tales from the dork side:
life on the web


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mike's home page

updates every saturday (i'll try, no really, honest I will)

April 20: the next one will have to wait another week... sorry. it'll be quite good.

april 13, 1996:
style sheets & role models

T

he idea of originality is one of the greater Web's fixations right now. There are the much-publicised feuds between various pillars of Web journalism: Pathfinder's Netly News getting regularly ridiculed by Suck for being derivative, when Suck's own format strongly resembles that of parent company HotWired's Flux. Then there's Flux's totally senseless jibes at newcomer cultural sites Spiv and the vaporware Stim, for claiming to be new and original when they seem to strongly resemble HotWired (as though HotWired itself doesn't strongly resemble some frappé of every loosely cultural magazine on the newsstand).

Bryon Sutherland, whose daily "Semi-Existence" may or may not be the first web-mounted instance of the personal-zine concept, says on his front page that he "wanted to try to do something original to make my web page stand out from the thousands of others out there." A brief email exchange I once had with him corroborates the strength of this motivation on his part. (I had just discovered his page and spewed at him about how great it was, how lots of people should put their individual daily lives up on the Web, and how I sort of wanted to do it; he emailed back advising me that it was important to do something original. The whole exchange was embarrassing all around, and his response probably had a lot to do with my gushiness.)

videofeedback
(woo, trippy)

It's interesting how, time after time, sites that are conceptually similar to sites that came before, also have similar layout schemes. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. And it's more interesting that, in their often tedious catfights, the big Web papers tend to name-call each other more for the design apings then for the conceptual ones that underlie them.

The Netly News, in its post-Suck-buyout epitaph (that mimicked all of Suck's graphics - even that joke had been made before) claimed in its (Netly's) defense that the narrow column, with navigation graphics on one side, was simply the best format for a site of its nature, and just try to come up with a different one that works as well. (The server's down, I can't find the exact quote.) And the earlier Flux which they both use as a conceptual source is a narrow, weekly updated gossip column. (The narrow column width at Flux was ridiculed at first for being a pointlessly long-scrolling page, but apparently its design was prescient; it took Suck to bring the form to maturity with its side navigation buttons and links'n'GIFs-as-punctuation.)

The point I'm trying to get at here is that originality is a head trip. The Web is not a new medium, not yet, because the people making it are not new people. We were all brought up on print and television paradigms; trying to think up appropriate design for a new medium with your old-media-addled brain is like trying to bite your own teeth. It may take another generation before we get another round of content paradigms as original, well-adapted, copy-able and hence widespread paradigms as the Menu Of Selections, and the Updated-Daily Essay Page.

And anyway, imagine if all of the early newspapers felt they had to be different from each other, and made fun of each other because they weren't. If this happened, you would feel that a point was being missed somewhere.

That said, I'd like to see more web pages that acknowledge their elders. I've been rereading Nicholson Baker's U and I, which is all about Baker's obsession, based like all literary obsessions on half-read books and misremembered references, with John Updike. In it Baker talks about (but of course has not read) Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence and its general argument about father-and-sonnish relationships between writers: influence being handed down through generations. Baker also quotes an appropriate line from an 18th-century figure name of Edward Young: "Illustrious examples engross, prejudice, and intimidate. They engross our attention, and so prevent a due inspection of ourselves; they prejudice our judgment in favour of their abilities, and so lessen the sense of our own; and they intimidate us with the splendour of their renown, and thus under diffidence bury our strength." That's sort of a nice image of the world of current Web pubs, a True-Life drama, nature red in tooth and claw. (If you're as into the issues of self-indulgence and status within community as I am, read U and I and you'll find plenty more good stuff.)

So, at the risk of buying too solidly into the father-and-son thing in some instances (the metaphor is handy, is all), and of succumbing to a little too much prejudice and intimidation (I don't want my first two weekly essays to both have themes of self-doubt, but whatever), here goes: for the rest of this page I'm going to name-check all of the conscious influences on this page that I can think of. Bothersomely enough, they are mostly male. Whenever this changes, I will let you know.

David Siegel: the first is probably the most problematic. This page owes obvious debts to Siegel's weekly journal: the sorts of titles I choose, part of the general design sense (although I try to stay clear of his cavalier "fuck 'em if they can't take a million colors" attitude, and really my overall design philosophy is different, but I think I'm saving that for some other week), and the way I put "random notes" at the bottom and am stingy with links. Even the very weekliness of my page comes from him. His casual, anti-personal kind of elitism ("Just as some people would like the Web to be an innocent place where everyone can be a publisher, many people believe olympic sports are not fixed," he writes in his January 31 1996 entry), his elaborate ego-constructions (well-documented by g. beato of Traffic in "David Siegel's Complete Guide To Automythology"), and the increasing density of soporific corporate sites by soporific corporate designers that win honors on his High Five design awards page, make him quite an iffy father figure for young websites. How indeed did he convince the world that his site isn't self-indulgent?

Dave Winer: he annoys a lot of people with his flippancy and boosterism and catch phrases; he annoys me with them a lot of the time. But he sets a good example of a vanity press done right, a quirky but responsible and respected personal soapbox. He's gonna do things his own way, and he regrets that those who just don't like it can only leave. And his body of work in Mac and Internet software, a collection of beautiful systems that fit loosely together into an ineffable, mind-boggling whole, and the fact that it's all free with no illusions, is eminently honorable.

Justin Hall: he joined in the Dave Siegel-bashing but he's no slouch of an automythologist himself. He writes about his life every day in a free-verse style that practically dares you to yell "self-indulgent." The über-personal page, vehemently insisting on the details of personal lives, and encouraging everyone else to do what he does. I think he's the guy who said that everyone makes their web the way they wish the whole web were made.

HotWired's "The Netizen": my red headline, positioning of photo and columns, and navigational sidebar (which i may still change) basically come from this rotating daily column site. (Whatever you think of the journalism there, it has turned HotWired's Threads into a fascinating place again; you should check it out.)

HotWired in general, and The Semi-Existence of Bryon: not related to each other (I found Bryon thru HotWired), and not really direct influences on this page, but they both shape my idea of "The Canon," what I referred to earlier as the "big Web papers" and such, i.e. what everyone else is reading. HotWired probably shapes my general way of designing as well.

The Netly News: I stole the column-snaking-back-and-forth thing from here, sort of. It's really weird to watch them struggle for identity (the snide-or-earnest battle played out even between their daily content and their sidebars), but they're actually an OK source for straight news about the net.

Suze Schweitzer: someone I actually know, so she can be a role model in different ways; someone who gets job offers on the basis of her pages; someone whom I have watched retool her page from something attitude-rich but content-light (and came very early on and involved a woman so got her lots of attention) to something continually more personal and expressive; one of the few people who will actually read this page.

And the biggest and deffest gets to go last, also because it's the most recent influence on me: Stating The Obvious. Found this just a couple weeks ago and it really got me going. It's small, it's personal, it's about technology and the Web sometimes, it's occasionally brilliant (check out the March 11 piece; if he keeps going in that direction I can abandon my jones to do a huge essay on this subject, which will be a relief), it's weekly, it's got a nice simple layout which I'm cribbing from as well. To make a long story short, Michael Sippey is whipping on a mule's ass with a belt. If you only go one place when you're done with my site, make it this one (but that's something Dave Siegel always says... oh well).

Sorry this is so rambling, I'll try to edit more later this week.

in other news...

Lately people from my real life (like my mom, and other relatives, and school friends) are starting to notice my pages, sometimes without my having to bring them to their attention. Next week, or possibly the week after, I'll be writing about some aspects of myself that some people, like my mom, might find it embarrassing and distressing to read about. You've been warned.

Recent events in the lives of some of my English-major friends have led me to recount my blessings that I majored in art instead. Note for the young ones: if you're attracted to artistic subjects in college (including writing, art, dance, whatever), do not enter any department that structures itself around competition - increasingly selective admission by audition to upper-level classes, things like that. If you do choose one of these departments, the fate of your development in your field of choice may be left to the often senseless whims of department committees, who may decide that their job is not to help you become the best artist you can be, but to nurture the kind of artist they think the world needs, however short-sightedly. Should that happen, you'll be locked out, screwed over, and will have wasted a lot of expensive time. There's my wisdom for the week; now where are my goddamn slippers.

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The Netly News

Suck

HotWired

Flux

Spiv

The Semi-Existence of Bryon

David Siegel

Dave Winer

Justin Hall

The Netizen

Suze Schweitzer

Stating The Obvious

Tales From The Dork Side are copyright Mike Sugarbaker, email for permission to redistribute.
Updated Apr 13 1996
misuba@iberia.vassar.edu