Online journal history (part 2) -- 12/17/09

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...

Yesterday I posted my answers to four questions about online journals and blogs asked me by a Northwestern University doctoral student. Here are three more questions and my answers to them.

5. Did you read other diaries at the time? Which ones? How did you discover them? What was your relationship to other journalers?

I read a number of the early online diarists and journalers: Caroline Burke (Caroline's Diary), not a model for me quite so much as just an example of someone writing daily about both her professional and personal life; Coffee Shakes by Sage, this was a very strong influence on me (I posted in her online forums and, after she ended her site, I took part in an e-mail group for more than four years afterwards); others included Jennifer Wade; also Emily Weise; etc. (And wasn't there some guy in 1995 writing a diary called "My Year of Getting a Girlfriend"?)

I have gone on to meet in real life with some of the people I knew online. On a trip to England I spent a weekend with a family I had come to know through Sage's Coffee Shakes and the subsequent e-mail forum. A couple of years later I met two more people from that group on a trip to Oslo, Norway. I met Emily Weise twice for dinner on business trips to Pittsburgh. And, of course, I got to meet lots of people when I attended JournalCon in Washington, DC back in 2004.

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?

I hand-coded the site for several years. When we (my daughter and I) were first getting ready to build web pages I had picked up a simple HTML editor program (I can't remember if it had been free with a magazine or if I had picked it up for a few dollars) but when my daughter began comparing the text she had entered with the HTML output she announced "This HTML stuff is not that hard." She decided to do her own coding in Notepad and then move that file to Geocities. Since I was a programmer (mostly in COBOL) I didn't find writing HTML to be difficult either. Geocities had an online editor that could be used WYSIWYG fashion to write your web page and I used that a few times to write entries, but after having lost a couple of entries in the midst of writing them, I quickly went back to using Notepad. Several years ago, however, I switched from hand-coding to using a more advanced WYSIWYG editing program (IBM WebSphere Homepage Builder) which I still use today. I tend to type my entries in the WYSIWYG editor function and then go into the HTML source to tweak and modify the code. My HTML knowledge is mostly self-taught, although I did take an HTML programming course about eight or nine years ago.

I try to keep my site fairly vanilla. That is, I try to avoid too many bells and whistles. I want it to be accessible to the widest range of users. I usually try to write pages that are easy to read and that do not require any left-to-right scrolling even on an SVGA monitor (that is, an 800 x 600 pixel screen). Admittedly, very few people these days are using such a small screen size, but they were still fairly common when I had set that standard for myself several years ago. Most monitors today are probably at least 1280 pixels wide, but I have not expanded the width of the text area of my entries because a full screen line width would make for uncomfortable reading. That was one of the problems with my original layout (and with many other web pages in the early days): by default text expanded to fill the width of the screen. I quickly discovered how to restrict that through the use of HTML tables and went back and retrofitted my earlier entries. Ever since then I have used nested invisible tables to arrange text and pictures on my pages. Although I do sometimes embed a video in an entry (either video I shot and edited myself or something amusing I might have found on YouTube or Vimeo), I try not to do that too often as I know that I have a few regular readers who are still restricted to dial-up connections.

My site was originally hosted on Geocities back in 1996. (Geocities was later purchased and absorbed into Yahoo.) I kept it there for several years, partly due to inertia and partly due to not being able to get jimlawrence as a domain name at a reasonable price (whoever had registered it was not using it but was asking several hundred dollars to buy it). Then, in 2004 I realized that I didn't really need my name on my domain, I needed to use jimsjournal as my domain name since that was what I had always called my site. I found that www.jimsjournal.com was available. At that time my site was approaching the upper limit in size for free hosting at Geocities/Yahoo and I would have to switch to a paid account. (Actually, for most of this time I was paying an extra fee in order to not have advertising on my pages.) Verve Hosting was recommended to me by people who used them so I opened an account with them in 2004 and have been a satisfied customer of their ever since. (In fact, I do web pages for some local groups and I host them at Verve Hosting also.)

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?)

After I posted my first entry I asked my daughter (who was 14 at the time) what she thought and she said she liked it but that she didn't want me to use her name. So I edited it to change Gillian to Jennifer, and since I changed her name I also changed my son's name from Jeremy to Sean. I only changed those two names; I used my own name and my wife's name and my eldest child's name, etc. I do tend to refer to my employer as "a major computer company" or something of that nature (rather than to use their actual name). It's not that someone could not make an educated guess as to my employer; it's that a search engine would not make that connection. I say my wife is a math teacher in a local school system (but we don't use the same last name) and I generally only use first names when I do mention other people by name in an entry.

Sometime around in the summer of 2003 my daughter (who was 21 years old by then, seven years into this online venture) asked "Why do you call me Jennifer instead of Gillian?" I told her that it was because she had asked me not to use her first name. "Oh," she replied. "Well, I don't care. You can use my real name." So I asked Jeremy, by then an 18 year old high school graduate, if he cared. He sort of shrugged a "whatever." So I switched to using their real names, Jeremy for my younger son and Gillian (or Jill) for my daughter. I debated going back and changing the older entries, but that would have taken far too many hours of pointless effort.

Since I refer to them only by first name, I think the privacy of my son Adam and his wife, Leah, and grandsons Sam and Milo are reasonably well protected since they live in a small town called New York City and Leah did not change her name when they got married and the boys use her last name. And, as I noted, I refer to other friends and family by first name only. Now, since we do have the same last name, could people figure out my eldest's last name or my brother's last name? Sure… but the point is that a Google search on their full names would not turn up a jimsjournal entry.

This will be continued in a day or two to answer these remaining questions:
8. Did you know who read your website at the time? What was your relationship with your readers?
9. When did you first encounter or learn about the term "weblog" or "blog"? What was your relationship with bloggers? Was there a distinction between types of websites (blogs as opposed to journals)?
10. Did you ever start using the concept "blog" as a definition for your website? Why?
11. In 1999 automated software (both for blogging and for journal keeping were designed. Did you try using these platforms? Did you have a preference for any software in particular? If you used it, did software change the development of you website in any way?
12. Is there anything else you want to discuss about these issues?

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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