Too Tough to Die
The staying power of the independent web
It's 2002, and corporate voices on the Web all sing the same song in the same voice (and it goes something like, "Welcome! You've got mail!").
Our Web habits have changed. Recent studies show that we're doing less Web surfing and visiting fewer random sites. Meanwhile, Yahoo recorded 69.5 million unique visitors in December 2001, according to Net Ratings.
Many analysts cite these ratings as portents of an Orwellian future, in which individual and community identity formation is impossible in a landscape of closed possibilities, where there's a Home Depot on every corner.
But this does not take into account one of the defining characteristics of the Web, a characteristic that endures, regardless of boom or bust: It's a participatory medium. On the Internet, anyone with a computer and a connection can contribute, through e-mail, newsgroups, or even Web publishing.
"On the commercial Web there's certainly been a narrowing of voices, because companies have been buying other companies in an attempt to lose less money," says Derek Powazek, publisher of notable indie site Fray.org. "But that's not the independent Web, that's not the interesting Web."
The independent Web comprises Web sites run for some reason other than profit. It provides a forum for expression for individuals or small groups, a place to connect with others, a place to find your niche. And if your niche happens to be a Web site for cheese-racing enthusiasts or the large penis support group (lucky you), you're just not going to find that on MSN.com.
One of the simplest kinds of independent Web site is the weblog (pronounce it "we blog" if you're hip). According to Blogger. com, a weblog, or blog, is "a Web page made up of usually short, frequently updated posts that are arranged chronologically -- like a what's new page or a journal."
All kinds of people blog, from eighth graders to professional journalists. "It's huge now," says Nikolai Nolan, who runs an annual weblog awards, the Bloggies (www.fairvue.com/?feature=awards2002). "There are just thousands and thousands of weblogs, and its hard to keep up with all of them."
With this kind of proliferation, it can be hard to find weblogs that suit your taste -- especially because most of them, from a literary point of view, are worthless crap. But to dismiss blogging because of its sometimes sophomoric content is to miss the point. It's not a spectator sport. You're supposed to make your own blog, and people e-mail you, and then you trade recipes or whatever, and hopefully they're not creepy.
Dori Smith is an author and programmer who publishes a weblog -- Backupbrain.com -- with her husband. She started blogging as a way of keeping a personal record of her Internet research, and was pleasantly surprised when people actually started to read it. "Last fall I was going through some health scares. Rather than writing e-mail to friends and family saying what's going on, I just sent out one broadcast e-mail that said, check the weblog, everything will be there so I only have to do it once. And I was getting e-mail from people I didn't know in New Zealand saying, 'You don't know who I am but thought you might like to know I'm thinking about you.'"
Unlike Smith, many people begin publishing their sites for the express purpose of connecting with others. "[Independent Web sites] are no substitute for love and marriage, but they're very fulfilling, and they're a way to find like-minded people around the world," says Jeffrey Zeldman, co-founder of Independentsday.org. "The Web exists and it enables people to express things they didn't know they needed to express."
For proof, look at Benbrown.com. Before he started his site, Austinite Ben Brown probably didn't know that he needed to show his belly to thousands of strangers. Now, you can see his belly almost every day on The Ben Brown Show, on which Brown offers up a slice of unemployed life in 120 seconds of Quicktime video.
But even for Brown, the Web fills a real need for self-expression. He runs a micropublishing site called Sonewmedia.com, and plans to release four new books of Web writing in time for South by Southwest. "People are narrative by nature," Ben explains. "Dreams are narrative even, and that's just our neurons firing randomly, and our brain weaves it into a story. The Web allows people to do that."
For the first time in history, people have access to a mass medium for telling personal stories, showing their artwork, or whatever else they feel like. The challenge is, it's up to you to navigate it for yourself. As you begin to immerse yourself in the independent Web, you make decisions. Yes, I want to learn more about cheese racing. No, I don't want to watch a video about an unemployed 24-year-old with a potbelly. Yes, I do want to peruse Ruth's hat-related links.
Maybe you discover new interests. Maybe you find new ways of thinking about your world. Maybe you find a really cool hat.
And even if you don't, as Zeldman says, "the independent content producer refuses to die."
The "Independents Day" track runs all day Sunday, March 10. Jeffrey Zeldman will appear on the "Celebrating Independent Content" panel, 10:30am-noon; Dori Smith will appear on the "Creating Awareness and Building a Buzz With Independents" panel, 3:30pm-5.