dominik.net

Reviving Ye Olde Personal Home Page

Before TikTok, before Snapchat, before Instagram, before YouTube, before Facebook, before even blogs, there lived a different breed of social media: The personal home page.

Your virtual homestead on the world wide web. A pit stop all of your own on the ever-under-construction information superhighway. A place to hang up your shingle as you made your way through the wilds of an untamed, untrammeled cyberspace. (Barlow’s Declaration accurately captures the spirit of that age).

Now nearly extinct in this era of social media and selfies, the personal home page was one of the first trembling forays of humanity’s grappling with identity and self-expression in the Internet age.

I remember my own very first personal home page.

It was hosted on a computer running a web server in a complete stranger’s UIUC student’s dorm room sometime in 1995. This generous soul — whom I never corresponded with or even introduced myself to — had been kind enough to offer free web hosting to anyone on the internet who happened across their posting in a newsgroup and was willing to upload HTML files via FTP. Truly a different age.

From there I moved to GeoCities. I had this super cool site that I coded myself in HTML and rudimentary CSS 1.0. I remember spending hot August nights, before my freshman year of high school, working on it by the glow of my computer monitor. The design had a black background (because that was super cool) and had custom graphics that looked like electric blue molten metal I had made in PaintShop Pro (shareware, since I couldn’t afford real Photoshop). They also looked super cool. I picked GeoCities’s science nerd neighborhood, ResearchTriangle. I think I still have “dRSite” (as I called it) archived on a CD-ROM (“burned,” as was the vernacular then) somewhere in my parents’ basement.

As I learned more about the web and web design, I managed to register my own domain, dominik.net, and find a web hosting service.

And here we are today. This month marks 20 years since I put up that first page on dominik.net, and something like 24 years since my first personal home page anywhere.

It’s time to revive the personal home page and I’m starting at home: by beginning to re-centralize my content and creations in one place: my personal home page, the very site you’re reading now.

Inspired in part by Cal Newport’s books Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, as well as Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky’s book Make Time, I’ve largely scaled back my presence on social media. I still have my accounts, but the apps are not installed on my phone, and I’ve stopped posting. (Why should I freely donate my content to be monetized by others? For attention? This is my personal home page: it doesn’t need its own social media campaign. It’s there for the people who care to take the time to see it.)

My Facebook feed is soothingly empty, perpetually welcoming me to Facebook on the rare occasions I log in, because I’ve unfollowed everyone and pretend it’s 2004 and the News Feed hasn’t been invented yet. I’ve quit Instagram, preferring to host and post my photos without worrying about likes or getting distracted by the endless feed or ephemeral stories.

I still use a few specialized services because I find the social feedback loop they provide encourages me to cultivate habits that I want to cultivate; for example, Strava for running or Goodreads for reading. I want to run more and read more, so using these services and all the associated mini-dopamine hits of seeing friends like my latest run or my latest read are valuable motivation.

To use a phrase from Make Time, it’s the “infinity pools” that I’ve uninstalled. I’m not going to spend hours looking through runs on Strava, for example, and even my penchant for browsing books on Goodreads is limited by the fact that most of my friends don’t read more than a book or two a week — there’s just not that many updates to look through.

As an aside, books are dangerously seductive for me. There’s a reason I’ve built an overly complicated system for tracking recommendations and suggesting what I should read next: putting it in my reading queue is a budget-safe and (living in New York, physical-space-conserving) way to avoid yet another unread book. As my mom always said, be wary of visiting bookstores when traveling, lest you completely exceed the luggage weight allowance and have to buy a new suitcase so you can take more than the clothes on your back home with you. (This actually happened).

Nonetheless, despite my social media fast, I still look for an outlet of self-expression, somewhere that is my own, where I can be and create, write and photograph, exploring thought and art. This is an important part of being human: creation and creativity. Good writing and beautiful art inspire and lift the human spirit in ways that are hard to describe but that resonate within our hearts. Making a practice of creation and reflection helps refine and grow skills in these areas, and there’s a satisfaction all of its own to doing something well, and knowing it, and savoring the joy at beholding what you’ve made. Yes, as a perfectionist there are always things to be improved: creations are never finished, only abandoned; but the joy is real and worth celebrating.

So where to put these creations, this art, this writing? (Whatever your personal mode of expression; for me it’s writing and photography).

The personal homepage can be the place, that presence online, that anchor of electronic identity. It always has been, in a way. We’ve just wandered away from it thanks to the siren songs of likes, shares, hearts, follows, subscribes, and social proof in general. As a millennial, I too let my personal home page languish, untouched, for years.

Perhaps it’s now time to revive the personal home page — to go back to that culture of homesteaders on an endless frontier (in the memorable phrase from hypertext pioneer Vannevar Bush). And yes, of being perpetually under construction: for what else is life?

In a way, the revival of the personal home page is a twin to the recent resurrection of email newsletters. Those too date to the very earliest days of the Internet. I remember signing up to A.Word.A.Day as a middle school student when I learned about it from a book called, I kid you not, the Internet Yellow Pages. Nearly 25 years later, I’m still subscribed.

Email newsletters, like the personal home page, are mostly unfiltered and permissioned communication. People choose to subscribe (and that choice is vitally important, as Seth Godin pointed out 20 years ago in his brilliant Permission Marketing). A message that people want to hear, that they look forward to hearing, is worth a million messages that they don’t care about.

Email is one of the killer applications that made the Internet amazing in the first place. The web is another. Tim Berners-Lee’s combination of hypertext and images made for a tantalizing mix (distinct from Gopher, a contemporary hypertext protocol, which only had hypertext without inline images and had a cloud of potential licensing fees looming). Email and the web, the original killer apps of the Internet, paved the way for everything that came after. But they still retain their power.

And in some ways these ancient powers of the internet are wiser than their progeny. Email struggled mightily under a tide of spam, but that battle has largely been won, apart from foibles of overaggressive filtering. The Web went through 2.0 and 3.0 and whatever buzzword version number now exists, but it too still remains. Only fashion and finance prevent us from creating elegant, simple, clean, content-rich sites that inform, educate, or entertain, and then let people get on with their day. And RSS, that forgotten protocol, remains to provide painless, instant updates of what’s new on the sites that you care about, unfiltered by algorithmic whims. Direct from the source, unimpeded. Free. (And for those who don’t wish to wrangle with RSS and feed readers, email newsletters offer a simpler alternative).

In a way, the distributed nirvana foretold by the prophets of the blockchain is already here. It’s been here all along, with us all this time. The ancient powers lie latent. They wait for us to wield them again.

So how to build this? How to wield the ancient, lost arts of HTML and RSS? How can you create your own personal home page?

It’s relatively trivial to register a domain. Moving content out of social media is easier than ever, thanks to GDPR mandated data access requests that enable you get a bulk takeout of everything you’ve ever posted.

And as for where to put the content you’ve liberated? There are emerging services like GitHub Pages or Netlify, or, for the more intrepid, static site generators (Pelican, Hugo, Jekyll, many others) combined with pennies-a-month hosting from Google Cloud Platform, Amazon Web Services, or Microsoft Azure. RSS or free subscribe-via-email can push out updates. For hosting photography, my personal choice is Smugmug, but there’s also Flickr (now owned by Smugmug, as it happens), or setting up open-source web gallery software.

Your personal home page need not be all inclusive: you can always link out to your presence elsewhere, if you choose to remain part of social media. But the personal home page is the hub, the center, and the heart.

In crafting it, optimize for empathy, not engagement. Or better still: put aside optimization entirely.

Build the personal home page that you want to build. Pour heart and soul into it. For me that means I have an almost minimalist black-on-white text-heavy blue-links home page. That is me. I see it and I smile. You will be different. And yet, if you do right, it’ll resonate — people will see your personal home page and say: of course. That is so you.

Yes, this is not entirely as-of-yet accessible or as easy as it could be, as it should be. It does take some work. It is not frictionless, particularly on mobile (I don’t have a great mobile workflow yet with my solution of Pelican and Google Cloud, for example).

But that’s a feature, not a bug. Someone cared enough to make this. You know when you are on someone’s personal home page, when you stumble on a homestead in the wilderness, that here is something that someone made, that here is something that someone took the time and effort to make. It is not sent out into the ether with barely a thought, fueled by raw emotion or impulse; on the contrary, it has been crafted.

Building your personal home page can be a gradual process. It doesn’t need to built overnight. It can’t be, really. It’s probably better to just admit to yourself that it’ll be perpetually under construction, never finished, always being improved, added to, refined. That’s okay. That’s working as intended. Sometimes you only see what you want to make once you start.