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"The Next Generation"

When looking at the Web, it's interesting for me to see how much of an influence the personal sites have had on the commercial sites. Tricks have, for the most part, been proliferated by those unrewarded souls on the 'Net who put unfathomable amounts of time into making their own personal sites look the absolute best. While this has been true in the past, is it still the case? Have personal sites ceased to be the innovators? At what point do Web authors get tired? When do the new authors begin treading the same ground?

Let me clarify the term "personal site." This site is personal. First and foremost, this site is an expression of myself and does not represent views of other people. However, a site like the Fray, a collaborative effort of many writers, is also personal. It's not selling a product -- what it does is for free. Personal sites are (supposed to be) non-commercial efforts.

So when most of the HTML tricks came about, companies still scoffed at the Internet and saw it as a place for geeks and antisocial Dungeons and Dragons players slash physicists. To some degree, companies still do. Or, at least, they don't understand that you don't sell a product over the Internet -- you inform people about it. Anyway... I remember the days of Scarecrow's ASCII site, David Siegel, and other notable one-man efforts. Siegel came up with the now infamous single-pixel transparent .gif trick which let people fudge exact placement of text and images in HTML. Derek Powazek experimented much later with frames and how to lay out pages creatively. Alexis Massie screwed around with TABLE cell background colors. And it's quite obvious some personal site probably came up with the side navigation bar thingamajig.

All these examples illustrate how the standard of design right now for the Web has been influenced greatly by the efforts of individuals on the Web who created their own sites to exhibit, practice, and experiment with HTML and Web design. Fine. Wonderful. I owe a lot to these people -- such tricks I use without even thinking about it these days.

Hmm, but there's been a lull in what's been coming out of the personal site realm. I haven't seen anything truly creative in awhile as far as personal sites go (and I include myself on that list, for sure). The neatest site I've seen (and this is by no means a full-fledged compliment) is the Birth of Tragedy. Now bear with me on this one. Once you get past the initial navigation which isn't all that intuitive, you'll find that the individual essays look pretty good, all dollied up with their own themes and moods. I love seeing text merged with images in a clean, flowing manner. It's quite a hard thing to do, actually, since the way HTML is, it tends to make you separate text from images in your mind. It's not quite as integrated as Acrobat or PageMaker would be.

Part of the stagnation of creativity in the personal site community has to do with the limits of HTML. After some furious upgrades from Netscape, and some followups by Microsoft, HTML now has basically all the tags in its repertoire. The expansion of HTML is dead, basically, and the emphasis is now on programming and dynamic content: Javascript, Java, DHTML, XML, that sort of stuff. And I think this is a step that most personal site authors can't make.

HTML is easy. Dirt easy. It's not very cryptic or hard to get into. Basically, you use <P> to begin a paragraph and </P> to end it. And you don't even need the closing tag. It's optional. That's the sort of stuff you need to know to use HTML. But programming is a whole new animal. Thankfully, I come from the generation which is taught Pascal in high school whether we want to or not. So I already had a year of that language (which is quite a good language to start in if you really have problems understanding why languages have this and that) to go along with the computer background I had acquired on my own. Java and Javascript I picked up while trying to add the latest and greatest technologies to my site. Okay, so I usually deleted the stuff a week later, but I learned how to do it when I did it the first time.

I'm quite a good programmer, but I don't have the mind for it. The tasks seem repetitive and pointless, particularly when enforced by the arbiter of my grade for the class. I'm not the sort who lusts for a quiet day at a desk typing up code which allocates memory that 7% faster than what the other guy in my department could do. I do, however, enjoy programming interfaces, which means the Web is perfect for me. And now that the browsers are beginning to support more advanced scripting and programming languages, the power I have is even greater.

But will my peers, people typically five to fifteen years older than me adjust as easily? My guess is not, since they haven't already. I've seen little progress made, usually in the form of stylesheets which make links change color when the mouse runs over them. (Thank God for that, by the way -- people would try ever trick under the sun to get that to work and now it only takes one small tag attribute...) Javascript and DHTML really do seem to be beyond what most people are willing to learn. It's understandable, I suppose -- what people want to do first and foremost is write down their ideas on their sites, not develop a customization menu for viewers.

Understandable...although now I look to people with no name in order to get ideas. I go to sites like Inside DHTML and Javascript Tip of the Week for help. These are the sites where I have to now gauge the progress of the Web and its technologies. I can't rely on the creativity and curiosity of the personal site authors anymore.

And that's really a shame. Personal sites are not really subject to keeping with a consistent theme or anything similar. They can code up a really cheesy Shockwave Flash script depicting the exploits of Mr. Gifford and throw it on a page right under their "Loyally Wedded Celebs" section. Doesn't matter. Plus, personal site authors (like myself, again) tend to have plenty of time for these endeavors.

But it won't happen. Programming and scripting is where it's at. And personal site authors, who are having a hard enough time writing anything worth reading, won't bother with the new stuff until some personal authors start doing it. And even then, they'll just leech the code. ;)

So that leads me up to this point in my discussion: I really don't identify with the other personal site authors on the Web. I'm quite aware of all the goings-on, and I still visit some sites in vain, hoping for new content which is always promised but never fulfilled. But I don't really want anything to do with these people. I have no idea what they're trying to say and what they're trying to accomplish. I seek the honesty and sincerity that most personal sites purport to have, but it always seems like they don't have anything to say anyway...why bother being honest? Hell, lie about your life... At least it'll get interesting...

BenTurner.com has always had one basic goal behind it in its near three year existence: it should do its best to express who I am and to serve as a history of my development from boy to man. This whole thing, with the mood script that keeps you out of the site, with the pretentious and arrogant essays, and with the ambivalent motives in seeking attention while warding off attention may be comical, absurd, and even juvenile to you, but I take the site very seriously. I have admitted many times that the Soapbox does tend to indulge in ranting and using invectives, but that's the whole point of the thing -- catharsis really does keep one sane. The rest of the site seems an exercise in arrogance, but all it really is is a display of frustration with a world that really doesn't make any sense at all. You see, BenTurner.com gets down to the most basic emotions which we all are familiar with. In all the pomposity, diversions, and even confessionals, I am reaching a level of sincerity many other personal site authors never get to. Correct me if I'm wrong.

And here it begins. I cannot make sense of other sites. They're completely inane and pointless to me. What the Hell is up with the window/eye/beach metaphors, people? Another site, another frigging metaphor. You know, I received a few foul comments about my choosing the domain name BenTurner.com to base my operations from, but please... I can tell just by looking at domain names whether a site's good or not. Domain names using verbs? Probably not worth looking at. Cute little phrases? Vapid content detected... Look, people, it may be a little arrogant to name a site after your own name, but at least I'm acknowledging the fact that domain names for single authors are just vanity plates. Enough already.

Poor Leksa. Poor, poor Leksa.

 you're such a drama queen
You want the day to fit on a soundtrack
Get a story, get a life, and get back
You've got nothing to shout about
You're over...and out.
-"Tesko Suicide", Sneaker Pimps

And the content! Even Pliny the Younger's painstakingly retouched letters about the daily life of a Roman aristocrat are more fascinating than what I read in online diaries. What's the point in describing the goings-on of one's every day to a mass audience? It contributes nothing to the consciousness of man. Philosophers won't open their eyelids at 3 AM, revealing their enlightened ocular orbs of reason, exclaiming, "The parking ticket from Dave's entry on July 16th -- oh, the transformation from human to criminal beast!" Do you really want to know what those details are good for? They're good for girlfriends or boyfriends who live thousands of miles away, across whole oceans. They're good for that love in your life who cannot be physically close, but can make up for it with reliving all that you did that day, through your own words. And that...even that...that is something private. Few things are more settling to me than when other people finally get some attention and get so swept up in it all that they forget to talk to me.

Finally, I don't understand sites closing down for restructuring. I don't know if this is the case for everyone, but just about every personal site I see has either just reopened or is closed for redesign. These authors will come up with a great idea, create a site for it, publicize it until everyone's sick of it, and then they close the site down, only to return later with a brand new idea. And this goes on and on and on and on.

This behavior has to be engrained in these people -- no doubt it extends into eating habits, dating histories, and various other things.

Is there any other explanation than the fact that these people get off completely on the novelty of things? Quite a lot of people will date a lot, really getting into the whole scam (and we all know dating's a scam...you lose more than you gain, which makes me glad Anna and I completely skipped all the uncertainty part and went straight to the good, romantic "TAKEN" stage), reaching limerance as their hearts flutter with the prospect of a new significant other to show off, do the same things they did with previous significant others (but since it's the first time, the counter resets...), and, well, sleep with. Once that lust and intrigue wear off, these people leave. This is the point when people come up with all the nonsense about "the love being gone," even if the relationship started just a few weeks before. Same with sites. People become so proud of themselves for coming up with a brand-spanking new idea which is really just retrofitting an old idea with a new look and a different, unknowing audience. They tell all their friends, come up with a half-decent design, and wait for the attention and flattery to pour in. It's good for awhile, but then they get tired of having to actually update the damn site and come up with new ideas, and adapt to what people want...and they quit. Yes, it's the big "we're down right now, but join us when such-and-such premieres" message.

Few die-hard personal site authors don't say something on their sites which infers that their site means the world to them, the representation of their life in the form of electrons lagging across the world. Then what does it say about a person when he shuts down his site, only to rename it and reopen it later? Quitter. That's what it says.

I believe in redesigns. I believe in showing off what I've learned and seeing how good I've become at this stuff. I periodically redesign sections of my site if I believe I can do it better. To me, it's keeping my skills sharp. But, you know, since I've had a web site, I've never really changed the core of it. There's still the main area with the menu, plus all the off-shoot information pages. I have the section which holds my personal writings, and I've even kept the name "Soapbox" for quite awhile. You see, when I come up with an idea, it's a great idea. It's not an idea that I grow tired of. It's practical and it's flexible. I plan these things in advance so I don't feel like I have to change the whole philosophy every other week.

Lance Arthur's Glassdog has stayed pretty much the same, too. Not a coincidence, I think, I've always thought highly of Mr. Arthur. I've always been impressed not only with his design, but the content of his site. And he doesn't fiddle around with the name and goals of his site, even if he changed his personal writing section from the "Experience" to "Life Serial." The idea behind it remained pretty much the same. And this commitment and stick-to-it-iveness that Mr. Arthur has somehow translates into writing that I enjoy. Perhaps what I like about what he writes is that he doesn't quit and start over -- he thinks about what he's done and adapts it to make it better. I can always rely on Mr. Arthur to be at his site when I go there. No redirections to other domains of his. Maybe this will change in the future, but to date, I've always felt I can depend on Mr. Arthur to be a worthwhile author to keep up with.

Allow me this waxing of didacticism. In order to create a dependable site that won't betray you by begging for attention, start out with a plan and a goal. Develop content which not only informs, but begs for followup questions and thinking. Even HTML guides teach you so that you can apply your creativity and construct complicated, slick Web pages. But describing the writing habits of obscure characters who are only known inside your clique does nothing. It's like reading the medical log for a coma patient. It's all the same.

And all these useless habits and styles... Why do new personal site authors tend to pick up on these? Surely not because they're inspired by daily accounts of Evian consumption... I will admit that those who have been around for awhile have settled down and found what they're best at, and what other people like with what they do... But how come new people don't pick up where the experienced authors left off? It's reinventing the wheel. It's negligent and lazy to start a new ambitious site without seeing what other authors have gone through first. Has the personal site genre really changed much from its conception? I'd have to say no. I think people are pretty much taking the same steps as they learn more and more about HTML and Web design. Few desire to skip ahead and begin ahead of the pace.

Where does this leave the personal sites? Leaves it in a lot of trouble. We're recycling old material over and over, getting nowhere and alienating more and more people who are tired of reading the same things. No wonder people turn more and more to strictly informational sites and big-time editorial zines when they use the Web. There's no direction or passion left!

Perhaps programming and more advanced work in Web design will weed out the hacks who have (and this is good in some respects) managed to succeed so far. Maybe people will put more thought into their elaborate schemes and metaphors when they have to code the algorithm for multimedia tours of their home pantries (or of their South Park dioramas...I don't really know what they're into these days).

Maybe the days when ideas can be attached to actual people, and not faceless designers who develop content for big companies but receive no credit for it, are over. Maybe all that you can do with HTML has been done already, and people have to get into programming in order to find the new stuff.

Maybe I'm just overreacting. ;)

But I'll tell you this: a lot of people are quitting on the Web, and no one worthy of the task is following them up. And me? Well, I'm not going anywhere. This is who I am, and this site is one thing I believe in.

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