A List Apart


Why Are You Here?

If you’re reading this, I can make certain assumptions about you. I can assume that you work on the Web, or at the very least have an interest in it. I can assume that both your livelihood and your recreation come from the Web, that the stakes for you are not merely commercial considerations but are reflective of something deeper.

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Why are you here? Why do you surf, create, argue, love, attack, defend this medium called the World Wide Web? This hobbled mishmash of badly implemented near-languages? This convoluted ocean, endless and formless, overflowing with so much useless flotsam and jetsam, as well as the occasional island paradise? This vast outpouring of energy, time, sweat? This funhouse mirror that reflects our world while simultaneously distorting it?

Why do you do it?

You started from somewhere. You did, you just didn’t make the leap and become a designer or a programmer or a CEO. No, someone showed you this neat thing they found, this place where people were posting all kinds of stuff, throwing it out there, and you could find almost anything you wanted, from the sublime to the ridiculous. And it caught your interest when you realized that these works were made by people. Regular people, just like you.

So you gave it a try. You learned HTML, or enough of it to be dangerous, and you put something out there. And you were hooked. And suddenly, you had a stake in what happened out here. You cared.

Why are you here?

When you are online, you are not active within normal physical reality. Being online demands a tremendous amount of discipline. You must shut out the world around you and focus exclusively on a glowing screen. You must sit in a chair for hours on end and will your body to remain still. You are at an altar, but you are both priest and supplicant.

When you are online, you are not doing anything else. You are not going to a bar, or watching a movie, or playing ball, or talking to other people.  You may be chatting with someone across the aether, but the strange words that appear have more to do with messages on the wind than conversation. You can be a passive observer, or you can leave your mark for others to see, but you are not going to a gallery opening or studying at the library or walking with your loved one on the beach.

Why are you here?

You are here because there is something online that is missing from real life.

In this post-industrial Western capitalist middle-to-upper class civilization that – another assumption – most of us live in, the situation is both wonderful and appalling. Materially, we have never been better off. Basic needs are met, with plenty of leftover resources to indulge ourselves. We do not worry about predators, or starvation, or shelter, and our society is advanced enough to afford basic help for those who lack a home or food. We have money in our pocket that is waiting to be spent, and we have hundreds and thousands of corporations all eager to help us spend it. We are offered everything from technology to entertainment to transportation to luxury. We live with an embarrassment of riches.

No wonder we can’t stand them.

Now, however, it’s no longer geeks and early adopters who are preaching the word. People all over the world who have no interest in Web standards or SQL are flocking here, looking for something that they can no longer find in physical reality. Look at Diaryland, for example. Yes, yes, a lot of the writing in Diaryland is crap, but 99% of everything is crap. And even if the authors of Diaryland aren’t penning the Iliad, they’re writing. They’re out here. They’ve been given the opportunity to make their voices heard. They’ve peeked through the veil, and they’ve seen that there is possibility here in the online world, that there might be something that can answer the questions we’ve all had.

This is a huge shift from the tech-happy libertarian/anarchic ethos that gets all the hype. However, people don’t want the Next Big Thing; they want a space where they can get away from modern life. Instead of getting on their knees and asking someone for the answers, they’re trying to determine the answers for themselves. They want a space, a cave, a retreat, a wall they can mark on so that others can see and share.

One of the most uncanny things I’ve ever seen on the Web began simply: “I ache for storms.” Not a review of the latest tech thing, not a navelgazing rant, not an entertaining meme. No, a simple primal, elemental yearning for the natural mystery of the skies. We are still magical creatures, despite our toys, and we want more than a simple hand-out existence.

Why are you here?

You are among the few, the very few who understand just how intricate this entire network is, just how fragile and beautiful it can be. You are the creators of destinations. Your sites, whether they are commercial or personal, are beacons and oases to the world. For better or worse, you are the ones pushing the boundaries and creating the high-profile sites that we hope that people will come to.

Recent arguments about “content” on the Web (full disclosure: I have been a participant – and an instigator – in said arguments) have led some to ask what the big deal is. It’s a big Web, they say, and there’s room for all sorts of stuff. And there are people still doing stuff, so what’s your problem?

Is it a big Web? How will people find their way around the corporate sites, which might be the only Web they’ve ever known? Personal sites don’t have million-dollar marketing budgets. How will they avoid the fast-food hooks to reach the banquet they need?

And is what we’re creating even worth coming to? Our Flash movies and our Metallica parodies and our endless links to Salon articles - are these what people are looking for? Is this what they’ve been seeking all this time? Or is it something you took time and effort to create, where you pushed yourself beyond what you thought you could do and ended up creating a work that illuminated the boundaries of the human soul?

We are not mere technicians. We are not throwing words around for our health. We are not out here to make a buck, because there are surely easier ways to do it.

We came here looking for something.

Will you find it?

Or will you build it?

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