Issue #24, February 1996
"I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you — Nobody — Too?"
— Emily Dickinson
As of January 22, 1996, the Yahoo website, one of the leading on-line catalogs of Internet information, included 16,923 listings under Entertainment: People. This figure does not represent the number of people in the entertainment industry who appear on the Internet; sadly, neither does it represent the number of entertaining people on-line. This figure, 16,923, represents the number of "home pages" registered on the Yahoo listing service. It sometimes seems as if we could divide all the people on the Internet into two groups, those with home pages and those who are about to get home pages. Friends who are not on the Internet often ask those of us who have home pages to describe exactly what is a "home page." There are no easy ways to explain the concept, and so I often resort to the following anecdote.
An on-line friend got Internet access awhile back, and one of the first things he did was visit my home page, which I had touted with dreary regularity for many months. After staying up until the wee hours investigating the Internet, with my home page as his guide, he told me that he loved my home page. "It looks just like you!" he cried with delight.
Not much of an anecdote; certainly it falls a bit short of describing what a home page actually is. Nevertheless, my friend understood the essence of the home page, although his inflated opinion of the value of my page was affected by his "newbie" status. Since mine was his first home page, he had nothing with which to compare it. What my friend understood is that a home page is an attempt by its owner to say, "This is what I look like," both figuratively ("these are my interests and obsessions") and literally (many, if not most, home pages include the on-line equivalent of a family photo album). People who might feel like Emily Dickinson when confronted with the massive and at times impersonal ubiquity of the Internet ("I'm nobody") construct a home page to trumpet their existence in the presence of that massive indifference (adding Dickinson's punctuation: "I'm Nobody!")
Dot Ee Dee You
You can spend all day following one link after another. The Web will do all the work for you while hiding the technical details.
— Harley Hahn in a 1993 edition of A Student's Guide To UNIX
The World Wide Web, where home pages reside, is built around "clickable" links that transport the user from one web document to another. For instance, upon arriving at my home page, Steven Rubio's Online Life, you are presented with eight such links: one downloadable sound file of an expletive-deleted outburst by a pro athlete, one "mailto" link which allows the user to send me e-mail, and six links which take you to other lists of links (School, Politics, Sport, Computers, Music, and Goofing Off). This seemingly endless linking of web information is one of the most highly touted features of the Internet, as every person, every file, every piece of information is connected as part of a vast One World communal grope.
The links are seductive; the impulse to travel down still another road is almost irresistible (which leads to the inspired and sadistic "Abandoned Site," to which I placed a link on my Goofing Off page, thereby becoming not only a masochistic participant in that site but also a sadistic recruiter to the Abandoned cause). The feeling of oneness with the on-line world is problematic, though, for one does not necessarily merge with the beings who have constructed the linked-to pages. Rather, one merges with the Web itself. We become the Web, the Web is Us. The Web "does all the work for us."
Seduced, we lose track not only of those who construct web pages (the technical details are hidden) but of ourselves as well. There remains but one way to reestablish our identities: by constructing our own home pages, becoming cyber-Dickinsons, calling out "I'm Nobody!" and then venturing out into the Web hoping to answer the question, "Who are you? Are you — Nobody — Too?" Meanwhile, a canny few make a name for themselves by marketing programs that produce "web statistics" that tell you in varying degrees of detail how many visitors your home page gets, where they are from, what they do when they stop by your home. Sometimes the information is maddeningly incomplete: I know that my home page has visitors from upwards of twenty countries, but I have no idea why they dropped in, or even how they knew about me in the first place. Still, one feels warm inside knowing that so many people have come to your abode to ask "Are you — Nobody — Too?"
The need to answer such questions of identity spills over into "real life," as "What's your home page address?" becomes the come-on phrase of the millennium. UNIX-speak leaps off the terminal and into the mouths of actual humans who talk easily of "garnet dot berkeley dot ee dee you" (my address extension, .edu, identifies me as someone whose Internet access comes via an educational institution). When we meet up with someone who is not one of the chosen 16,923, we become solicitors for the Cause, urging our friends to give up their virtual home-lessness.
Seducers and seduced, we acquiesce in the hiding of the technical details. We pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. We lobby for an end to virtual home-lessness, forgetting in our fervor one simple point that it pains me to have to mention yet again, as I have in every essay I have ever written about the Internet. Lost in our ee dee yous and see oh emms, we ignore the real homeless, and all others whose socio-economic status prevents them from easy access to the Internet and all the joys spoken of above. With our home pages, we shout to the world, "I'm Nobody!" Such shouting, ineffective as it might be, is denied to those for whom Internet access is a pipedream. The Web does all the work for us; the technical details are hidden.
In addition to its work on cutting-edge multimedia technologies, Progressive Networks aims to bring the networking power of the World Wide Web and the Internet to bear on social and political issues.
— From WebActive, Progressive Networks' "weekly publication designed to offer progressive activists an up-to-date resource on the World Wide Web."
The primary cutting-edge technology mentioned above is Real Audio, which allows web surfers to listen to sound files in real-time, without the long waits associated with the download of large on-line sound files. Real Audio (and other real-time audio servers like True Speech and StreamWorks) is a wonderful leap forward for the Internet; one of the best-kept secrets about the Web, for those who have yet to venture onto the Highway, is the amount of time most of us spend simply waiting for a multimedia file to load itself onto our computer. Real-time audio (and video) is an excellent way to move the Web away from the text-and-graphics combination that has ruled until now. Home pages that use Real Audio are more fun to visit than the average home page (although for the most part, real-time audio is offered on non-personal websites, where you can listen to radio talkshows or hear the State Of the Union address as it happens). However, the above blurb suggests implicitly the difference between cutting-edge technology and progressive activism: "in addition" to their technological enterprises, Progressive Networks offers web resources for activists. The key phrase is "in addition," an admission that there is no inherent progressive value in the technology.
This matters because Real Audio, like so many technological advancements on the Web, currently requires a fairly high-end computer merely to use the program at all, while many of its newest elements (featured in the soon-to-arrive "Real Audio 2.0") are too advanced even for the machine on which I am writing this essay (a machine I bought only 14 months ago, when it was itself "cutting edge"). The cutting edge is usually expensive for its users; only when the cutting edge has moved on does the former cutting edge become more affordable. So a company like Progressive Networks, dedicated in part to progressive activism, also finds itself providing Internet tools for an elite group of users (who may or may not have an interest in progressive activism, of course).
Yet even this discussion of on-line elites misses the point, in the same manner in which so many such discussions about the Internet miss the point. For even now, one's class and social status limit the ability of many individuals to access the Internet. I might complain about the inability of my computer to take advantage of everything Real Audio can offer, but my complaints seem petty next to the absence of Internet access, full or partial, for so many in the bottom tiers of our society. Their absence represents the hidden aspects of most discussions of the Internet, including this one, hidden aspects that are far more than mere details.
It's a Small World
Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.
— Walter Benjamin
Some of us have Internet access. Some of us have home pages that we can call our own. Our home pages are connected to the larger on-line world by way of hypertext links. We build our cyberhomes because we want to shout "I'm Nobody!" in the hopes that the shouting will signify our becoming somebody. We then venture out into the networld, looking for others like us: "Are you — Nobody — Too?"
But problems arise out of the solipsistic nature of home pages. Cyber gurus trumpet the so-called interactivity of the Internet as evidence that we are moving beyond passivity. If you don't like what your teevee tells you, there isn't much you can do to make your feelings known to the television powers, but in the on-line world, the argument goes, we are no longer merely receptive to input, but are participants in a discussion. Post a public message, send e-mail, make a statement, elicit responses, and you become part of a community. (One result of the meeting of this kind of community with the "passive" behavior of the past is that it is now much easier to actually make your feelings known to the television powers.) There is a kind of community happening here, but the relationship of home pages to that community is uncertain. To post a public message is to accept the reality of discussion and the exchange of ideas, but one can build a home page that only accepts the reality of admiration or condemnation, without any real exchange taking place.
One link on the section of my home page devoted to "goofing off" is called "Friends of Steven." Clicking on this link leads you to yet another list of links, in this case, links that will take you to the home pages of my friends. Such lists, which are common in the home page world, invite the visitor to envision a virtual neighborhood, where on-line friends get together for Open House nights. I like showing off my friends' home pages; in most cases they are far more elaborate and entertaining than my own, and in the back of my mind I'm hoping that people who are disappointed at the relative grunginess of Steven Rubio's Online Life will at least be dazzled by my friends and think more kindly of me as a result. There's the MATTPAGE, and Tedland, and King Rob's Royal Homepage and Grill. Chuq Von Rospach offers "His life, his hopes, his home page." Binky's Box o' Bits is stunning in a professional way, Arod on-line greets you with the most ominous eyes on the Web. And then there's The PopTart Pages, which garnered acclaim from a national magazine, and Joe Sartelle, whose pages devoted to Sim City received similar attention. All of these home pages offer clear evidence of the aesthetic brilliance of their owners. They all also include a link to Steven Rubio's Online Life.
The MATTPAGE tells you that Steven is "more of a lefty than John Smiley." A few tell you to check out my teaching philosophy, while others mention my love of baseball. In each case, the hyperlink beckons you to my home page, inviting you to find out what I am like, just like the hyperlinks on my Friends of Steven page introduce you to my friends. And yet ... we've only got a simulation of a community here, not even as communal as a mailing list. For when you visit my home page, you don't get to meet me, but only my presentation of myself. When my friend said of my home page, "It looks just like you," he did not mean it was me, but that it effectively simulated me. To carry the neighborhood metaphor further, it is as if the Open House tour stayed out on the street, admiring the facade without ever going in the door to meet the owner. Or, if one finally managed to get in the front door, the owner was never at home, leaving the visitor to take in the ambiance absent any corporeal beings. An e-mail discussion, or an Internet Chat, or a newsgroup thread, all of these allow for interactions, of thought if not of body. But the only real way to interact with a home page is to click on one of the links; the only way to pay proper tribute to a home page is to place a link to that page on your own home page. It's a denial of community, an orgy of solipsism where aesthetics replaces interaction and the only communication between individuals lies in the willingness of on-line friends to place links to other friends' pages.
And not just friends. A few minutes with an on-line search engine tells me that a page called "CyberPaD-The VoiD" includes a link to my Online Life (just before a page for the "I Don't Give A Shit Club"), and that a person I don't know named Mike "Lew" Lamar has placed my page on his Hotlist. (A recent search turned up a more disturbing reproduction of my Online Life: a link, to my page, at Osaka University of Japan, which only existed for a few minutes before it disappeared into cyberspace.) These links are the on-line version of those Hollywood Celebrity Street Maps you hear about, where you are directed to the homes of the rich and famous. One can hardly make a case for membership in a community when you don't even know the mayor, and so I live on in blissful ignorance of these Hot Voids.
Oh, the rich people want what the poor people's got, and the poor people want what the rich people's got. And the skinny people want what the fat people's got, and the fat people want what the skinny people's got.
— The Shaggs, "Philosophy Of the World"
The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock & Roll tells us that The Shaggs' first album, Philosophy Of the World, "was one of the most curious collectors' records of the Seventies.... By most standards, the Shaggs were horrible, but their utter originality and boundless enthusiasm were undeniable." The Spin Alternative Record Guide, a hipper version of the Rolling Stone offering, gives Philosophy Of the World a rating of 9 on a scale of 10, noting that the album "behaves as if pop conventions of structure, tonality, rhythm, meter, and harmony never existed." The vocalist "sings phrases of irregular length and unpredictable melodic trajectory" while the drummer, "seemingly two or three rooms away," does her own thing, "occasionally wandering onto the beat." The Spin guide compares all of this to the work of Ornette Coleman "without the avant-garde pretensions," adding that their essence is "utter unselfconsciousness."
Irony, on the other hand, is completely self-conscious. The Shaggs might lack an ironic understanding of their art, but many of their admirers succumb to a "so good it's bad" standard. These ironists are better than everyone else, better than those drowning in tradition, better as well than those primitives who don't even understand how bad their art is. The ironists' self is their work of art; their ironic attitude always leads back to the self-conscious brilliance of the ironist. When an ironist shouts "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" they assume that they are actually somebody, because they are different from you, who are nobody. They use irony, "to say the opposite of what one means," to prove their superiority.
The Internet is full of ironists, or at least, it is full of irony. Some of the hyperlinks on our home pages are designed to direct the visitor to other websites that we seriously believe are important and worthy. But some are "ironic links," links to places which let us feel superior, links that we "know" are "bad." The most famous repository of such links, and thus perhaps the most ironic site on the entire Internet, is Mirsky's Worst Of the Web, which purports to offer exactly what it says, i.e., the worst. One irony which has grown out of Mirsky's success is that a mention in Worst Of the Web has become something of an honor: to be named "worst" means you are actually "good," and when you stick a note on your home page bragging about your inclusion on Mirsky's list, you are adopting the supremely ironic stance of demonstrating the self-conscious knowledge that you are the "worst," which makes you superior to your own home page in a manner the Shaggs would not understand.
All of this immersion in irony amounts to an acceptance of the terms of Fascism as described in the earlier quote from Benjamin. "Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses ... a chance to express themselves," he wrote, many decades before the Home Page became the latest and greatest form of cyberspace self-expression. "The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life." Instead of a fight for basic cyber rights such as Internet access and ownership, we take on the aesthetic fight for the right to express ourselves. Like born-again New Critics, we embrace irony as evidence of our cyber-coolness. One sad irony that usually goes unmentioned is the message presented by the fact that at least 16,923 of us have home pages while so many of our fellows are literally home-less in real, rather than virtual, life. But we can express ourselves. We have our home pages. We exist in cyberspace as aesthetic objects, as texts waiting to be given close readings. We await your critique; we hope you notice our irony.
Walter Miller's Home Page
This page still looks just as crappy in the latest version of Netscape
— from "Walter Miller's Home page."
Authenticity be damned, this is the shit.
The most representative home page on the entire Internet is "Walter Miller's Home page." Miller, with his abysmal spelling and eccentric grammar, is the Shaggs of the Internet, although one is always aware with Walter Miller that, unlike the Shaggs, who are "utterly unselfconscious," Walter just might be pulling our leg, that is, he might be ironic. "Iam only 20 years old and divvorced and I owe the whole world money," he tells us, so his family pays his bills as long as he takes care of his cranky grandfather. Unfortunately, "I am in an abbusive relationship." His grandfather hits him because it takes too long for dirty pictures to load up from the World Wide Web, and threatens to "to rip my lungs out throuhg my anes, then tie them around my head like Micky Mouse ears." Walter's grandfather is the inspiration for various segments of his home page: "Seasons Beatings," "An average day of my pitifull Life," and "the Wedgie Page." This home page is simultaneously frightening and hilarious; one hardly knows how to take Walter's work ("Copywright Walter Miller") or how he wishes it to be taken.
How, then, is this home page taken? Well, it made Mirsky's Worst Of the Web. Mirsky wrote of Walter Miller's page, "Sad truth is: it often takes a bad life to make a good Web page." Suck, an on-line daily whose very name is a 1990s version of Dickinson's "I'm Nobody!," tells us that Miller's is "a site that transcends praise, the kind of site that speaks in such mind-warpingly honest tones that you rapidly become convinced it must be a put-on, reconsider just as quickly, and ultimately conclude that it doesn't matter." Then, Suck offers what could serve as the motto for 21st-century ironists: "Authenticity be damned, this is the shit." Miller himself tells us that "a few professonnal writers told me ... i have a particullar style and syntax remminissent of diallect writting — much like Marc Twain and Willaim Foulkner."
Suck is correct when they tell us that it doesn't matter whether Walter is being truthful on his home page. Or rather, it matters, but only in relation to the judgment we make regarding the aesthetic value of his home page. What we care about is not the "reality" of Walter Miller; we care only about his "particullar style." His home page stands in for all home pages, a representation of his life rather than his actual life, a text available for aesthetic criticism. We may not know if Miller himself is an ironist, if he is an imaginative primitive like the Shaggs or a clever genius like Twain. But his audience is certainly composed of ironists, who follow Mirsky's links towards the Worst and find the Best home page of them all: self-absorbed, solipsistic, full of aesthetic delights. The acclaim which Walter Miller receives is enjoyed vicariously by all of us with home pages. We enjoy the freedoms Walter Miller represents: the freedom to express ourselves. We celebrate that freedom, and the community of home page owners, the best way we know how: on the section of my home page devoted to Friends of Steven, I have included a link to Walter's page.
As I write these words, seven days after I wrote the sentence that begins this essay, the number of home pages listed on Yahoo has grown to 17,579. Another 656 people have joined the home page community in the last week.
Steven Rubio is just like his home page.