Personal Websites as Self-Portraiture

Thu, 27 Jan 2022

TL;DR: The personal website is both medium and message, a self-publishing technology and a new visual arts medium, and every website is its operator’s self-portrait.

Note: This article also appears in issue number 2 of the Yesterweb Zine. I had originally published it on another website of mine.


The first decade of the World Wide Web’s existence, 1989-1999, saw the Web’s inception and initial popularization as its rise coincided and perhaps drove initial consumer adoption of Internet access. Originally a medium for the electronic publication of scientific documents and source code, the Web became a canvas for visual arts in the hands of enthusiastic amateurs getting Internet access for the first time at school or on family computers.

Originally an application of SGML, HTML remained rooted in plain text and offered little in the way of design elements or features useful to application developers until the late 1990s, when HTML 2, 3, and 4 offered such features as form-based file uploads, tables, client-side image maps, and once-proprietary elements such as “blink” and “marquee”. The addition of these tags transformed the Web. As the medium transformed, so did the message, a change Marshall McLuhan might have predicted despite having done his most influential work in the 1960 before ARPANET, never mind the public Internet with which so many of us have an ambivalent relationship.

In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man

What were the personal and social consequences of the personal website? I think a short list is in order.

mass culture fragmentation

First, let’s consider the fragmentation of mass culture. While it was possible to produce paper zines before the World Wide Web, the dependence on paper and mimeographs or photocopiers made broad distribution limited because it was impractical for most people to self-publish more than a few dozen or a few hundred copies.

The web changed this by eliminating the need for paper. Instead of cranking out analog print copies and having to find places willing to let you distribute your zine, such as mom-and-pop record shops or handing them out at concerts, you could make your zine a website on a host like Geocities, Angelfire, or Tripod. Copying was automatic; anybody who visited your website got a copy and the cost to produce each copy was negligible compared to the cost of printing traditional zines on paper.

As a result, anyone willing to put in the time and effort required to build a web page ceased to be purely a consumer of mass culture but a participant in any culture that interested them. One could have as many websites as one did interests, given sufficient leisure time. Moreover, one’s interests need not intersect at all if they formed a combination of interests that might have raised judgmental eyebrows in the immediate neighborhood. For example, a young man who listened to heavy metal but also found that he enjoyed filching his mother’s Regency romance novels could have one website dedicated to his favorite bands and another dedicated to his favorite authors — operating both under separate pseudonyms enabling the operator to explore any aspect of his identity he wished from a position of psychological safety.

This meant that people could no longer have their interests dictated to them by professional tastemakers according to class, race, and gender expectations that served the interests of the rich and powerful. A mass culture that accreted in service to the state and capital had come to face a semblance of effective competition from below for the first time in decades.

subculture renaissance

The same aspects of the late 1990s Web that enabled the pseudonymous exploration of interests and identity and the active participation in culture without the need for training or asking permission of entrenched gatekeepers also led to an explosion of subcultures and fandoms. Before the Web, the array of subcultures available to a young person dissatisfied with the mass culture beamed into their home by radio and television was limited by geography and their ability to persuade local gatekeepers to initiate them.

Suppose you were a kid growing up in the 1980s and wanted to go deeper into DC comics than the most popular heroes: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc. If there wasn’t a comics shop in your hometown, it was hard to explore the wider DC corpus. Furthermore, with so many decades’ worth of comics written there was a daunting amount of lore one had to learn in order to participate in the local fandom. The Web changed this. Now the lore was available on fans’ websites for anybody to study. There was no need to be initiated into fandom by longtime fans; one could burn the DC mythos into one’s synapses while getting a cathode ray tan in the privacy of one’s own home. Likewise for Marvel, or Image Comics, or even Archie. The same applied to science fiction and fantasy fandom in print and on film, for video games, for anime, and any kind of music you could think of from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal to K-pop to Ukrainian nuclear fuzz-grunge. You were no longer limited by geography. You could be like Tony Montana; the world’s cultures, all of them, were yours.

This led, among other things, to the explosion of fan-fiction, fan art, and other transformative works with sites like fanfiction.net and Archive of Our Own. The creation of culture was no longer the preserve of carefully trained professionals steeped in corporate groupthink or outsiders willing to buy into corporate mass culture in exchange for a shot at nationwide or global prominence and distribution. For a few brief years, Big Entertainment faced a plausible threat of disintermediation and eventual irrelevance.

digital samizdat

Before the web, censorship was easy. If nobody wanted to distribute your work, and you couldn’t distribute it yourself, you went unheard by all but your closest friends and family. The web changed that. Now anybody could publish anything, without needing permission. You didn’t have to give your real name. You didn’t have to give your real-world address. You didn’t need anybody’s permission. You didn’t have to be charismatic or marketable. You didn’t need credentials or connections. All you needed was something to say.

If you had something to say, the rest was details. You needed a host, but sites like Geocities gave out space for free. Many ISPs also provided email and limited web hosting. If you had experience with Unix you could often run a website using a shell account, or even run your own dedicated server in a colocation facility — and do so under a rented domain name that you had chosen for yourself. Skill with HTML and CSS was helpful, but not entirely necessary; most word processors could export HTML — even if the resulting markup isn’t as clean as some techies might prefer. There were also tools like Netscape Composer and Microsoft FrontPage, but it wasn’t that hard to start with plain old NotePad and paste together tags scraped from the sources of other people’s websites.

Anybody could be a publisher. Censorship was a temporary setback as long as you had your source files. If one host kicked you off, you could set up shop elsewhere by creating a new account on a new host and uploading to a new location. If necessary, you did so under a different pseudonym and email address, too.

the assertion of self

What, then, is a personal website? It is precisely that, personal. It is a new kind of self-portraiture done not with pencils, charcoal, ink, or paint. Instead it is self-portraiture done in markup language, code, prose, images, audio, and video.

Back in the 1990s, every website was different. Operators may have used templates when available or convenient, but inevitably customized them to suit their own needs and preferences. We can still observe this phenomenon, but to a smaller extent because of the use of social media and content management systems like WordPress and Ghost. Nevertheless, the use of themes in blogs powered by the likes of WordPress and Ghost means that such installations are also self-portraits of their operators.

If a personal website is both medium and message, what message does the website convey? I suspect that the only message every website has in common is a simple assertion of one’s own existence: I am.

Any deeper meaning is intrinsic to the author and interpretation by others may not be possible. Nevertheless, one could probably tell a fair amount about a website’s operator by the way they design their site precisely because web design can be so personal. Consider, for example, sadgrl.online and tdarb.org. The former treats the web as play and embraces ostentation. The latter works as a designer, takes their trade seriously, and favors a minimalist approach because they want to place emphasis on their writing.

a screenshot of sadgirl.online
sadgrl.online: If you visited this site yourself, you’d see the liberal use of visual effects and animations.
a screenshot of tdarb.org
tdarb.org: It’s all about the words, and the use of monospaced font is most likely meant to invoke the experience of reading on a terminal.

Both of these are personal websites. The toolkit, design elements, and content were all chosen by their respective operators. Their differences in personality and values show in the content and presentation of their websites. While one celebrates the late 1990s Web and the other hearkens to an even older web, there is plenty of room in cyberspace for both.

There is room for your personal website, too. What are you waiting for?