Tale Torrent – Ye Olde Days of Weblogging
On Thursday 10th November, as part of Internet Week Europe, the awesome James Mitchell organised an event to celebrate individual stories about the web, called Tale Torrent: a night of true stories about the internet.
It was ace. It reminded me of the truly awesome Fray Day. We heard a variety of wonderful and deeply personal stories about the internet – a 25-year friendship from analogue to digital (entitled “Postcards ‘n’ mix-tapes, Skype ‘n’ status updates”) from Simon Sanders, to the joy of serendipity from Claire Burge; why Christian Payne (aka Documentally) treausres his network; to how World of Warcraft brought J Nicholas Geist’s friend out of his shell and onto a zombie pub crawl, amongst others.
I shared a story about ye olde days of weblogging – sparked by a post I wrote here last year.
And cos it’s about blogging, and this is my blog, I thought I’d share it here too:
I’d created my first webpage in Geocities c. 1997. I was putting off GCSE revision and noodled around with Microsoft Frontpage, then got curious about how the page was actually made, so started delving into HTML to see what that was all about.
(My first sites were everything you’d expect from 90s web design and more. Tiled backgrounds, scrolling marquees, animated gif under construction signs – the lot. Oh yes)
I started my blog in 2000. My friend Tom had been weblogging for a little while, and I kept sending him links and little nuggets for his blog. He suggested I just get on with it and start my own blog. So I did. Buying a domain back then was a pretty big deal. You deliberated over the name, and as I recall had to go through a fair bit of paperwork to get there. Not like today when most of us have domains coming out of our ears and you can get them for a few quid. And so, I bought kitschbitch.com, because I liked the name and it sounded snappy, bought some hosting and whacked together my new blog homepage.
Blogger really made the basic blog format possible. The above screencap is from the Wayback Machine – which turned out to be invaluable when prepping this story, as much of the references simply don’t exist any more. Or at least, don’t exist in the form I used to know them as.
I remember one of Blogger’s straplines – ‘Push Button Publishing for the People’. And it really was. You had to be able to code your own basic page, and insert the Blogger code in your template, input your FTP details etc. But then you were off. You wrote the blog post and hit publish and you were off – the WYSIWYG interface making links and basic formatting a doddle. Comments, permalinks, image upload and the like were all still to come – if you wanted to include an image in your blog post you had to upload it somewhere (usually to your own domain via an FTP client) and then insert the link manually. But you could publish a dated blog post, and the tool would create archives for you and everything. Magic.
On the date the Wayback captured the Blogger.com homepage in the screencap above, there’s a post from Ev thanking Blogger users for contributing to the Blogger server drive to keep the service going. Yep, this was before Blogger was acquired by Google, when they still needed a whip-round to keep it up and running as more and more users came on board. How times change, no?
Back when I started blogging, blogs weren’t usually ‘about’ anything in particular – they didn’t tend to follow a theme or specific area of focus. They were very personal – often a mix of links, stream of consciousness thoughts (much like Twitter updates nowadays) and diary based entries. Though I’ve since imported all my old Blogger posts into WordPress, I took a little walk down memory lane to look at some past posts in their original context. Sadly the images weren’t captured so you can’t see this post in all its hideous web design glory (the black and orange colour scheme was particularly vile, as I recall). It’s funny the things you remember. I remember writing this post, ‘You can’t be a hot bitch in a car with safety features‘, so very clearly. I’d still argue that cupholders and being a hot bitch are largely incompatible. The point was, that as weblogging was still a pretty underground activity, insofar as although it was completely public, the only people likely to see whatever you’d written were other bloggers. So it was very freeing – it felt like a really lovely place for idle musings, to find your own personal voice.
A later design.
Another one. This is from Oct 31 2002, the day after my 21st birthday. I blogged about being ‘officially grown up‘. I turned 30 a couple of weeks ago – and I still don’t feel anywhere near grown up. Oh, the things I would tell my younger self…
The UK blogging community was super small, super tight-knit – we all kept track of each other through the UK Weblogs updater and the Gblogs Gateway, created & curated by Darren Shrubsole & Jen Bolton respectively. A new UK blog being created was a Big Deal, as we all clamoured to know who’d joined our little club.
We’d keep track of blogs worldwide using Brig Eaton’s Eatonweb portal (which still exists, but now it’s on steroids). On the day captured (12th Mar 2000), there were a total of 1378 weblogs from across the globe listed. Can you imagine trying to list all the weblogs in the world alphabetically today?
In the absence of comments or permalinks, the way we responded to someone else’s blog post was to write our own blog post, and link to said person’s blog. And as ever, inclusion on someone else’s blogroll was very flattering. We didn’t have Klout or PeerIndex or Technorati, but we did track popularity using the Beebo Metalog. Slightly obsessively in fact. Updated by hand, and with love, this was the ultimate weblogging popularity contest of the time.
Because you didn’t want to lose momentum (and possibly your ranking on the Metalog), if you went away, you’d hand over the keys to your blog to someone else to guest blog for you. A lovely American blogger called Mark Olynciw who blogged at Riothero.com gave Tom & I access rights to blog there when he was on holiday. And we had a bit of fun – totally redesigning the whole page. I seem to remember a ripped male torso was the background image, and blog posts remarking on the distraction posed by one of the nipples following suit. It even made the front page of Metafilter, such was the small community of webloggers.
I think my favourite plaudit however was this one:
Goddamn those two are witty, smutty and vile. I love them. Like a stream of bat’s piss, they shine out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark
Never again will I reach such lofty heights. Might even put that on my CV.
It wasn’t that long however before the mainstream media started to pick up on this weblogging thing. This was a piece in CMJ music monthly (which I understood to be like the US equivalent of NME), which mentioned ‘the frequently hilarious kitschbitch.com’. Look Mum! I’m in a proper magazine in print and everything!
The Guardian did a piece a month or so later. No word of a lie, the day this came out was one of my first days settling in at university. I went into a meeting where our tutors welcomed the new crop of history students, to be met by an exclamation from one of them of ‘You were in the Guardian this morning’. Somewhat nervous as to why, it was a relief to find it out it was ‘just’ because of my blog – although by the same token this weblogging thing was starting to feel a bit more public than it had been. But as they’ve shown consistently, the Guardian got what blogging was all about from the beginning, and recognised the value in the different styles different bloggers adopted:
A weblog is, literally, a log of the web – a sort of frequently updated portal, where new entries go to the top and old ones drift to the bottom. It usually consists of the take of one editor – the weblogger or “blogger” – on the gems he or she has found online, either generally or on a theme. It sounds simple, and it is. Find one who shares your taste, and you have a surfing companion for life.
This Evening Standard piece gave us a bit of a laugh, given how they presented this blogging lark as strangely self indulgent and a fad that they couldn’t see would take off. I’m not sure they weren’t entirely wrong on the former, but as for the latter – well…
Though it was taking off as an ever growing phenomenon, in those early days, it felt like we all knew each other. The esteemed Dan Hon, then a Cambridge student and blogger of ‘The Daily Doozer’ had some cheeky fun creating ‘Blog Trumps‘, a kind of Top Trumps amongst bloggers. The original page is gone (thanks again, Wayback machine), but Tom’s post about the full set of Blog Trumps is still alive…
Here’s my card. My stock options were zero but my drinking abilities were duly recognised. As I recall whilst Ev beat most of us on the stock options front (somewhat prescient, given he’d later sell to Google & go on to found Twitter), and I didn’t even beat him on flair, my card highlighted my prowess in drinking. Ahem. I might not have your millions, Williams, but I can drink you under the table!
If the Metalog wasn’t enough, we started to get competitive in 2001 with the first annual Bloggies. Tom won the first of several Bloggies for Best European weblog. I was nominated, but apparently the ‘bitch’ part of my blog name was too controversial to be listed in full. Nowadays it’s big, professionally run blogs like Boing Boing and Lifehacker taking the prizes in the Bloggies, but back then it was just personal blogs, lovingly crafted and tended by individuals in their spare time.
The best bit about my blogging adventures, by a country mile, was the people I met as a result. On 11th June 2000, a few UK webloggers met in a pub in Kings Cross. It was still considered very weird to be meeting people from off the internet, and most non-bloggers thought we were nuts and clearly off to certain death at the hands of axe-wielding nutcases. We might have been a bit nutty but there were definitely no axes as far as I could see. It was quite weird, meeting people whose blogs we read. We weren’t used to talking to people in real life who’d read our online wibblings. We’d be chatting about something we’d done recently, or planning to do, and be met with ‘yes, I know’ and remembered that actually yes, although we’d never ‘met’ before, we all knew each other pretty well indeed already. Again, now we all have a collection of people we know ‘from the web’ and it’s totally standard to feel we ‘know’ someone we might not yet have met face to face through their digital presence. But not on that day. A bunch of bloggers met, in a pub, and had a jolly nice time – all photos courtesy of the awesome Giles Turnbull (full set here):
Jen & I. Oh dear lord – how young we look. I was 18. A wee young scamp!
There was a lovely photographic project from Heather Champ called The Mirror Project – featuring submitted photos of people taking pictures of themselves in mirrors of various shapes and sizes – its tag line was ‘Adventures in reflective surfaces’, so it became quite a fun challenge to take your picture in as weird and wonderful a mirrored object as possible.
The UK blogging community grew and we made more wonderful friends. And continued to meet up in various pubs and the like. We had a 5th anniversary blogmeet to commemorate that first encounter:
Tom, before he moved to San Francisco
Dan, before he left for Portland (with a slightly older, although not much wiser, me)
Group shot! As well as great friendships, deeper bonds had formed. Meg and Paul got together – I think by this point they were married. They’re now expecting their first child. There are loads of other blogger couples and babies too. Tom grumbles he’s the only one who hasn’t got laid because of his blog. I say he’s not trying hard enough…
Obviously we had to follow it up with a follow up mirror shot – note the quality of the photography has declined as we moved on from ‘proper’ cameras to these brand new inventions called camera phones. Proper sophisticated we were.
I left the final word with Meg, who as ever says it more eloquently than I could
And you know the best thing?
I’m still in touch with all the people above, and I count many of them among my closest friends. Plus most are still blogging in some shape or form. The itch never goes away.
We still meet up occasionally for drinks in various bits of the world, even after all this time. That’s the effect of blogging community. Long may it last!
My story about the internet is partly about the early days of this emerging phenomenon that would turn out to change the media landscape more than we could ever have predicted – but mainly, it’s about people. As it always is. It’s the ‘social’ in social media. My story is about the wonderful people that blogging has brought into my life (including my beloved partner Simon, who 8 and a half years later I share a home and a life with).
And for all these wonderful joys, I say, thank you internet.