On c. 20 Years of Writing on the Web

Recently, apropos of nothing in particular, I did some thinking about how and why I got started blogging. That led to a mild shock of realisation that it had been two decades since I first created a Blogger account. In turn, that seemed like reason enough for a little reflection.

How It Started

Along one of the shorter sides of the University of Reading’s main campus green space sits a building constructed mostly from dark brown brick, with a white entrance façade. This weirdly angular structure is the Palmer Building, and it was home to a couple of milestone moments for me during my time at the University. It was in the 400 seat Palmer Lecture Theatre that I sat watching a documentary about the Sex Pistols, whilst the rest of my Law school cohort attended a gala function. It was in the same lecture hall that I saw my first iPod in the wild, looking eagerly (perhaps even a little creepily) over another student’s shoulder as he scrolled and scrolled that mechanical wheel, changing selections on the monochrome screen. I myself, at the time, was notoriously never more than arm’s reach from my CD Walkman – one professor started calling me ‘wired for sound’ for my habit of wearing headphones around my neck during her seminars.

However, it isn’t the lecture theatre of the Palmer Building that I remember most clearly, but the room directly beneath it. On a couple of rows of tables were set out a dozen or so chunky Pentium II PCs: dull metal towers the size of a (large) briefcase, and CRT monitors as deep as they were wide. At a time when only 13% of UK homes were connected to the internet, there was something magical to me about a roomful of machines wired up to the web. And the real joy of that room was that, unlike the rest of the building, it could be accessed 24 hours a day. I was already enamoured of the internet by the time I reached University in 1999, but that was where the relationship really developed. With a magnetic keycard and an entry code I could access the web any time I wanted. And so I did. Foregoing study, socialising, and sleep, I frequently left my room in Wells Hall in the late evening and — with Neon Ballroom or Hybrid Theory on my headphones — made the 10 minute walk to the Palmer Building Computer Room. Often the number pad on which you were expected to enter an access code refused to cooperate, and you had to rely on there being someone else inside who had also chosen to spend their night with the internet, and who would answer your pleading knock.

It was in that room that I asked and was asked for my ‘a/s/l’ on the brand new MSN Messenger. It was there that I ignored all dictums against installing software, and instead lobbied my fellow late night denizens to join me in multiplayer LAN sessions of Doom II. When Yahoo! Groups launched during my second year, I spent uncountable late night hours in that room arguing the merits of various punk bands with Americans in the middle of their days, and Europeans even deeper into their nights.

It was to that room that I went on September 11th 2001, having received an SMS on my Nokia 3210 from an ex-girlfriend telling me to turn on the TV. My TV wasn’t hooked up, but I knew a place I could get all the information I needed, and where I’d be able to join countless other people asking one another just what the heck was going on.

And it was also in that room that I began writing my first blog. Hosted on Pyra Labs' Blogger (pre Google acquisition), mine was the simplest stream of posts on the music I was listening to, films I was watching, books I was reading, and games I was playing.

If you wanted to hear why Deftones' White Pony was an instant classic; observe in real-time as Mulholland Drive melted my mind; read an argument about what made Invisible Monsters a worthy follow-up to Fight Club; or lament the premature death of the Dreamcast, I had you covered. In the years since, I’ve had blogs and personal sites hosted on various platforms (Wordpress, Squarespace, Svbtle), and in truth the subject matter has remained largely unchanged! Occasionally I’ve run social accounts alongside these sites, but the blog was always there as a home for my more considered lengthier thoughts.

How It’s Going

In the year 2021 I find myself several years deep into a state of confusion about what the social web has become. As the internet has grown increasingly omnipresent and ubiquitous, the amount of content generated has grown exponentially, but — at least in the most heavily trafficked spaces — the forms of expression have become homogenised. The vast majority of published material is made to fit into one of a vanishingly small number of moulds. Likewise, platform ubiquity has led to a weird blurring of previously guarded lines: social / professional; public / private etc. The nature(s) of connections between people, groups, corporations, and institutions has undergone a series of seismic shifts facilitated by these technologies.

Nine years ago I published a post titled ‘The Social Web Got Weird’. Re-reading it now it’s fascinating how things have further developed; not as I had expected, or predicted, that’s for sure. (Side note: that post (not quite a decade old) contains links out to six different sources, every single one of which now returns a 404 – link rot is real!) About three years ago I published a somewhat torturous post seeking to explain the idiosyncrasies of how I used Twitter. The short version is that I had found it necessary to contort myself into all manner of untenable postures just to feel OK about using the social web. That’s not a hole I’ve managed to entirely dig my way out of, but my thinking continues to evolve.

At present I have accounts all over the place… but none of them are active. Or, I guess it might be more accurate to say that they are largely ‘read-only’. Some of these tools have more than proven their utility; for example, the experience of following a baseball season without Twitter would now feel much diminished. In many other cases I feel drawn to at least be notionally present simply because of how interested I am in the internet as a phenomenon. The web is still capable of making me feel thrilled and captivated and engaged. For me, the internet’s staggering power and potential remain undimmed since those days (and nights) in the Palmer Building Computer Room. The bottom line is that the web is still a place I want to be, and I have an inkling that the blog format still holds promise for me ~20 years after I first created one.