Inspired by the Follower-Sentinel, I have been experimenting with building a new home for myself on the web. It combines a Spring ’83 client with an RSS reader and also some other sources like my twitter likes, feed, etc. Calling it “Broadsheet” for now.

Chase’s Spring ‘83 board at a point in time, emphasis and some links added by me

When I first put up this post, I didn’t know about this, by Olia Lialina:

“Make your own home page” is an old appeal. It is older than the mid 90’s. Not even 1994, but 1992. On the internet, one year is equal to ten astronomical years, there is a century between 1992 and 1994.

So in 1992, the home page was a document that you saw when you opened your browser – which at that time was WWW on the NEXT computer.

As the author of “The Whole Internet” noticed in 1992: “The home page provided by CERN is a good entry point into the web; it points you to a lot of resources fairly quickly. However, there are lots of reasons to want your own home page.”

He meant that maybe the links provided by CERN are far from your interests and you’d prefer, for example, links to medicine rather than physics resources when you open your browser. So you could edit the CERN page, filling it with your links and notes and it would be your home page.

So 50 years later :), in 1993, with the arrival of the Mosaic browser, the web left academia. Web users got ideas and tools to extend home pages, and turn them into websites. The term “home page” started to change its meaning. It became the first page of a website. Then as a sort of metonymy, it started to mean personal web pages. Making a home page soon meant not making the first document of your website, but making your personal website, your home page, YOUR HOME ON THE WEB.

Early web users were very busy imagining what their cyber homes should look like. How to design a space which is cozy, but in a galaxy far away. Many worked with the metaphor literally, using images of houses with porches and roofs, bedrooms and kitchens, over starry backgrounds. A half open door to the universe is quite a frequent motif.

The history of the dual nature of the home page.

Olia Lialina on garden gnomes:

Home pages no longer exist. Instead, there are other genres: accounts, profiles, journals, personal spaces, channels, blogs and homes. I’d like to pay special attention to the latter ones.

Professional web developers and designers scorned home pages (namely, personal home pages) starting from the mid-90’s. In an 1998 interview to W3J, Tim Berners-Lee formulated his attitude to private home pages:

“They may call it a home page, but it’s more like the gnome in somebody’s front yard than the home itself.”

Little by little, home pages became the lowest possible lifeform on the Web – it became terminally uncool, and in the end, useless to have one. Now, if you want to expose yourself to the world simply and effectively, you’re supposed to go to a site specifically designed for this purpose. The new generation of Web users create accounts, profiles, journals, spaces, channels, or blogs.

Interestingly, even though home pages no longer exist, every other service invites its users to re-create the feel of a home page, offers ways to personalize their space quickly and easily.

In March this year iGoogle (ed.: link changed), formerly known as Google Personalized Homepage, announced six new themes for their users: Seasonal Scape, Tea House, Bus Stop and others.

Emphasis mine.

“Lowest possible lifeform”. She’s characterizing an attitude, of course, not expressing her own.

Here’s the part I’d like to emphasize: a “home” has a dual function. It is the place you spend your own time, and it is also the place into which you invite guests.

By the evolution of Web language, we came to use “homepage” to mean the latter more than the former, “homepage” nearly synonymous with “landing page”, like a signpost with many arrows you see when you arrive at a national park. Even in its beneficent Neocities form, this is what we tend toward in our thinking around even personal homepages: arranged for the expression of the self, but the consumption of others.

But here, iGoogle née Google Personalized Homepage is a homepage in the former sense: it is meant to be a useful place for the person whose home it is. You set up your own widgets like knickknacks and furniture, configure the news and weather reports that you yourself want to read.

Kevin Lipe on modern computing:

I no longer have any belief in the intrinsic good or innate positive impact of computers on my life. […] Who wants to use yet another browser-based thing in their lives? […] [M]ost of the things that are now web apps have no real need to be web apps, that’s just the lowest common denominator platform and it’s what people expect.

Some dictionary or other:

lowest common denominator
noun [ S ] disapproving MARKETING
the large number of people who will accept products, ideas, etc. that are not good quality

Is it always about what many will accept?

Or is it, here, about what many can produce?

You don’t have to be able to manage memory manually to put together a web app. With the ubiquity of Node, you don’t even have to learn more than one language for a frontend and backend if you don’t want to. Listen to how people talk about “bloated Electron abominations” and particularly about the engineers who work on them: the denigration of new college graduates and bootcamp hires. There’s plenty of new-school Internet flame war about that out there already so I’m not going to bother evaluating the accuracy of it. Arguendo, let’s even assume it’s true. What if the choice really were between clean, elegant, efficient software written by an educated technopriesthood – and janky wasteful assemblages hotglued together by the hoi polloi?

In the context of commerce, maybe you can keep arguing from there – business models and hiring and blah blah blah. In the context of non-commercial use of technology, I’m gonna fire up my glue gun with the rabble every time.

Could one call I-IV-V the lowest common denominator of Western music? The harmony as harmony is dumb as bricks, the easiest thing you can possibly toss out there and build a structure around. If you look at Roll Columbia and see the chord progression as a weakness, you’re failed to understand the social context of that simplicity. You don’t need someone around your campfire to be very good at guitar to get a three chord song going. This means that if you have a lot of not-very-good guitarists floating around in the world, there are a lot more campfires where a three chord song can be sung.

This then starts to explain why a certain kind of revolutionary sentiment is better set to C-F-G. A certain kind of social context is gated by complexity of form.

There’s this Malleable Systems Collective thing that has a manifesto I kinda like. You can see the ethic as coming out of a weird cross-section between grumpy power-users who want to be able to get things how they like them and social scientists theorizing about how technology limits as well as enables.

One of its principles is

Modifying a system should happen in the context of use, rather than through some separate development toolchain and skill set.

I can think of exactly three things I ever touch that seem like they come close to that1.

The first is a Jenga tower of cron and shell scripts I use for various things related to this website. It is an abomination for which I feel great affection and which would likely constitute a professional hazard to expose.

The second is TiddlyWiki, a sort of browser-based notetaking utility which is wildly hard to explain and merits much more writing on it so I’m just not even going to try.

And the last is the DOM.

A site I use has user bookmarks sorted by time of addition on one giant page. I used to scroll down it looking for ones that had been updated. I realized I could write a user script that could parse out when each had been updated and sort the whole list by it. It could add a button that when clicked would match another couple bits of information to hide all the bookmarks I was up to date with.

That interface is now a collaborative work between its maintainer and me. It is a hand crank device to which I have attached an electric drill.

No one meant to give me permission to do this.

The way it is done is certainly suboptimal, but everything I needed was there, without pulling down a git repository or figuring out build tools. This is a property of “yet another browser-based thing in [my life]” that’s real underadvertised. Modification “in the context of use”.

A tool made for the self: userbase of one. I keep my blogroll perfectly current using a horrifically large JSON file because it’s how I add things to my own feed reader. People always say metadata can’t be kept up to date, but that’s a function of not really finding it useful enough to keep up to date.

If you took control of the interfaces you use the most – home screens, home pages – you’d find out just how easy it can be with just one faithful user.

When did you last click on your Home button? You know, your browser’s little icon of a house, likely somewhere to the left of a URL bar?

You’re likely far more familiar with your “New Tab” page, normally generated by your browser, but I think in the era of many tabs (and much RAM) it serves the same function.

Recently, my browser added some ads to that page.

I felt aghast.

Why did it bother me so much that there were ads there? It felt like someone putting their feet on my coffee table. It might be the New Tab page in fact, but it’s my Home page, damn it. My Home page. I wouldn’t accept an ad on my New Horizons island, would I?

So I went and found a browser extension that would let me shove some of my own HTML to define that page. At least for work, I thought.

Immediately I realized that I had been allowing someone else’s idea of what web browsing should be to shape that space. “Huh that looks interesting” Pocket-recommended articles were replaced with graphs I wanted to keep an eye on. Iframes of trackers everyone else seemed to know about before me. Links to Slack conversations I meant to participate in more.

Now I’m asking why I don’t do this for my own computer, my own personal life.

I remember that iGoogle vision. Child Maya loved it, loved arranging the gnomes in the yard. Even today, with CORS around every corner blocking my ambitions, I could embed a stream of the posts of a list of Twitter accounts. Cute animal bot accounts, maybe?

I have a bookmarklet of English words with rare senses. Maybe that belongs on a homepage, the way my mother used to have NASA’s photo of the day set to hers.

Some home pages should be private, could aggregate too much personal things to share. But some are generally useful. Welcome, traveler.

At work, a new team, someone sent me a wiki page they put together for their own link reference, and I was so grateful I could have cried. Compare my own equivalent reference – a browser history so critical I migrated gigabytes of nonsense “browser profile” from one work machine to another. I have no control over it, feebly trying to direct the browser’s autosuggestions. I certainly can’t share it.

What would you do if you could duct tape together your own digital homes? How might it be different from what the algorithmic systems guess at for you? What particular values of yours might it reflect that mainstream systems would never aspire to?

Would it be decorated? Would it be less distracting? Would it attach to systems to keep records of things, or would it seek to offer randomness, serendipity? Would it encourage different rhythms of life? (If I’m going to get the solar-noon based timekeeping reminders I want, it’s only going to happen in JavaScript I assemble myself)

How might this change how you see the tech you work with? Once you move a step in the direction of doing things yourself, the differences between locked-down platforms and more open ones start to come into view. Tumblr’s convenient RSS feeds. Facebook’s desperate hiding of all useful material.

I’m not naive about how rarefied the skills involved are these days, but some of it doesn’t have to be. The concepts, at least, can be reclaimed.

I started writing this two and a half months ago. I just got Olia Lialina’s book and it’s prompting so, so, so much more thought on all this that I absolutely have to get these old bits out the door. Tell me what you think!

  1. The Malleable folks have varying opinions about spreadsheets. I think they’d probably meet the vision, but I don’t use them pretty much ever.