Pull up a chair and let me tell you a story.
The genesis of Hidden City can be traced to my first exposure to the Internet in the mid-’80s, when I carved out an FTP site to make some stories I’d written available to the tiny number of people on-line. When the web came into being I saw a potential replacement for desktop publishing for my zine, Ambergris from Leviathan. Accordingly, my first sites — hand-coded, text-only affairs hosted by my ISPs — were a mixture of fiction, media reviews, and role-playing game materials.
After spending a few years in that world, and having created a few single-topic sites in communities like GeoCities and Fortune City, I decided I needed a more permanent solution. The basic concept was simple: I needed a single place to house my writing on various topics. The original conceit was that it would be an invisible city superimposed over the world, with neighborhoods connected not by geography or socio-economic status, but by interests. On October 28, 1999, I sat down in my office, pulled out my copies of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places and Roget’s Thesaurus, and pointed a browser at a domain registrar. A few hours later Hidden City was mine.
When I first set up the site blogging barely existed, and writers generally updated their sites by hand. The first journaling/blogging sites were launched in 1999, giving people the opportunity to write for the web without needing to know much (if any) HTML code; Pitas, Diaryland, LiveJournal, and Blogger were all new. In July 2000 I adopted Blogger after reading about it in a magazine article. While it felt weird not digging into the code every day, I got over it. I still haven’t quite gotten used to the word “blog,” though.
With the increased ease of use updates arrived on a pretty frequent basis, even if most of them were links to points of interest elsewhere on the web. That’s what blogging was, originally: a way to curate the web for people of similar tastes. Bloggers linked to each other, and once commenting systems were developed communities grew around groups of sites. For a while Hidden City even had an active BBS-style forum attached for the discussion of movies. But as with most things in the digital world, it was just a phase.
As time went on I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the change in communities. Corporations and mega-sites started to dominate the social aspects of on-line interaction, and I couldn’t rid myself of the suspicion that I should be doing more that just talking about a cool DVD, or how office politics are a pain in the ass. Also, while I had started out with the hope that daily blogging would improve my writing skills, in reality it just made me sloppy. The majority of bloggers don’t care a whit about grammar or punctuation or style, and that lackadaisical attitude started to creep into my own work. This — combined with the daily encroachment of commercial motive on every aspect of digital life — began to leach a lot of my enjoyment from web communities.
However, while my frustration and boredom (and dramatically increased work stress) cut down on my time with Hidden City, I wasn’t ready to give up. If I wasn’t going to update every day I wanted to make the updates I did provide mean more. With that in mind I started moving Hidden City’s focus began away from the topic-specific posts and general kvetching that are the bread-and-butter of successful (i.e., highly-trafficked) personal blogs, and toward something more personal. I started writing about my dreams, my loves, my friends — telling my life story a post at a time.
Today a quick search on-line will tell you what blogs are supposed to be: frequently updated, tightly focused, single-topic sites written and coded in such a way as to attract search engines, thereby to generate as much money as possible from product sales and/or advertising. That doesn’t describe what blogs really are, of course; that merely tells you what the people writing those highly successful, search engine optimized blogs say they are. History may be written by the victors, but Google search results are written by the marketers.
It isn’t true, of course. For each high-volume blog nattering on each day about business topics there are tens of thousands talking about their cats, or their kids, or their garage band’s next gig. Sure, for many people Twitter and Facebook fill the niche once held by blogs, but there are still plenty of people telling their own stories every day. Maybe their audience is only their family, or their classmates, or their friends, but is popularity really that important? Maybe they don’t make a nickel off their site — maybe they pay to keep it running — but is profit the only thing that matters?
The Internet continues to mutate into an extension of the American corporate culture. Facebook wants to own your identity, Google wants to own your data, and every human resources department in the world is Googling you, making sure your personality is bland enough for their company. But even faced with the challenges of an Internet that’s evolving into a gigantic outlet mall, there are people sharing their stories, and people who want to hear those stories.
Now you’ve heard my story. Tell me yours.