Online journal history (part 1) -- 12/16/09

If you have just wandered in from Holidailies and wonder who's who, there's a brief introduction to various characters at the end of this entry...

Back in late September I was contacted by a doctoral student at Northwestern who was doing a study of the early history of online journals. I agree to fully participate in answering questions as long as it was understood that at some point I would probably turn my responses into entries in my online journal. At first I was going to post them shortly after I had answered them, but then I thought that I could save them until December (assuming that there would be a Holidailies 2009). So, here's the first installment.

1. How would you like to be identified if the research team decides to refer to your actions and quote from your statements or website in presentations of results from this project: (a) using your real name, (b) using a generic description (i.e., a diarist), or (c) using a pseudonym?

I have no objection to the use of either my real name (Jim Lawrence) or my website name (jimsjournal) or both. I also have no objections to my web address (www.jimsjournal.com) being included.

2. In what conditions was your website created? Where did the idea come from? What were your influences?

Conditions? The semi-controlled chaos of a house filled (at the time) with two teenagers, two middle-aged very busy computer professionals, and a cat. Thirteen years later the teenagers are now adults (but still here – or, rather, boomeranged back), one of the computer professionals has become a math teacher, and the cat is elderly but continues to believe that he is in charge and the humans comprise his staff.

The ideas come from events in my life, things I see or hear or do, thoughts I may have had, things I have read, things that have happened to me, and things other online writers have suggested or passed to me. The problem is not in thinking of things to write about, it is in finding time to sit down and write them.

3. What was the main purpose of your website? How would you have defined your website at the time it was created?

The main purpose of my site was to give me the ability to express myself, to let me sound off, to talk about anything I wanted to, to give me the chance to be a writer, an essayist, a columnist, a story-teller, a commentator Actually, as I originally conceived it, the journal was only going to be a part of the site. There would also be a section of photo albums, a section perhaps for "creative" writing (i.e., stories and poetry or whatever), and sections on things that interested me. For example, during the first two years of its existence, jimsjournal had a page discussing computer-mediated learning: courses on computers via CD, DVD, or download, distance education (college courses over the Internet), computer-based training that combined videos, hands-on work, and a virtual curriculum that could adjust to the progress of the student… and had links to articles and books and white papers that covered these topics.

Eventually I got sick of trying to keep that up-to-date, tired of broken-links, etc., and I dropped it. The same thing happened with a section I had dealing with Y2K. I dumped the few photography pages I had but now frequently use photographs in entries. Having grown up as a child with magazines such as Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Colliers, I wonder sometimes if the real pleasure I get in a nicely arranged essay with photographs lies in somehow recreating the pleasure I used to find in those old magazines?

4. Could you describe the process involved in publishing an average post? How did you decide what contents were appropriate? When and where did you update your site?

I almost always write entries on my personal computer, an ancient IBM desktop I have been using for the past six years (I told you it was ancient). Since I really only use this machine for activities such as web-surfing, e-mail, and writing, it still has sufficient horsepower (since I increased it to a gigabyte of memory) for such purposes, although it is now constrained by a lack of sufficient hard drive space and I have also had to add an external drive. This is in my home office (my den) I have a large desk (occupied by two IBM laptops I use for work – I work at home). There is a large table set at right angles to the desk and the monitor, keyboard, and mouse for my desktop machine sits on that table (along with a laser printer, a flatbed scanner, a telephone, etc.) and that old desktop machine sits under the table (along with another desktop system that shares the monitor, keyboard, and mouse via a KVM switch). Yes, I spend my days (and a bit of my evenings as well) surrounded by computers. (My son and my daughter and my wife all have their own computers.)

My exact method creating an entry depends on whether or not I have photographs that I want to use. If I do have photographs, then I go into Photoshop to crop and resize the photographs. I will usually have an idea of how I want the photos to appear on the page and I will arrange them accordingly and then fill in with words. More often than not, however, I will be writing a text only entry.

I open up the IBM WebSphere Homepage Builder software and, usually, I will grab a copy of the previous entry, name it with the new entry's date, delete all of the text and any photographs, and then save it. I'll give it a new title (and update the date) and then go into HTML source mode and change the address of the previous entry and change the pointers in the comments section. Then I'll start to type. I usually have given a few minutes of thought to what I want to say, and I will just start at the beginning… but the gears in my brain tick and turn and what I had planned to say often morphs into something else – similar, perhaps, but still not the same as what I had planned – and I will realize that I might never have reached where I had thought I was going to be headed, but I can see that it is already long enough (if not too long) and so I bring it to an end and think maybe I will continue on the next day. (In reality, more days will pass and my next entry – when I finally get to it -- will have nothing to do with this one – there are multiple entries that end up never being written for everyone that I actually write.)

So then I go into the previous entry and edit the "next entry" pointer. I bring up the index page, add the old "current entry" to the end of the list of recent entries, perhaps remove one or more of the older entries from that list, update the current entry pointer to reflect the new entry I have written (and copy that HTML), and save the index file. Then I open the HTML file for the current calendar year, go into the HTML source and paste in the code I had copied from the index, edit it, add a link to the entry from that date in the monthly calendar on the left side of the page, and save that file. I then use FTP to upload these four HTML files (plus any picture files) from my hard drive to my area in VerveHosting. I then open a browser and go to my index page and link to my new entry, double-check the link to previous entry and the link back from there, double-check any links from the text of the entry (and also make sure all photographs – if any – are loading properly, etc.). Then go into Yahoo Mail and compose an e-mail with a link to the new entry for those readers who are on my notify list. I send that e-mail to myself, with the list of other recipients as a blind copy. Then I check to be certain the link in the copy I receive of that e-mail actually works. (You can see why I would like some magic software package to take care of a lot of these chores. Yes, I have thought of writing some scripts to take care of it myself, but I'm not really into that kind of coding and, besides which, I never seem to be able to find time to think much about that.

This will be continued tomorrow to answer these questions:
5. Did you read other diaries at the time? Which ones? How did you discover them? What was your relationship to other journalers?
6. Could you elaborate on the technical part of the website? Did you hand-code the site? How did you learn this language? What were the technical characteristics of your website? Where was it hosted?
7. How were the main "conventions" or "rules" of your website established? (For example, how did you decide what sections the website should have or what were the privacy considerations regarding other people?)

A brief introduction for those of you wandering in here from Holidailies for the first time: I'm just a middle-aged guy (but somehow I hit 66 on my last birthday) who lives in Rhode Island with my wife Nancy (a middle-school math teacher), daughter Gillian ("Jill" -- 27 yr old college student and baker), son Jeremy (24 yr old restaurant cook and part-time college student), and Tiger (senior citizen cat). Eldest child Adam lives in New York City with his wife Leah and our grandsons Sam and Milo. I'm a former programmer/systems analyst who got involved with software training and instructional design. For the past several years I have been working from home (you can't beat the short commute!) doing quality assurance and editing on course material for both classroom courses and Web-based training courses for a very big computer company. I've been writing this online journal since 1996.

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