I have been writing a personal blog on the internet on-and-off since 2001, and I have pretty good records of my posts from 2003 onward. Over time I have gone through periods of posting every day, and at other times have vanished for days or weeks on end. I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of my journey.
I think the story begins in about 2001 — I’m not entirely sure any more. I had been tinkering with Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP (the now famous “LAMP” development environment) for a few weeks — building out the new version of a website I once ran called “Thought Café”. I had learned how to store text in a database, how to submit forms and capture the text, and how to present that text back onto web pages. It occurred to me that text was easier than anything else, because you don’t have to encode or decode it — you just need the programming to store the text, and retrieve it.
I’m not entirely sure how the next part of the story unfolded. I think there had been a conversation at work about the “Web 2.0” movement — the web was becoming democratized, with people generating their own content — building their own castles — and platforms were popping up everywhere allowing you to express yourself in ways that had not existed before.
I spent a lunchtime building out a diary on the free web-space my internet service provider gave me — allowing me to post diary entries for my own benefit — I joked about it being like a “captain’s log” on a ship. I used all the new toys to do it, and ended up chatting with the other developers in the office about how it worked. Towards the end of lunch, a developer from another floor wandered into the office, stretching his legs after sitting at his desk all morning, and took an interest in what I was doing.
“That’s a blog.”
“A blog. A couple of my friends have started writing them — a public journal on the internet.”
I explained that the bigger goal was actually Thought Café, and that I had just knocked this up during lunchtime for my own use.
“If you added a login page to it, you could release it as open source”.
I knew what open source software was of course — I just hadn’t been involved in any open source projects before. For the benefit of those who have no clue, I suppose a short history lesson is the best place to start.
Many years ago the various universities around the world had computer systems that were run by a priesthood of trained staff. Over time the software running on those systems was opened to the faculty and students to extend and improve — that’s how an awful lot of the lower level software tools we take for granted today — such as text editors, file system utilities and so on came about — students wanted computers to be easier to use, so they could use them more easily. It makes a lot of sense.
A computer operating system called “Unix” gradually became something of a standard on large computer systems — having a standard had all sorts of advantages in terms of common course materials, shared knowledge, experience, and so on. It’s fair to say that Unix therefore owed a tremendous debt to the teams of students that extended and improved it. The software they wrote essentially “completed” the operating system.
And then something terrible happened — the various flavours of Unix (there were many) became commercial projects. Suddenly those that had worked to build the system — each standing on the shoulders of those before, and sharing code with each other along the way — were not allowed to share anything any more. The source code was owned by the owners of Unix, and it had commercial value.
As you can imagine, those that had worked on Unix were incensed. Some more so than others. One in particular far more so than anybody else — so much in fact, that he started re-writing every part of Unix from scratch, and invented a new form of license (called “Copyleft”) to protect the source code from ever being controlled by commercial interests. We now know that licensing model as “GPL”. The developer was Richard Stallman.
Stallman’s life became a crusade of sorts — spreading advocacy about open source, or “free” software — with an emphasis on “free as in beer” — not “free as in speech”. Of course most people know what happened next — the group led by Stallman wrote all of the tools associated with the operating system, but didn’t have a kernel — the central part that talks to the hardware. By pure chance in the same time-frame a student in Finland built himself an operating system kernel, and released it as open source. His name was Linus Torvalds, and he called it “Linux”.
So — by the time I wrote my little script over a lunchtime in 2001, Linux had trampled the entire web hosting world under-foot, and the open source movement had gathered momentum like an avalanche — threatening to swallow a lot of the software giants that had ruled the previous decades. The likes of Microsoft and Apple were genuinely worried about their continued existence.
Repositories had popped up like weeds on the world wide web — where you could upload source code to share with the world. After tidying my little script up a bit, I uploaded it to a site called “Hotscripts”, that seemed to be quite popular. The response was staggering. I suppose on reflection I lucked into several things — I was one of the first projects with “Blog” in the name, and the only way of writing a blog online back then was by hosting it yourself — there was no Facebook, MySpace, Blogger, Wordpress, or anything else yet. If you did a search for the word “blog”, you tended to find the guy that coined the term “weblog”. Over the course of the next 48 hours the script was downloaded several hundred times — and not only were people downloading it, they were trying it out, suggesting improvements, and actively using it.
For the next year or so I accidentally found myself in charge of an open source software development project in my free time. The blog script improved rapidly — adding an administration interface, multiple user accounts, multiple language support, themes, comments, replies, likes — all the things we now come to expect when we visit any sort of vaguely social website. The community around it grew too — with other people also working on the code — improving it — evolving it — and folding their improvements back in.
And then one day something crazy happened. Novell (who used to be a big deal) released their own distribution of Linux for commercial use, and bundled a number of open source web projects with it. My little blog solution got bundled with Novell Linux. They didn’t ask me — the first I knew was when commercial organisations all over the world started e-mailing questions to me.
For the next year or so I carried on looking after the blog project — and occasionally used it myself to post thoughts to the world wide web. Most of my readers were the community of people also using the blog, but it was all good — we became an unlikely group of friends.
And then something unexpected happened.
At some point in 2003 a friend I had made through Thought Cafe in San Francisco told me about a new solution she had installed to write her blog, and that I should take a look at it. It was called “WordPress”. Some friends had forked an earlier software development project called b2/cafelog, and carried on developing it. The appearance of Wordpress was fortuitous in a way. I had never set out to build or run an open source project — I was a software and web developer in the daytime anyway — it felt like being submerged the entire time — like there was no escape from people wanting things, asking for things, or complaining about things.
Within months I stopped updating my own script, and switched to Wordpress. I started writing my own words, rather than enabling others to write theirs.
It’s worth remembering that the whole “Web 2.0” movement was in full swing in the early 2000s too — so there were new platforms appearing almost every week — lowering the bar for would-be bloggers to get online, and to start posting their words — blogging was fashionable for a time. Over the course of the next couple of years I had accounts at Blogger, LiveJournal, Vox, Yahoo 360, TypePad, MySpace, and lots of others — but always returned to Wordpress. I started writing more often, and gained a few friends around the world along the way.
I still remember signing up for a damn-fool idea called “NaBloPoMo” (National Blog Posting Month) in 2006 — the slightly odd “me too” step-sister of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). During November you had to post to your blog every single day. It seemed like a mountain to climb at the time — but then you have to remember that posting to a blog was very much a “sit at your desk” activity back then — the only smartphones you ever saw were odd devices called a “Blackberry” that seemed to be the exclusive property of self-important business people on trains.
I made lasting friendships during November of 2006. The more names I think of, the more come to mind — Rodney in Australia, Sarah in Michigan, Amy in Illinois, Victoria in Canada, Lauren in Connecticut, and Lisa in Oklahoma. Some of them are still writing all these years later, some have stopped, and some are no longer with us. Lisa died in a car accident a few years later, and become the first person I have known through the internet to die. I can still remember the email I received from a common friend, and sitting in shock at work — digging through news stories on the web — scratching around for the story. I still miss her.
For a few years the discovery of my blog made me somewhat interesting to others. Blogging was popular — everybody seemed to be starting their own blog. I remember traveling to London in 2007 on the train for work, and reading almost daily guides in newspapers walking you through the steps required to get started. The visitor numbers for my own blog were ridiculous — hundreds of people a day seemed to be reading my posts, with no effort to attract them at all.
And then — almost as suddenly as blogging blew up — the fascination melted away. I’m sure you could point to all sorts of factors — the release of the iPhone in 2007, the emergence of the social internet — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on — but I don’t think it was any one thing in particular. I tend to think blogging was an “easy” solution — something that was inexpensive to do — so lots of people did it.
Of course at some point you learn the real skill is writing words that others might want to read — if that’s your end goal. I’m going to be quite controversial now, and put forward the hypothesis that most of the people that started blogging when it became fashionable are the same kind of people that have reduced social networks to a barrage of clothing try-on hauls, makeup tutorials, and photo galleries of expensive dinners in exclusive restaurants. All they really want is attention — the means to acquire attention is entirely secondary. They were never writing a blog because they liked the activity of writing — they were there to attract attention.
I suppose there is a part of me that wants others to find my writing — but it’s not really about attention for me — it’s more about observing, recording, and connecting.
For the last several years my blog has existed at Wordpress. Wordpress has of course become a juggernaut — a standard — a piece of the internet firmament. Posting my words into the great Wordpress morass often feels like throwing a needle into a warehouse full of haystacks, but it’s all good.