See the World, One Personal URL at a Time

"Hello. My name is Xian. I live on earth were it is usually very boring or dangerous but sometimes it is fun. Because it is so boring here, I decided to put a buch of stuff about me up on the internet for everyone to check out. I hope you enjoy looking at it."

Above the hastily written and haphazardly spelled words, there's a picture of a dragon. Following some links, you discover a picture of the author, who lists his occupation as "socialist revolutionary" and explains that he hates fascists and Coca-Cola.

In any directory of personal home pages, you'd be able to follow a few more links and venture from Xian's industrial-punk teenage world to Southern belle Debbe's personal ode to her "man," Brad, a U.S. Marine. With a long personal statement written in several different colors of type on top of a busy background, Debbe has included several fetching photos of herself in a business suit, posing for Brad.

But reading further on Debbe's page, you'd begin to notice something strange about how she describes herself. Unlike most white, middle-class women who adhere to traditional values, she has a habit of actually noting that she's white, as if that were somehow noteworthy. (This is, as most newspaper readers will note, the opposite of what usually happens, where people of color are described as "black" or "Asian" and people whose races are not described are assumed to be white.) More interesting still, Debbe's page has links to various African American organizations and civil rights groups. Turns out that Brad, the love of her life, is black. And Debbe, WASP extraordinaire, is proud. How would you ever know this about a seemingly cookie-cutter white girl without reading her Web site?

Personal Web sites were among the only bits of information available to users when their Web browsers first roamed the Internet in search of documents written in HTML. These crude homages to the self revealed everything from a person's resume to his or her taste in books, food, and sex partners. By the mid 1990s, however, homespun hypertext markup language was being drowned out by corporate sites and advertisements that often cost millions of dollars to create.

But the personal sites kept coming, mushrooming on places like Geocities and benefiting from the low cost of personal URLs. It's remarkable how little the personal Web site has changed as a form. Certainly the graphics are better, the pictures plentiful, and the links more numerous. But each page is still a strangely moving -- or simply strange -- testimonial to what a Vulcan would call "infinite diversity in infinite combination."

These Web pages are often the only marks their authors will ever make on the mass-media landscape. You can find poignantly random photos of people you will never meet, whose eyes seem haunted, whose clothing and settings suggest stories that went untold by the personal site's author. On a page inexplicably decorated with pirates and skulls, I found shots from Tina and Chad's wedding, attended by only four people, all of them in street clothes. Why? I'll never know. Nevertheless, I do know that Chad likes role-playing games and Tina likes living in Delaware.

Personal Web sites have even evolved their own genre of writing: the rant. A combination of essay, polemic, sermon, and libel, the rant is the Web site author's personal opinion on any topic in the universe -- from pet-cat care to human evolution -- presented in the most passionate terms possible, often with a kind of pseudoscientific deployment of "facts." People who make their own Web sites love facts.

They also love to list their friends, especially if they can link to their sites, too. Mohamed, a med student from Yemen, boasts an incredible list of his friends on his site, complete with their phone numbers, addresses, and countries of origin. He also includes a detailed, rant-style presentation of photographs from his hometown, Ta'aizz, which he left to study medicine in Cairo. Despite the fact that Mohamed lives across the world in a region my government tells me is full of "bad" Arabs, his home page was just as bizarre and idiosyncratic as the ones I found from my own (allegedly "good") country. Like Mary, an American, he has photos of his hometown and links to his friends all over the world.

But what's up with Mary at www.maryromantic.com anyway? For such a nice girl, she sure is obsessed with male masturbation. Click on and find out. That's the real glory of pages like this: you just can't look away. Nothing is more interesting than someone else's personal life.

Annalee Newitz (personal@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who has a personal Web site. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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