This is a work in progress!
When my family first “got online” (AOL, circa 1998), everything changed for me. I was introduced to a whole new world, and I was fascinated by it. I spent as many hours as I could tying up our phone line with a 14.4k dial-up connection, exploring chat rooms and everything else AOL had to offer.
Sometime in late 1998, AOL launched “AOL Hometown”, which offered 12 megabytes of hosting space for members. I was blown away by this newfound ability to publish content on the internet.
I vividly remember the night that I discovered this. My parents pulled me away from the computer for basketball practice, and I spent the whole night telling other people on my team about the website I was going to build. Understandably, I was met with skepticism and confusion… At that age we had varying grasps on what a website constituted.
I spent a few weeks tinkering with very basic HTML. At some point I realized that I could view the source code of other people’s websites, and once again I was blown away. My family had a printer, and I remember printing out source code of sites with cool designs/functionality so that I could peruse it when I wasn’t on the computer.
It wasn’t long before I had a multi-page website, and people at school were talking about it. If I remember correctly I had a few different pages of content – jokes, pictures, links to other sites. It even had a visit counter! Before I knew it, the counter was in the hundreds.
I soon found myself a part of a growing community of sites that were referred to as “E/N”.
What’s an E/N site?
E/N stands for “everything/nothing“. This was a loosely-affiliated community of blogs (also known as “weblogs” back then) that were known for, among other things, regular posts about any topic. Nothing was off limits. Most authors shared/overshared about their daily lives. The lines between editorial and personal life were blurred.
In my mind, these e/n sites were also characterized by linking out to irrelevant (and often irreverent) content throughout rambling journal entries:
Remember, this was well before the dawn of social media. Weird/quirky links were not nearly as commonplace as they were today. This editorial style really seemed to resonate with people as a treasure trove of bizarre news and internet oddities.
These sites also normally had “Linkrolls” where they linked out to their friends sites, and other E/N sites that they enjoyed. It was also common to have a webcam, and many of these E/N bloggers were included in “cam portals”.
This medieval stage of the internet was also much more shocking. A click from an E/N site might take you to a news article about a Florida man being arrested for marrying an alligator, or it may take you to a snuff film. Some of these sites (following in the vein of the notorious “Stile Project”) were like link russian roulette, which was part of the odd charm. As a webmaster, I got a kick out of sending the brave link-clickers to some strange content. A pre-YouTube sort of Rickrolling, if you will.
A handful of E/N sites amassed respectable followings. It wasn’t uncommon for webmasters to try and monetize, and you’d often see paypal links (“beer/coffee fund”) and Amazon wishlists. While I can’t claim any moral high ground here, I will say that I never used my site to solicit donations or ask for gifts – that felt strange to me.
While my site was smack in the middle of the E/N community, and gained a fair bit of recognition in it’s time, I often found myself bored by other sites in the community. I wasn’t compelled to read about the personal lives of others, and was happier spending my time scouring the web to find bizarre news stories and strange links to share with my readers.
As my audience grew, my inbox (and AIM) were full of links that I needed to check out. A lot of these links ended up in my blog posts.
To come – the evolution of “E/N”, recognition (my site being discovered independently by people who knew me in real life), etc