Miss manners hits the web

  Norman Mailer published a book of essays called Advertisements for Myself; but now anyone can advertise themselves on the web and it's leading to some awkward social situations. How do you react when a friend puts up a page that is festooned with the online equivalent of fluffy dice? It can be like stumbling on a contact ad for someone you know, though few contact ads contain the entire text of the subject's Who's Who entry - which I have seen with my own eyes on a site this morning. Of course, in a way, all personal web sites are contact ads. I don't mean that people put them up in order to get laid; at least, not the sorts of sites I am thinking of. But they put them up to make themselves look more interesting or important.

It's terribly easy. You can hardly buy a computer nowadays that does not contain the software to let you make a start on a web page; and, like almost all software, it does not make doing a job well any easier, but it makes doing a job badly almost effortless. This accounts for part of the problem: the ugly, unimaginative layouts which dribble off the screen like rolls of fax paper; the use of rainbow-coloured dividing lines; the scanned pictures of the owner's cats. There are millions out there that look like that, and the problem can only get worse because it is so much more fun to write web pages than it is to look at them, so most people have no idea what good ones look like even if they want to imitate them.

It is no easier to lay out a web site well than it is to lay out a magazine well. In some ways, in fact, it is harder because it is less obvious that the material in the different parts of a web site must be as carefully arranged as it is in a magazine. Most people just shovel the first thing they think of at the top and the second somewhere else; then they put in links to everything else they can think of. About three months after the page has gone up, they realise that these links still don't go anywhere, because it's much easier to decide what should go on a site than it is to put it there. It's as if books were published that contained a table of contents, a couple of chapters, and then increasingly random notes until somewhere around chapter eight the pages became completely blank. But the binding would be lovely.

The real problems, however, are not technical at all. The things that make for bad web sites are the same as make for bad books, music, or even journalism: chief among them laziness and vanity. And since the purpose of a personal web site is to advertise yourself without too much effort, these temptations are always close at hand. they have nothing to do with technology. I suppose it is true that computers make it easy for anyone to pose as the head of a major multinational corporation: there is a hilarious example of this on the Archbishop of Canterbury's web site, where he has three different cv's available to curious worshippers, and a photograph of himself at his desk looking every inch the President and CEO of GodCo plc. None the less, as even an Archbishop should know, the existence of temptation is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for yielding to it.

Showing off is a tradition that goes back to the invention of the web, and its early spread among academics. Students show off for fun; teachers, for their livelihoods. A list of publications on an academic web site is something more than simple vanity: it is a justification for the author's existence. In some of the better ones, it is also a resource for passing travellers. By making offprints of papers available for electronic downloading a professor can save himself trouble and spread his ideas.

Something like that was the original idea of the web in 1991 when it was first woven in the laboratories around the CERN particle accelerator in Geneva. But then a gang of student in the American midwest decided to show off and write a program which would show pictures as well as text on web pages, and which would let you move around by mouse. So they wrote a program called Mosaic, and gave it away to show how clever they were. Mosaic begat Netscape, which was even cleverer, and given away in millions of copies. By an even more indirect route it begat Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which was given away in tens of millions of copies, because Bill Gates is even cleverer than you or I. And the consequence was that the web is doubling in size every year, which means that half the people you meet have been there for less than a year, and all of them think it's really clever to put up a personal home page.

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