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Everything I Know About HTML I Learned From An 11 Year Old

Later thisweek I’ll be speaking at Oral Roberts University to a student group called Enactus (from their Twitter “Using the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a better more sustainable world”). I plan to just share my story: how I leveraged my web design skills in various non-technical marketing positions and how it inevitably circled back around to what I do today.

The truth is, while I spent the last two years in a marketing/pr role, I found a way to earn roughly 20% of my annual income doing freelance web design for various local businesses and consultants. This was born out of necessity for my family as we had recently had our first child and were fairly strapped for cash.

Having a newborn meant I had to be incredibly efficient with the little time I had to do freelance work, and this attracted me to solutions like WordPress. I could install the application on a server and identify a suitable theme in minutes, which would usually get me 80% of the way there on the back-end work allowing me to focus my attention on front-end design. Shortly thereafter, my project management and design skills became known more broadly around the University where I work, which landed me projects like designing and managing freedom.ou.edu, a civic education video platform, management.ou.edu, a MOOC from a buddy/professor named Jeremy Short in the Price College of Business, and for presidential campus events like the OU Teach-In. Being given these tasks allowed me to hone and more fully understand my passion the intricacies of web and higher education. I poured much of my free time into reading about different platforms and learning models for online learning.

For this event, I’ll be using pieces of a former talk I gave at a conference called Confluence, but I’ll be re-writing the majority of it since that event was more of TED-style conference for social media professionals. This one will be slightly more technical and contain less “every day tips and tricks” as the conference planner suggested I do.

The thing I didn’t like about the final version of this talk was that the more I attempted to weave in tips and tricks the further I got from my actual story. Stripping away the unnecessary recommendations will allow for a much more fluid narrative and help me focus it. So this time I’m setting out to dig up some of my own history. What was is like to work on the web 15 years ago? What did it feel like to create pages on some of the early personal page providers such as Geocities and Angelfire?

Well, for starters, when I started 15 years ago… I was 12. Soo my interests weren’t incredibly broad. I was interested in building websites dedicated to baseball or WWF. That’s it. I remember the first time I signed up for Geocities and picking my “neighborhood.” I remember printing out the entire terms and conditions[ref]Can you imagine doing that these days? It wears me out just to think about it[/ref] and reading them word for word, asking my dad to clarify any of the questions I had. The very first site I did on Geocities was a click through slide show of different pictures of wrestlers I liked. I remember my first problem was when I realized everything I had coded the image sources to my hard drive’s direct path (i.e. C:\Pictures\etc…) instead of an online source. Thus only I could properly render the images. So I figured out how to upload pictures via Geocities’ FTP web tool which allowed you to do one file at a time. This was about a 90 second process per picture on a 56k modem and felt dreadfully long on 56k.

But where did I first learn how to code rudimentary HTML? All I could remember was this image in my head of a brightly colored site specifically for kids teaching you HTML. So after a little Google hunt, I was actually able to find the site because, as luck would have it, It’s still up. It’s called Lissa Explains:

The layout I remember from 1996. Source: lissaexplains.com

A few years ago, “Lissa” was kind enough to update the website and give a little background information on the site:

I was just 11 years old and in 6th grade when I started Lissa Explains it All… I had kept the fact that I had a Web site from all my friends at school. I didn’t want them to think I was a geek or anything, so I just didn’t tell anyone. At that time I had over 500,000 page views a month. Then, when I was 13, I went to a computer convention with my school, and Sun Microsystems found out about my site, and that I was there at the convention. Sun Microsystems called CNN, and CNN came out to do a story about me and my Web site. Soon my whole school knew about it and I was SO embarrassed. When my friends found out I was making money, they were all impressed and I didn’t feel so embarrassed anymore.

Wait. WHAT?! I was learning from ANOTHER kid?! The website doesn’t mention how up-to-date the About page is (it refers to her as now 21 years old) but I found the site’s Wikipedia article and it turns out Lissa and I were the same year in school! How incredible is it now to think that my 12 year old self was learning how to build webpages from another 12 year old? What a testimony to every good reason why students should be given ample opportunity to create on the open web, right? Students learning from other students’ learning. It’s a wonder (and yet not surprising at all) that another kid was able to build such an informative website (now a living part of history) that successfully connected directly with its intended audience: other kids. Better yet, the impact was most likely MUCH broader given that only 20% of American adults were online in 1996. How many websites were pulling 500k views per month?

On a similar thread, Jim Groom tweeted a link to an archived version of the Geocities FAQ page last week:

The FAQ has this statement:

The Web promotes the free flowing exchange of ideas and information among all citizens on the Internet. The Web has flourished because technology has provided us with a way to link people and their ideas together in a way that was never possible before. We aspire to be positive contributors to this new culture. We’re committed to developing innovative ways to foster the spirit of community that is so vital to the future success of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

I would love to imagine that sounded revolutionary in 1996. Today, the average user would translate it as suspect at best and more than likely assume its Silicon Valley speak for “please contribute via our platform so we can have your data.”

But, further, I grow more concerned that most, unfortunately, value the web based solely on what it can offer to us instead of what we have to offer.. How possible is this sort of mission in this consumer-driven world wide web where most “production” is taking place in walled social media gardens that largely consist of your self-curated friend circles? Further, information has become so easy to access that we take for granted the work that originally went into its creation. And I feel strong in saying that only because I hold myself guilty for these kind of feelings. When it used to take me two to three minutes to upload a small photo–when sharing new knowledge required building the entire page it would exist on–I could appreciate and empathize more with websites like Lissa’s and thus feel more compelled to give back and contribute to those who have came before me.

Ah, but now… Now I can hand you a completely adequate and most definitely technology trendy responsive, parallax, HTML5 site in mere hours. Yet I can’t decide whether I should be in awe or hate that fact.

  • Had to smile – I did my first sites with Geocities also, and evangelized among fellow students both at Berkeley and at University of Siena (where I spent much of my grad school years), trying to get them excited about creating websites too. At Berkeley, we had webspace provided by school, but not so at Univ. of Siena, where Geocities was really the only convenient way for students and even the faculty to publish (this was back in probably fall of 1998 and then spring of 1999, right before I came to OU). Sadly, here we are 15 years later and while there is a whole great world of HTML opportunity out there, I get the feeling that universities are still far far far behind when it comes to creating and sharing what we do online. OU certainly is. Most of the students in my classes have not blogged before or created a website, even with so many excellent tools and options available. So, once again, I will opine about the need for Google Apps at OU. Something to pull us kicking and screaming into the new millennium, eh? :-)
    • Adam
      Laura, Thank you for sharing your Geocities story as well! I had several sites on there and used it often until about ’02/’03 when I finally caved, bought my first domain, and migrated everything over to a small 10MB server space given to me by my internet provider. Ha! And, same here, most of my students have never kept a blog. I was really surprised considering there have been so many platforms come and go over the years that I thought surely they would have had some type of exposure!