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"Opinions Elsewhere"

[ In defense of the individual people who work their butts off producing content that appeals to me, here are some sites I was unaware of at the time of writing: CamWorld, Flutterby!, AnandTech, Justin Hall, to name a small few. ]

Please excuse my lapse in updating the Soapbox on time -- I'm indulging in an Anna-filled summer at the moment. Although I'm quick to get on OTHER peoples' cases about not updating materials in a timely and efficient manner, I think I deserve this treat in European bliss and my woman's love. After all, my last break was Christmas. Life's been changing rather quickly for me as of late and the fun of youth can easily be overlooked without my realizing it. Besides, I'll be back and posting vitriolic content in no time. I can't stop.

It's time for the periodic rant about the Web. All the online authors do it, but few get it right, in my opinion. It's good that we're all thinking about it, and worrying about it, but how many actually see the Web less as just an addictive habit, and more as an incorporation into the lives of every human being? How many authors actually have the experience to accurately track the Web's evolution?

Few personal site authors from back then are still active now. Maybe the growing proliferation of terrible personal site authors (henceforth referred to as "Twits" -- ugh, been reading too many nondisclosure contracts) need to take a vacation in order to create something at least slightly interesting on the Web and put some life back into it.

You know the sites I'm talking about. You explore the Web and you find site after site with splash pages warning you about a coming redesign. Meanwhile, the old version of the site has been taken down, so there isn't much to see. Osil8.com and birthoftragedy.com, among others. Everyone knows that redesign won't usually come through for a month or two. Why not leave the OLD site up so we can look at that? Then surprise us when you've done the new layout. I mean, Jesus, it's not like Mr. Joe Schmuck is going to create a Van Gogh for the world to marvel at as soon as it hits the Web. Give us something to look at.

What of the sites that start out like this? "Um. Okay. I didn't know what to write for my site, so I'm just going to ramble for a bit. I just learned HTML after being inspired by so-and-so's web site. I just HAD to contribute something too." Then the essay proceeds to fumble around looking for something to say. It's fine if you're experimenting to have a site with gadgets and widgets to play with, but don't expect people to link to you and give you attention when that's all you have. And certainly do NOT proclaim yourself as a long-time contributor to a revolutionary medium and trumpet all the content on your site. Show some respect for the people who do it better than you, while at the same time shying away from self-degradation.

What personal sites do YOU, Mr. Reader, go to for cool graphics and inspirational content posted in the last 48 hours? I'd say Glassdog first, but even Mr. Arthur has closed shop indefinitely (read: bye bye, Glassdog) for some seemingly ambitious but perhaps poorly advertised design consortium project. At least he leaves all his work up online. If you want a good example of the wit and excellent style of Mr. Arthur's, visit Flabjab.com and read his opinion pieces. Never fails to entertain.

Maggy's Water? Well, she always removes her old stuff (the good stuff) in a tiff because someone DARED to say negative things to her. What she has now is a thrown-together mess of sloppy, subtle references to her life -- the end result being a medley of words placed together in random order so that the overall story makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Her daughter is super-cute, though. It's lovely reading about happy children and their happy parents for once.

Alexis Massie of pbot.com and afterdinner.com fame is still Alexis, now frothing up much ado about slugs in a quest to find heartbreak in every person she meets in a ten mile radius. Her designs have gone from Internet-inspired exercises in curiosity to bored, lifeless, stifled cold slabs of ambiguous navigational buttons and self-loat^H^Hving pictures of herself (a la Maggy) as her moody backgrounds. Anna and I caught a neat little thing on one of Alexis's recent essays: we were reading it, and Alexie, who is some sort of Shakespearean consort with Maggy, wrote, "...and it turns out Maggy was just using me the whole time", loosely quoted. We reloaded the essay later and that sentence was gone. Heh. She's tired. Very tired. She regularly talks about the people who say negative things about what she tries to do -- frankly, I don't know who she's referring to, because I never see anything bad in a public forum about her, except for maybe here. Terrible when critics don't have gumption.

Then there are the dozens upon dozens of hangers-on who troll the mailto: links and Fray submission boards in an attempt to get noticed (and linked to) by the dysfunctional posse we have come to recognize in contests and personal site commentaries throughout the Web, those listed above. They post elaborate, overdrawn personal stories to show off their writing styles (hey, I ain't no good writer, either, but then again you don't see my words on dozens of sites...and with good reason). They do the Internic domain thing and put up pretentious web sites and get a fair sum of hits. But they're flash in the pans...no staying power. And if they admitted it, it would be better for them -- I know myself how much fun it is to have one's own domain and site -- everyone should dabble with that stuff -- but I don't make more of myself than what I am. I'm surprisingly humble in person. ;)

Don't get me wrong -- it is good that everyone has sites up. I don't deny their effect, or the importance that their information has for the personal site community. I just don't see the point of the Web journal, per se. I tire of the masochistic bullshit melodramatic aging 20-somethings impose on themselves. Every other week these sad people post sad stories about sad events in their lives, dressed up in flowery language and confusing metaphors. But these personal web sites are contributive nonetheless, if only in kilobytes, and my harshness should not overlook that.

My main target in this piece is the personal journal, and I'll shift to talking about it later. But first...

No, I don't hate all personal sites. I'll clarify. I have a newfound respect for the Fray and its founder, Derek Powazek. I also enjoy Bill Osborg's mailing list describing his journeys on a good old American aircraft carrier patrolling the Persian Gulf. I like Flabjab in the same way I like the Fray. I'll explain more about these later.

At first I was a bit quick to judge Mr. Powazek and I put him down unnecessarily (and undeservedly) in the Soapbox about the woman from Salon Magazine who copied a design seemingly verbatim from the Fray. After revisiting the Fray on numerous occasions (no, it never inspired me as it has the asskissers of the Web who spend their whole site introductions worshipping the Twits), I realize that it is an excellent forum for people to speak their minds, however little they have to say. Another site, Flabjab, started by Ben Brown (an inert, reactionary fellow who picks up on overused political cartoon jokes and forges them into original opinion -- a fun guy, I suppose, but that RealAudio interview of him by Alexis conveyed a naivete towards the Web), is quite a good site to hang around at, since it's cheerful, goofy, and gets writers' opinions on specific topics like sex and death (what else is there?). Flabjab is much like the Fray in this respect, and both deserve merit. Have you seen Mr. Powazek's design portfolio, by the way? Ooh, some serious contracts and clean, sharp, cunning designs. I like. The guy knows his web shit. I shouldn't forget to add that Mr. Powazek is dating Drue Miller, a very cool Web woman in her own right. She teaches a class in Web design, so the students obviously have good material to work from. Anyone who actually helps people on the Internet instead of bragging about their soon-to-be outdated computers or their limited computer knowledge is fine by me.

A stable love relationship. A rarity on the "incestuous Web". There's so much dirty laundry among the Twits and it's become quite rank. Reading online journals now is weeding out the URLs of bland new Twit-wannabe sites and figuring out which other author on the Web he's currently sleeping with. Wait a month and then you can read about that person's anger because he broke up with her and now she's sleeping with the owner of singrrl.com, his ex-lover. Intrigued? It's not really all that interesting.

The reason why is that these Web journals leave out names and details in some pathetic, shallow attempt to hide a big show they produced. I don't understand why people make a huge fuss about something, then try to be secretive and subtle about it. Pisses me off, quite frankly.

Remember the Spot? The first online soap opera? Interactive soaps at their best and newest. Greater depth of character content, customized to your tastes. You want to read about some characters' lustful thoughts, miserable breakups, and stories in the workplace, but skip other less interesting characters? No problem at the Spot. You could browse stories, overviews, private diaries, whatever. Then you could compare characters' private thoughts against each other and get the whole story.

Sure it was fake. But this is about seeing how people interact, right? You need endless details and resources, not shifty content full of ambiguous pronouns and references that only make sense to the author and her closest friends. Twits excel at ambiguity, you know. I don't understand making the big leap in privacy by posting word that you got fucked last night, but you refuse to say more.

What, are Twits trying to keep their essays tasteful?

The Spot succeeded at what online journals fail at. The online journal was big at first because no one had done it before. Nowhere else could we see unknown people somewhere out there in the world posting stories about their lives. Amazing at the time. But not anymore.

All we've learned is that, no matter where these people live, they have shitty lives and shitty relationships and shitty jobs and shitty parents and shitty computer problems...just...like...absolutely...everyone...else.

Oh, please, if I have to read another sullen story about a painful breakup, spoon out my guts and fill the hole with heaping teaspoons of salt and tacks.

Fuck personal journals. Even Alexis, to her credit, has admitted that online diaries have become "tedious". Okay, it might be your thing to read others' disgustingly sad life experiences, but I personally don't care for them. Unless they add some interesting twist, like detail or development, they're just mirrors of other personal journals. Bill Osborg has a common enough goal in his web site, but his mailing list gives his readers keen insight into what it's like serving in the U.S. Navy and living on an aircraft carrier and visiting the Middle East. That's HIS interesting twist, and I appreciate his work and enthusiasm.

But how different ARE most 20 to 30 year old computer geeks who make their livings by scamming companies into thinking the Web will quadruple profits?

This is my Soapbox, my domain name, my virtual host. Mine. Want a rounded opinion? This isn't professional, investigative journalism. It's me speaking. This is my turn to talk, and you can have yours.

I'm bombarded every day with peoples' sob stories: classmates, Web journals, friends, magazine feedback letters, e-mails, workmates, whatever. You think what I want to do when I get home from all that depressing relationship nonsense is to hit the Web and find more of the shit on your site? Who are you joking? Do you think the events in your life are original? Special? Thought-provoking?

Reading the Fray's guest story submissions about losing lovers is like reading a 6-year-old's attempt at writing in the Shakespearean language. "He said, 'Goodbye,' and my heart crumbled into dust, the world laughing at me in the mocking, dulcit coos of doves. Alas, my demise!" In reality-speak, this mumbo jumbo is translated into, "We broke up. Happens to everyone. Another boyfriend up on a chalkboard of thousands."

How would you react if instead of posting my firm opinions on things from week to week, I just told you that I've been spending the last four or so weeks with my girlfriend, and that I'm happy, and all that jazz? Unless you're a close friend, you couldn't care less. It matters to me, but me writing that Frank and I met Jo at the bar and we talked for half an hour and it was pretty cool because we got drunk and stuff...no thanks. Believe me, journals are like that. If I were going to give you factoids about my life, I'd describe how beautiful Stockholm is in the summer. I'd describe the clean water and the clean air, and all the blonde people here. I'd tell you about what London is like right now. I'd bitch about plane flights. At least maybe travelling interests you, or you can identify with flying.

But I don't post facts often. An occasional review of a product, or an explanation of something. I'm terrible at being objective.

I love opinions. How individual people feel about topics which affect everyone. How the mind works. How the mind is shaped. I love seeing, reading, and hearing discussion and argument.

So where do the writings of every day of nobodies' lives leave the Web? It's temporary content on a medium which has swiftly and furtively replaced the bold, emblazoned voice of the individual packing his 2MB web account, with the voluptuous tease of animated "Click here for Cash" buttons and online versions of world-dominating news service behemoths like CNN and ESPN.

While companies scurry to make money online, the talented personal site authors are assimilated into gruntwork Web jobs which drain them of the inspiration the Web once fostered for them.

What we're left with, unfortunately, are beautiful commercial sites, done by the cool people, and personal sites done by folks who have opinions they looked up in books and magazines, folks who have seemingly lifeless souls and who know nothing about web design or browser and monitor differences in page layout. microsoft.com looks great, while Joe's Web Shack has the typical "WWW is cool" introduction, of which I can't read comfortably anyway because Joe decided to place all of his text in a 100x200 pixel frame, a box which shows even less text because some room is taken to display the horizontal and vertical scrollbars needed to read the rest of the text. Then at the end of the frame, you find you were duped anyway because none of the content was worth the time anyway. Jesus!

Name me a personal site author and I couldn't tell you for sure if he actually has a thought or not. I know that he loves the Web and I know that he thinks e-mail is cool. But does he have opinions? Dislikes? Pet peeves? Passionate political stances? No clue.

Is there no one out there who voices his opinions on things on the Web that are interesting to more than a handful of people? Who talks about the China-U.S. talks, or France's dream road to the World Cup final? Or Intel's stranglehold on the computer industry? Or even something so obscure as XML's potential role as the dove and olive branch to mediate the long-standing fight between design and content in HTML and the Web? It doesn't exist, except on commercial sites which make it their business to be conciliatory to all parties involved so that they don't sour any relations. Too bad what I resort to these days more and more are commercial news and info sites.

Opinions on the ACTUAL feelings and long-term effects and evolution of love, computers, religion, politics, sex, and even computer games are what interest me. I don't think I'm alone there.

That's how I find out what a person has ticking inside of him. Not what time he went to the bathroom after having ICQ sex online with three other men posing as women. What are personal site authors INFLAMED about? I loved Mr. Glassdog's choices of topoi in his essays because he would always admit he wasn't great at writing (which he is), instead of taking his site down, convinced he was the next Irving. He would talk about things which were big in the news and which were interesting to large segments of people. It's kind of cool getting the common man's opinions on the summer's blockbuster movies, before they hit the advertising circuit.

We live in a time when it's easier than ever to distinguish the tiny voice of every thought on this planet. But we are slammed with barrages of official corporate stances, gallop polls, and general opinion. The individual has been drowned out. I don't care if Geocities posts damage control in journalists' articles stating that it thought its members would like the little Geocities icon that always stays at the bottom right of the screen (visit a Geocities site and you'll see what I'm talking about). I want to know what the Geocities USERS think. Picking random Geocities addresses to find peoples' opinions on the matter isn't as easy or successful as you'd think. I'd like to see if people will boycott Geocities, or send flames to them, or take any action at all. I want to see what people think about having something imposed on them without their will. I want to see them fight back.

I read the autobio of a person first when I visit his page. To see if there are any descriptions of thoughts and feelings about worldly or spiritual things. My autobio has a section completely devoted to listing my favorite movies, words, music groups, styles, etc. etc. It's not as useful in learning about a person as, say, an opinion piece on abortion would be, but I think it's a quick and easy way to get a general feel for my attitudes, tastes, and age.

I like simple things like that on web sites.

So I suppose it is obvious I don't go to personal sites to get what I want anymore. A fruitless effort that is. But I HAVE found a few uncut, passionate, amusing opinion pages out there.

They're the anonymous sites devoted to giving the corporate-free versions of news stories as they relate to the online gaming community. Quake, Unreal, you know. Imagine a site which actually shows id Software, the king of 3d shooters, online gaming, and pirated sof..er...shareware, to be less than the god other sponsored news sites show it to be. Imagine sites which refuse to look past lazy programming and tech men who drive their success-bought sports cars more than building the quality games they used to. Yeah, it's refreshing.

These sites are run anonymously, since they're usually operated by people "in the Biz". You're liable to get fired if you post negative stuff about your own company. They have the inside dirt on the companies that teens and compugeeks spend years swooning over to get a job at. It ain't such a pretty picture on the inside, away from the glitzy Italian and German racing cars and well-financed time-wasting that has come to be normal among the game producers. We were tired of reading programmers' finger .plan files in hope of seeing some work reports on what features were added to the next Quake 2 killer, being disappointed when all that was there was a bowel movement report and a "Women I'd Like to Sleep With" list. The best is when these programmers complain about how hard their lives are. Must be hard to create entertainment. ;)

As an aside, I think it's a shame these anonymous sites are receiving flak for being tabloid sites, as well as for being anonymous. Oh, you'll read that all the "professional" people who write online have no respect for those who post their information anonymously. Like they're proud that everyone can attach the shitty news to a face. Anonymity doesn't necessarily rid someone of responsibility in posting responsible news -- the legit anonymous sites will survive and the fake ones won't. Also, these sites aren't tabloids. They just point out how lax and immature programmers can be, showing that if these guys had better managers, they'd produce much better games for us to buy. Tabloids are all about publishing sleazy sex and love news about celebs that make no difference anyway. The anonymous gaming sites usually give us pertinent info about the business, not the lives of the people involved. Anyway...

Anonymous sites provide good insight into where the haven for opinions is moving to. I want to keep an eye on these sites to see how they develop.

Because if they succeed, my following hypothesis will hold up: the individual on the Web plays his cards the strongest when his content antagonizes a strong commercial influence. Hell, the Internet boomed the way it did precisely because it gave everyone the ability to put words into the world that previously only multi-billion dollar companies could do. People could fight back and laugh in the faces of IBM and Microsoft (although guess which company laughed back). A good deal of Web content back in the early days dealt with how sole people suddenly had a technological edge over multinational organizations. We had web sites and Coke and movie companies were still deriding the foolish Web. Now companies have figured out how to live along with personal sites without making too much of a racket. Free services like Hotmail, ICQ, and web counters are owned by Microsoft, AOL, and Satan, respectively. Free services serve as covers for much hated moneygrubbers.

But still that free speech engrained deeply in more and more people lives on -- we're still criticizing magazines in their own reader feedback sections, we're still bashing even the most loved companies like id Software, and we're still pushing businesses to work harder and sacrifice more in order to keep our loyalty.

The individual is still out there.

But, sadly, no longer in the personal site. This I've said many times before, ad nauseam. I'm just hoping that individual authors will start listening, take down that vapid web site fluff, and prove me wrong by pumping the hot blood of opinion back into the personal site genre again.

For now, though, if you're anything like me, I'm afraid these things will just have to be sought elsewhere, and the vigilant will have to keep on watch until things get better again.

Then again, I could be a pompous, narrow-minded prick who refuses to accept others' interests and perspectives. God knows I'm long-winded. I'm working on that, I promise. Much easier when you're writing objectively, which I'm not. Maybe I am all those horrible things above -- but if I were to step back, dilute my thoughts, and refuse to take a clear stance, I'd be doing exactly what I put so much time into ranting against. My defense rests.

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