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Unraveling the web's story

  • // Jay Hoffmann

    I am a bit distressed about the web. Sometimes, I panic about it. And it’s why I look back so often to try and capture the long view. But when I peak up to loo around a lot of what I see—or rather, what is surfaced to me by broken down algorithms that hides beneath the surface a much longer tail that sadly most people never see—is all buttoned up and plain and unadorned and professional and (frankly) boring.

    Maybe that’s just the web splitting in two. The web is over thirty years old, basically an elder millennial if we want to call it that. And at some point, it was going to need to grow up, develop some consistency, and figure out a way to make money. But I didn’t think we’d have to ditch our punk rock digs, unique interests and unconventional spaces for a suit and tie and a job selling ads.

    I started thinking about this more this week when I pulled from some archives a site called Rotten Library. It was an offshoot of, an early web purveyor of morbid curiosities and vulgar fare. The Rotten Library was a unique take on Wikipedia, offering detailed and lengthy encyclopedic entries on a variety of topics from the domain. These entries were often written in a playful and casual tone, and they inspired many.

    I mention Rotten Library, not as a delightful nostalgic throwback, but because it effectively illustrates a simple point. On the fringes of the internet, where things are small and specialized (even when they’re grim or shocking), there’s something far more captivating than the sanitized, controlled environments we’ve established on the modern web. And it is still very much out there, and I believe it is growing.

    I hope to turn my attention there for the near future in my research. It is utterly fascinating.

  • Wait, what’s a bookmarklet?
    How this one small browser quirk turned into a tool used by countless people for decades.
  • Building ColdFusion for the web
    When the Allaire brothers were looking for a way to build websites, nothing stuck out. So they built their own and called it Coldfusion.
  • // Jay Hoffmann

    It occurs to me that, much like the web, what’s absent from the next wave of AI tools are any sort of concept of transclusion. Translcusion would have the sources of data traveling along the same pipes as that data itself, and make attribution actually possible. Can you imagine if LLM were actually accountable for providing the root of each source?

    Ted Nelson never quite cracked that technological nut, and we are so well past it that nobody even thinks about it anymore.

  • // Jay Hoffmann

    I was reading about the latest experiment from Google, an AI-powered research tool called NotebookLM and I came across the name Steven Johnson. After doing a bit of digging I found that it was the same Steve Johnson who co-founded Feed magazine and wrote many books, including Interface Culture, which gave subtextual meaning to the hyperlink. Anyway, you can read Steven’s perspective on the whole thing over on his Substack.

  • // Jay Hoffmann

    There are a lot of stories about companies or tech scenes that spawned really intricate web pedigrees as former employees made their way into the world and started new companies that had lasting impacts. The PayPal Mafia is the most cited example, but Silicon Alley also comes to mind.

    Anyway, in my research for Coldfusion, I was surprised to find that Allaire, the company which created Coldfusion, is one of those places as well.

  • // Jay Hoffmann

    I’ve been interested in Coldfusion for a while, as this language that was (and in some ways still is) very popular, but never quite made the headlines. I like what its creator, JJ Allaire, had to say about his goal when he created it though:

    We built a language that had as its at its heart expressiveness… let’s let the developer express as succinctly as possible their intention and have that come come to life in a web application

  • // Jay Hoffmann

    It used to not be all that common for some teenager to be borderline (internet) famous for just totally killing it at web dev. I’ve written about Lissa Explains it All and then recently came across this post about Nick Heinle, who wrote a book about JavaScript for O’Reilly when he was 17 years old. I know that’s still happening, but the gap between digital natives and the rest of the world was so much wider at the web’s birth that this was a semi-regular occurence.

  • I just learned that Molly Holzschlag has passed. She was a tireless advocate for the principles of the open web. She fought for them for decades, and she never stopped fighting for them. She was an uproarious champion of the web and she always, always, always led from her heart. When I started this crazy […]
  • AOL Pretends to be the Internet
    In 1994, Ted Leonsis was the head of the new media marketing firm he created, Redgate Communications, spun out six years earlier from a CD-ROM based computer shopping business. Redgate dealed in digital media—sometimes called new media—new territory in the marketing world. And he was pretty good at it. That year, he went out to […]
  • // Jay Hoffmann

    I was reading over a 1997 article in the Economists about the current state of what was still being called Electronic Commerce and I was struck by how simple its goals were:

    And since a shopper’s every step through a Web site can be traced, an online merchant can quickly put together a clearer picture of each shopper’s interests and preferences than an army of survey-takers in a department store.

    That’s it. Take a shopper’s interests and see if you can show them some other stuff they might like. Not exactly the follow-them-around-the-web-and-aggregate-their-preferences-with-millions-of-others-to-manipulate-purchasing-decisions-and-robotize-personal-interactions mentality we have floating around these days.

  • // Jay Hoffmann

    A compendium of important historical links compiled by Zach Leatherman (the ones that haven’t succumbed to link rot anyway). For a quick demo site, there’s a lot of interesting stuff there.