so what’s the point?

 
Now it may be possible to create an artificial intelligence that can mimic my personality from the outside.  The act of creating one would be a good programming challenge.  It would also be a philosophical and metaphysical education.  Think about it.  If you could program a computer to fake being you, you would have to know who you are to fake it.  This may turn out to be disappointing.  Trust me, I’ve given this thought experiment a fair amount of daydream time and you may not want to know where this experience will lead you philosophically.

 
Since creating a personal android is not feasible right now, I’ve thought up a very cheap alternative to use for this experiment.   I’ve been following the growth of Wikipedia for a couple years now and I’ve wondered if Wiki software could be used as a representation of artificial personality?  Now I wouldn’t want strangers editing my memories, but the software could be adapted as an encyclopedia of personal history.  Since I believe our personality is really the memories of our life experiences, our opinions, beliefs, likes and dislikes, I think it would be possible to create an encyclopedia of “who we are” that others could query and get a fairly good idea of our personality.  Think of it as the brains of a future android – the reservoir of knowledge that such a device would query when asked questions.

 
I just thought of a real value for such a product.  I wish my parents, grandparents and all my ancestors had created such an artificial personality.  Ditto for all the famous people of history.  It would be great to be able to go “interview” all these people.  Also, imagine whenever you meet a person in real life if you could go query their artificial personality?  Would you want such an AI to represent you?  What if potential employers wanted to interview your AI instead of you?  What if people getting to know you discover that your AI and real personality diverge?  Is such a representation of personality even possible?

 
Picture this.  You go to a party and meet new people.  They ask questions about you and from your answers these people make judgments about your personality.  Often these questions don’t mean much:  “What did you think of that movie Borat?”  or “When should the U.S. pull out of Iraq?” or “Do you still know anyone from your first grade class?”  An android standing in for you trying to pass this advanced form of a Turing Test would essentially need to answer any question – but answer it just as you would.  Is personality just a long list of answers to specific questions?  If it were, then scientists could create a download of you by asking you a lot of questions and recording the answers instead of taking your brain out and pulling it apart neuron by neuron.

 
To the outside world is Jim Harris more of a middle-aged fat bald guy or an invisible being who knows a lot about computers and books?  When you think of your friends do you think about their opinions or their image?  Is J. K. Rowing the sum of the Harry Potter books or the lady we all see interviewed on television?

 
Because of my problems with memory and my philosophical interests in defining personality I’ve decided to use my computer tools to create an experiment.  The ordinary blog could be a good way to represent personality but I think they have problems.  Blogs work like a diary and aren’t really suitable for browsing through structures.  I think I could set up a Wiki with a home page that had two columns that would organize my life for quick reference.  The first column would be a listing of years in chronological reverse order.  The second column would be an alphabetical listing of hobbies, topics of interests and other key words in my life.  I thought about a third column listing names of people that I know, but that list might be too long for the home page.

 
Playing with Wikipedia shows it to be an excellent tool for organizing a lot of information.  Wikipedia’s detractors are mostly concerned with editing and the authority of authorship.  If I was creating an encyclopedia of my own life I would have to trust myself as a primary editor and contributor.  Now we all know how everyone is an unreliable observer so I would also have to consider allowing other people I know to contribute and edit entries.  For example I have a lot of memories about playing in the woods near New Ellington, South Carolina during our 1964-65 stay there.  I could allow my sister to contribute so we could compare memories.  However, I wouldn’t want her to edit out my memories.  What I’d really like is Wiki software that allowed for controlled annotations.  I don’t know if Wiki programs offer that feature?

 
Beyond standard Wiki software I’d like some advance features.  Right now people could go to a artificial personality Wiki site about you and start browsing and searching the site and get a fairly good idea about what you are like if you took the time to create the site.  Let’s say you want to build this site for your descendants so they could get to know you.  Now imagine better software and technology – this kind of stuff will be added over time.  Personally, I can envision logging into a personality and seeing an artificial movie of a person talking to me.  This talking head could morph into a moving image of that person from child to wrinkled old dying body.  Such software features would be far in the future, but for now I can imagine several enhancements to regular Wiki software.

 
A cool feature I’d like for this personality Wiki is a photo manager.   First, I’d obviously like it to manage all the thousands of photos I’d like to upload, but second, I’d like it to have a security system which would allow me to give friends permission to upload their photos and annotate any photo that they have knowledge concerning the contents.  To be nice this software should also automatically create several sizes for each photo – thumbnail, sized for inline text, large page use, full screen and blowup magnifier like the software we see in the film Blade Runner.  Remember in Blade Runner the androids were given family photos to enhance their beliefs that they were real people and not machines.  I think photos are key artifacts to recreating artificial memories.

 
Since I’m dreaming – I’d also want similar tools for video and sound.  Videos and sound recordings are actually more real than memories – almost disturbingly so.  Yet, if we’re going to build an artificial personality, should it match the self-awareness of the model, or the awareness of the model from outside viewers?  People find video recordings and sound recordings of themselves unnerving because they don’t match their own self-images.  Think about this.  If our technology existed back in biblical times and Jesus was making this experiment what artifacts would you want him to use to show what he was really like?  Yeah, video.  High quality video is as close as we can get to replicating reality.

 
Now this might sound silly, but I’d like a linking mechanism to Pandora or Rhapsody that would play music from specific months in the past or even specific songs.  Movies have soundtracks, so why shouldn’t our personality Wiki?  Most of my memory is linked in time to the music I listened to in the past.  Since it would be illegal to store copyrighted material, I’d like to have a code linking system to sites that can play the material legally.  It would be great to send the month and year in a XML structure to Pandora and it would play the music in the background like a radio show from the time.  Ditto for movie clips and TV shows.

 
This is an ambitious idea that will take me years to complete.  Since I’m a lazy kind of guy I probably won’t create it.  I’m all ideas and no work.  Yet, this idea is appealing and I may work on it in simple ways.  I’m constantly trying to figure out when and where I was for certain events.  Think of a simple list of 1st through 12th grade with hyperlinks to pages describing those years and showing photos.  Or a list of years from 1951 – 2006 with hyperlinks.   Those lists would be an easy way to start work and it would help me dredge up memories.

Access time in a fifty-five year old brain

The main reason I’ve created this blog is to help me remember.   After that I want to study how information is organized with the ultimate plan of taming the horde of competing topics that have tangled up my synapses.  I’m hoping if I can find a way to organize my thoughts I will be able to remember facts and details more efficiently and faster.  If I can’t, then the search box will do the job my neurons can’t.  My access time for my gray matter runs from instant, to many hours, to total failure.  This started as a noticeable problem in my late forties and has been getting worse ever since.

 
I assume this is a natural side-effect of getting older and that I don’t have Alzheimer’s.  My condition causes growing frustration and acceptance.  It is annoying not to be able to recall a specific piece of information that I just know is there somewhere in my brain.  On the other hand I can just laugh it off as a foreshadowing of the absent-minded old man I will become.  It’s almost pleasant to think, “Oh well, I really don’t need all those pesky facts.”  However, in conjunction with memory failure there seems to be a related trait for forgetting how to say words.  My speech has never been very grammatical and my pronunciation of many words is rather mangled, but things are getting worse.  I’m guessing these glitches in my neural hard drive are related.

 
Most people have memory lapses that get worse with age.  Diseases like Alzheimer’s are far different and more complex and are usually signaled by the failure to learn new skills, rather than simple forgetting words.  I’m hoping my brain is just getting rusty and I can find ways to exercise it.  I also have a theory that I can use computers as a crutch for my brain.  In other words, use software, hardware and networks as an extension to my three pounds of gray matter.

 
My problem started with the simple act of forgetting words.  For example, on Christmas Eve I was talking with my nephew David, who is joining the Army.  We were talking about boot camp and I wanted to ask him if he had seen Full Metal Jacket, a film that dramatically educates about the nature of military training.  I couldn’t remember the title of the film no matter how hard I struggled or furled my brows.  Requesting access started about 7pm Christmas Eve.  The title popped into my head around 10am Christmas day.

 
Why did my brain require 15 hours to dredge up that title?  I saw the movie when it came out in 1987 (had to look that up on http://imdb.com ) – and maybe I’ve thought about it a few times since.  I’ve read about Full Metal Jacket and seen clips about it in documentaries – but I doubt if my brain has had to deal with the title more than ten times in almost twenty year.  Maybe frequency of recall determines the access time in my brain.  However, that doesn’t explain why can take a class on Photoshop and forget nearly everything I learn within hours and never recall those facts and techniques no matter how long I wait.  Or explain why I can forget the name of someone I’ve worked with for years and see every day.

 
One hypothesis I’d like to test is the belief that if I write things down in little essays for this blog it will help me remember.  I’ve read thousands of books but I’ve forgotten 99.999% of what they said.  I read newspaper articles, essays, short stories, web pages every day – but they don’t stick with me either.  I think I’ve probably seen thousands of episodes of the evening news and who knows how many hundreds of documentaries.  I take in a lot of information – so why don’t I retain more if it?

 
Why do I remember some details and not others?  I can still remember the multiplication table I learned in grade school but I can’t remember which grade I learned them – was it the second grade?  Imagined if I had started a blog as soon as I could write?  I could search on “multiplication table” and find my diary about singing seven times seven is forty-nine.  Can a blog become my auxiliary memory?