A screenshot of Textism from around 2001

The ‘Intellectual Layer Cake’ of the Web

The web has been… unpredictable. We usually think it will go one way, only to see it go another. Case in point. There were plenty that believed major media organizations would find their place on the web medium.

What we didn’t expect so much was this totally unpredictable outgrowth of personal and boundless creativity, a string of blogs and bloggers that became the web’s gatekeepers, trendsetters and evangelists at a time when no one quite knew what to do with it yet. These were regular people writing regular stories that could not be more unique. And every once in a while, a blog broke through. It captured the imagination and attention of the web’s hungriest readers and spread from blog roll to blog roll. You might bookmark it, jot the URL down on a post-it note, really anything to make sure you could visit them day after day, hoping you got there after a new post was published.

I hope this blog is something like that for you. I’d like to look at two others.

Heather Anne Halpert named her blog LemonYellow for, she recalls, no particular reason. Created in the spring of 1998, LemonYellow came into being before the word blog began circulating through media circles and entered into the common vernacular. So novel and indescribable was her website that when it was profiled in the New York Times, writer Katie Hafner referred to the site as an “intellectual layer cake.” Blog may be how we refer to it these days, but intellectual layer cake just about nails it.

A screenshot of LemonYellow, somewhere close to the end of its run

Each day, Halpert would post a few concise thoughts to LemonYellow. Rather than stick to a theme or a pattern, Halpert filled LemonYellow with a pure stream of consciousness so broad it managed to cover philosophy, technology, the English language and the inner turmoil that comes with waking up as a human being. You might, for instance, find her quipping on her use of punctuation in the same breath as a book recommendation or a pithy quote,

I’m not going to defend myself for poking around in areas quite obviously outside those of my own expertise. Neither will I defend my mid-Victorian obsession with italics… Mainly because it’s indefensible. Just be thankful for my fortitude in the face of that most seductive of punctuation, that siren of syntax…the exclamation point.

Halpert used her blog to broadcast her thoughts and feelings about anything and everything. She cultivated LemonYellow as a place of discovery, not just of the inner recesses of her own mind, but of the many fascinating things she herself had found while probing and searching through the vastness of the web and beyond. When she found a new site, or an interesting blog post, she’d post a link and a brief comment, a practice that would soon become known as the link blog. When she read a new book, she wrote a quick review. And when someone mentioned something funny or particularly insightful in casual conversation, she would post a recap. On occasion, she’d even post nothing more than just a “I still don’t have my laundry,” a final punctuation to a stream of thoughts.

Halpert, however, was a software designer by trade, and many of her best contributions were a prescient and insightful look at the a user’s experience of our designs we take for granted every day,

I’m interested in both imposing patterns on disparate pieces of information; and, of course, looking for existing patterns. However the former is more interesting in that it is, according the the basis of the (empirical) scientific theory, taboo. It involves manipulating one’s data to fit a predefined pattern. However, it can produce rare and beautiful results. For example, imposing a grid will make vivid the shredded spots in the woof and warp of a relationship otherwise taken for granted. Change the data, impose the same grid and the meaning of the relationship is entirely new.

LemonYellow picked up steam, enough, at least, to be picked up in the New York Times Technology blog. The web was an entryway for more than a few readers. Buried in its links and one-off repartee was a deep connection, a rare glimpse into the truth of human experience. A way to find something new, something different, something you never thought of. It remained that way until 2001, when Halpert closed down the site for good.

Textism in its later, plainer form

Dean Allen was very much of the web, the kind of person, you might say, that the web was created for. Creative, open, clever and deeply, deeply concerned with the state of digital typography. In late 2002, Allen created the Textile markup language, an early precursor to Markdown that made writing structured, semantic HTML as simple as learning a few keyboard shortcuts. In 2003, he publicly released TextPattern, a blogging tool with the slogan built for content publishers to Just Write. Allen was no stranger to writing himself. Both of these projects he announced on his own blog, Textism, his own personal website and almost-daily-updated blog.

Allen didn’t deal in the kind of brevity you might find on LemonYellow, but his thoughts were no less wide-ranging or insightful. He was, after all, a great writer who loved to write, and his blog reflected his hobbies, his passions; every facet of his being was represented. Before the days of the self-conscious brand forming and carefully crafted identities, Allen was comfortable just being himself, and wrote about whatever it was that struck him. Textism was an extension of his unique personal voice, one that was sharp and witty and bounced around from tech to literature to, as Jason Kottke recalls, how to cook a great stew,

First, you need some water. Fuse two hydrogen with one oxygen and repeat until you have enough. While the water is heating, raise some cattle. Pay a man with grim eyes to do the slaughtering, preferably while you are away. Roast the bones, then add to the water. Go away again. Come back once in awhile to skim. When the bones begin to float, lash together into booms and tow up the coast. Reduce. Keep reducing. When you think you have reduced enough, reduce some more. Raise some barley. When the broth coats the back of a spoon and light cannot escape it, you are nearly there. Pause to mop your brow as you harvest the barley. Search in vain for a cloud in the sky. Soak the barley overnight (you will need more water here), then add to the broth. When, out of the blue, you remember the first person you truly loved, the soup is ready. Serve.

Each post on Textism was carefully crafted, many of them written as well as any novel. His goal in life was to enable others to do the same. At the heart of Textism was Allen’s fascination with the many possibilities of the World Wide Web. He believed strongly in its ideals, and he often wrote about technology with an understanding and a tone that very few before or after have managed to do. He was not so interested in the technical particular’s of his projects, but rather the things which they enabled people to do. He brought a human element to technical writing, even in the most banal of situations. Slipped into an update about his CMS Textpattern, there might, for instance, be a parenthetical that revealed more about the process of making software than can be found in the most lengthy and detailed post-mortem.

Some time in the last couple weeks, while working on Textpattern (you know, the CMS I’ve been using on this site for two years, the one that was running like a finely tuned and greased machine, the one I decided to release to the world, whereupon I was seized by a strange and insistent demon who was of the opinion that simply doing one thing and doing it well was not enough, boy, you need to attach a full-fledged browser-based HTML and CSS editing monster that would do several things in a kind of so-so sort of way but it sure would impress the twelve people to whom such a thing would even make any sense, and whereupon I tapped out lines of inelegant PHP code until droplets of blood formed on my forehead and I was hoarse from screaming well why the fuck not at a computer screen every time something refused to work – and of course things don’t work, things don’t like to work – and on it went until I was sufficiently unstupid to pause and grasp that having something that does one thing well is a good deal better than having many things that are just sort of so-so, and hey there’s all this time in the future to add those things when and if they do work, and I began the relatively swift process of dismantling all those flights of fancy until I arrived at the point I am now, which is ready to release a public beta) I discovered that one of the character-conversion utilities I was working on had potential use in the Word HTML Cleaner, which had been giving people problems lately. So I installed it and it seems to work.

It is, perhaps, unsurprising then that Textism was incredibly popular with the early-to-the-web tech crowd. Many came back to his blog day after day to read about whatever it is he wanted to write. More often than not, Allen was advocating for better typography and more careful design. He wanted the web to be beautiful. He wanted people to take care with what they what published, to be proud of what we are all building together.

There’s this cliche that’s sometimes passed around. No one’s quite sure if it was Brian Eno or Lou Reed that first said. It goes something like: the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one started a band. Textism is a bit like that. Textism wasn’t the most popular site on the web, but it served as a template for the indie web of the early 00’s, and has been cited as a major influence by Jason Kottke when he created Kottke.org, and Jon Gruber when he got going with Daring Fireball. It was the blog of choice for many, many tech bloggers. Allen, unfortunately, passed away in early 2018. His legacy, however, will not soon be forgotten.

The web is a fascinating technology. I myself am frequently enamored with its inner workings. So much so that it’s easy to forget that it’s simply the medium. It’s what we fill it with that counts. And when someone takes the time to add something extraordinary, we should all take the time to appreciate it.