TECHNOLOGY / By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Ruminations on Web as Garbage Depository
Hello, I am Stuart Roberts," reads a Web page I recently tripped
over. "I have big feet."
This proclamation raised some expectations that somewhere under the
photo of Roberts would be an explanation of this fact, some elucidation
of its importance or implications. But that was all: a Web page devoted
to podiatric disclosure.
Roberts has company. The Web is full of examples of assertive
confession: the college sophomore who posted every rock concert he
ever attended, or another student chronicling every pop song he has
listened to since Dec. 22, 1995. There are resumes, photos of
significant others clothed and unclothed, and endless lists, not just of
concerts and songs and tapes and CDs but of other Web sites where
the word "cool" proliferates.
Sartre had it only partly right. Hell is not just other people,
it's other people's home pages.
And they are proliferating because of excessive fertilization.
Colleges now make their servers available so students can create their
own versions of on-line dorm rooms, complete with posters and dirty
The on-line service Prodigy now allows each subscriber to post Web
pages free without having to learn programming. Internet access
services like Pipeline also help subscribers "publish" Web pages.
Compuserve began its "home page" service at the end of November
and within the first 10 days, 35,000 people downloaded the required
software and 10,000 people posted new pages, proclaiming their own
versions of Roberts' big feet. More than 50,000 subscribers now have
Compuserve-based Web pages, joining the thousands of others with
their links to hobbies ranging from pigs to psychic phenomena.
Many such pages only a mother could love. And mothers are indeed to
be found there, along with tales of robbery and sexual conquest, and
jokes designed for the millions of surfers. Click to find my SAT scores,
a high school senior suggests, but the link reads: "Yeah right. As if.
Dream on. Get a life."
One is tempted to echo her prescription when reading through pages of
lists of names on on-line services and university servers, each
representing another bottled message cast off in an electronic sea.
And while there are books like "How to Set Up and Maintain a World
Wide Web Site," by Lincoln D. Stein, which is aimed at "information
providers" and goes into detail on "server scripts" and "configuring
NCSA httpd to use public-key cryptography," the vanity-page audience
is also being courted by such books as "Create Your Own Home Page," by
Tonya and Adam Engst.
But to what end are these pages bobbing around? At times, they seem
to be competing for inclusion on that master list, "Useless WWW
Pages", a brilliant anthology of Web postings that Wired magazine has
admiringly proclaimed a "waste of electrons."
It includes an all-purpose, useless, generic home page that seems
suspiciously familiar, along with a home page posted by God Himself
that suggests: "To get a feeling of eternity, just load a page from the
World Wide Web."
Steve Berlin, an editor of the Useless Web site and a surfer for the
search service Yahoo!, even has a relatively useless page himself: "I
often get asked," he writes, " 'What is the most useless Web site you
know of?' Usually I reply that it's the home page of whomever asked
Ms. Engst, who edits the on-line newsletter Tidbits with her husband,
and whose book has, no doubt, created still more contestants for
Berlin's attention, believes that part of the appeal of the homepage is
that it seems "so technically cool" to the pioneering types who rush to
buy early products of technological revolutions. Only now, she says,
"they get to actually be in the revolution."
These home pages are also, of course, all advertisements for the self,
proclamations projected into the chaos of the net, confessions of
idiosyncrasies, oddities, anything that supports the writer's
claims for a homestead in electronic space.
The image of the frontier has attached itself to the Internet and these
pages seem to flourish the way personalities do on a frontier,
portraying all sorts of ornate and eccentric quirks, unusual abilities and
annoying habits. Anything is possible; all is permitted, and everybody
wants attention. Each page is an attempt to be part of the revolution
while also insisting on the author's individuality. The authors fight the
tide while they join in it; they mix iconoclasm with camaraderie.
So in the best home pages, there is an air of complaint, a slightly bitter
tone of a pioneer who has had it with urban life and wants to join
the crowds on line. The writer John Buskin has captured the attitude in
"The Intergalactic Complaint Department" for Prodigy.
One home page by Troels Eklund Andersen, a Danish student at
Aalborg University, takes on the mainstream computer establishment in
a bitterly mocking series of links, in "The Official Anti-Microsoft
But it sometimes seems that the greatest number of home pages are
created by those citizens of cyberspace who, by age and disposition,
feel as if they were caught between rebellion and community,
demanding attention while trying to belong; their college rank --
sophomores -- even suggests an appropriate adjective for many of
Some, like Chris Gouge, at Rice University, may even lay claim to a
certain distinction. In a series of scientific experiments, chronicled on
his home pages, he analyzed the physical attributes of Twinkies,
subjecting them to electrical current, rapid oxidation and free
fall, and meticulously described the results.
The climax was a Twinkie Turing Test in which the cakes and a
college freshman had to answer competitive questions behind a
The conclusion? "Twinkies are not sentient in any way we can
understand." Somewhat like home pages.