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What was it like?

Earlier in the year I occasionally thought, “I should definitely write a post when my blog’s 20 years old!” But it slipped my mind and I’ve missed the date by a couple of months.

I first had a website in 1995, and it was on by 1997, but I didn’t start a weblog on it until March 2000. I was living in Houston, Texas, and I’d just returned from SXSW in Austin where I met a bunch of nice webloggers. Here’s the SXSW 2000 Interactive website and the event’s 45 panels.

Ten years ago I wrote a post looking back on SXSW 2000, and I won’t repeat myself too much here. I’m glad I copied that description of the the conference’s sociable aspect by Rebecca Blood, because that’s lost to the Wayback Machine.

I’ve found it quite hard to remember exactly what being on the internet was like in 2000. I have clear memories of what it was like when I first got online five years earlier because everything was new to me. But from then on I’ve experienced a series of gradual changes and it’s difficult to pick a particular time and remember what was it like?

I spent a few hours in the Wayback Machine, gathering the posts from bloggers who were at SXSW 2000 writing about it, following links from one to another. That helped bring back some of the what it was like. Here they are in no particular order. I’ve omitted the surnames because some might not want their full name googleably linked to their 20-year-old writing.

Screenshots of four old weblogs
Four more screenshots of old weblogs

There were a bunch of other links that ended at dead and broken pages: photo albums hosted on Zing; sites once reliant on JavaScript; ASP pages missing some crucial data; an “Enter” button made from Flash; pages at protecting themselves from the crawler.

But I was pleased how many of these 20-year-old posts were recoverable in their original format. Gathering the contemporaneous writing about a specific event seems a good way to make a manageable snapshot of a time.

A few thoughts from doing this:

  • When we think of the old web of personal websites we so often reach for the 1990s GeoCities aesthetic. Black backgrounds, lots of clip art, animations, bright colours, erratic typography, frames. All of that. It’s interesting to look at a snapshot of personal websites from 2000 that aren’t like that. They’re definitely of their time, with a hand-crafted appeal, but it’s very different to GeoCities.

  • This is the beginning of people using content management systems for personal websites – mostly Blogger (here’s in November 2000). And it’s people writing in a fairly new format: a regular stream of written posts.

  • So many of these, particularly the Blogger sites, feature short and frequent updates. Several posts a day, each with a timestamp. In retrospect it could be seen as people crying out for something like Twitter – a way to share brief snippets of text frequently and (given how many posts refer to other bloggers) sociably.

  • It reminded me how much weblogs as a form varied, compared to what we think of as “a blog” in 2020. Back then, weblogs stretched from Robot Wisdom’s brief link-heavy posts, through these short, personal and chatty Blogger posts, and on to Ben Brown’s “3000 words”.

  • Reading these SXSW posts it’s nice how they’re quite conversational, with people linking to each other’s posts and noting changes in each other’s sites and lives. This is emphasised by my focus on posts where everyone got to meet face-to-face but, still, it feels like another aspect of blogging that social media replaced.

  • It’s also easy to forget that it was really weird to meet people in the flesh for the first time. As Denise put it, “it is just kind of bizarre to see so many people i know but don’t really know in one place.” Today, meeting someone whose tweets you’ve seen isn’t particularly weird.

  • Some of the posts I read were very personal in a way that’s less common now, in general. I clearly remember that there used to be a feeling that if you wrote something online then “normal people” wouldn’t see it. What normal person would read the random thoughts of strangers on the internet?! Only people-like-you would read what you wrote on the web. It wasn’t secret but not public either – it was a kind of private, as Danny O’Brien described in 2003. I think this is less true today. Even “personal” websites (like mine) often have an awareness about them, about what’s being shared, the impression it gives to strangers, presenting a public face, maybe a feeling of, “I’m just writing personal nonsense but, why, yes, I am available for hire”.

  • A small but important detail: this was a time before permalinks. Few of the blogs I link to above make it possible to link to an individual post. Soon this would change: a few days earlier Jason Kottke started giving each day’s posts a permanent URL and Matt Haughey showed how to do this on Blogger.

  • This absence of permalinks meant that when referring to something another blogger had written they generally linked to the blog’s front page, using the person’s first name. This increases the feeling of there being many streams of posts that everyone was checking frequently. Again, like social media.

  • Also – no RSS feeds. You had to go and check everyone’s websites to see if they’d written anything new. Hence, I guess, the usefulness of blogrolls – not just as a way to show other people what you read but useful as a way of remembering what to check.

  • Talking of lists of blogs, it was still possible to feel they could all be listed on one (big) page, such as on the Eatonweb portal.

  • Portals! I remember this being a strategy for dotcoms, collecting things in one place, linking out to other places, but I’d forgotten that people created their own personal ones. Here’s Jesse James Garrett’s. Which is also a reminder that this was a time before Google – AltaVista and HotBot were still your best bet.

  • While reading I noticed Jason Kottke’s first thoughts on what instant messaging is like, having used ICQ for the first time. Another soon-ubiquitous communication format that wasn’t yet common.

  • Here are a couple of period guides I came across to “one of the hottest trends in Internet content”: ‘So you want to blog?’ by Mike Murry and ‘So, Where’s Your Weblog?’ by Steve Outing.

Another four screenshots of old weblogs

I don’t mean all this to be a wallowing in nostalgia, more of an incomplete attempt to remind myself what it was like, in some ways. And, obviously, this isn’t intended to be a representative sample of what the internet or weblogging was like at the time. It’s a small net dipped into a garden pond that’s floating in an ocean.

It’s a shame that a lot of bloggers from the early 2000s stopped posting but also entirely understandable. Lives change (partners, kids, work, hobbies). The internet becomes a different place, full of more “normal people”, a different audience. The buzz of a scene gradually fading, inevitably. Quicker and simpler ways to scratch the “I just want to say this to people” itch arrive.

But, although times and people are different, there are still lots of personal blogs. I love reading them. Anyone who thinks blogging died at some point in the past twenty years presumably just lost interest themselves, because there have always been plenty of blogs to read. Some slow down, some die, new ones appear. It’s as easy as it’s ever been to write and read blogs.

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