In middle school, during the blowing of the first tech bubble, I taught myself HTML by creating pointless Angelfire sites. That was the most fun I ever had building web pages. Since then, it's been a bit of a chore. Back in the day, though, having a simple, flat page with a nice background, few design elements, and about one hour's worth of content was about as cool a future as I could have devised.
The best day of my Angelfire developer career was the day I discovered URL-shortening. I found some site offering a huge range of domains registered in Tonga (.to). You chose from a drop-down menu (fly.to, come.to, listen.to), and typed in a user name. Boom. It was free. Creating a website for free was cool, but the fact that I could get to it by typing in "listen.to/jon" and pressing enter was like all my Star Wars fantasies come true.
I never liked the way URLs looked or sounded. It bothered me that people typed "www." first, like they needed a reminder that they were on the World-Wide Web. Nevermind how terrible it was to hear someone say "double-you, double-you, double-you, dot, Ay-Oh-Ell, dot, com." Come on. You're an AOL user, and you don't know what a keyword is? And what's with ".com," anyway? Why does that deserve to be the gold standard of web addresses? I'm not a company, and I don't belong to a company. I'm a person.
I wanted a place on the web that felt like it was mine. Not "jon.com." "Listen.to/jon." All I wanted you to see there was exactly what I wanted to show you. Most of the time, it was animated .gifs of flames. Cool. Perfect. That's what I was all about.
But the future of the Internet had other plans.
My college class was one of the last to get Facebook before it opened up. I had to wait until I got my admissions packet to activate my .edu email address, and then I went straight to Facebook and signed up. I felt an echo of middle school joy, selecting a picture and filling in my profile, which, at the time, was all text. I put serious thought into the comma-separated lists of favorite bands and books. I had received a valuable plot of Internet land, and I wanted to tend it with care.
Little did I know, Facebook would soon be printing money faster than the Federal Reserve, half a billion people would be on it, and the entire profile page would be consumed by images drawn from elsewhere for purposes of profit. One could barely type any words of one's own on the page anymore, before they disappeared behind "...see more." My personal plot had become a ".com."
Twitter arrived, and I resisted. I resented the ever-shrinking space in which our (hay)wired culture was allowed to express itself in words. It seemed like a joke to me that the Next Big Thing would be sound-bytes shorter than a text message. But when I finally bit the bullet and looked at Twitter, I saw how much personality it had. It wasn't about the individual bites; it was about the feed. The ".com" was just a portal; it was the people who filled the space.
It was there, one day in 2010, that someone mentioned About.me.
By then, the web was my full-time job, and I had requested invites to a lot of gizmos. This was different, though. I remembered About.me. I checked on it. I felt genuinely, innocently happy when I finally badgered whomever the operator of @aboutdotme was that day to send my invite. It took about one hour to get everything tweaked exactly right, and there it was.
My home page.
I split the word deliberately here. A "homepage" is a browser term; it refers to the most sensible place for you to begin browsing for something. My About.me page is my home on the web. I live there.
The Facebooks and Twitters and LinkedIns of the world are good at what they do. They've found their angles. These services are like shelves for various aspects of ourselves; we need a few, perhaps many, to display all the wired things we do.
Of course, that means no one service can show our whole self, except About.me.
About.me. Don Draper couldn't come up with a brand that good.
All you need is your favorite picture of yourself. You craft a headline, a paragraph or so of introduction, and a clickable cluster of links to whatever services you want to show to others. That's it. What more do you need?
It's so effortless, people can't help but show their personality on their splash pages. Browsing About.me is a joy, because each page feels like shaking hands with someone new. You get something About them.
At last, we can get an authentic look at a person via the Internet. These loud, colorful, human pages will drive the anonymous trolls of the web's adolescence into the shadows.
Some people complain about narcissism on the web. The web certainly makes it easy for narcissists to gaze at their own reflections. Indeed, an About.me splash page, viewed on a large monitor, can be like staring a person in the face at uncomfortably close range. But what is the source of that discomfort? Is it unsettling for us to see people proud of their identities, their accomplishments, the face they show to the world? If that makes us uncomfortable, I say "good." I dare all of us to gaze at some people and learn something about them.