A year ago, just having a personal Web page was enough — something that set you apart from the rest. After all, you could code in HTML. So you put up a resume, scanned in some cheesy photos, and patted yourself on the back.
Times have changed.
These days, having your own URL is more than something to do that's cool. In your private life, it's a way to express your interests and hobbies. Get into the conversation. Gather knowledge and spread it. In the workplace, it's a way to make sure that you have work. That you're visible. And valuable. A way to further your career and access company resources.
Your personal Web page is each of these alone and all of them together. You are your URL.
Personal Web pages are reportedly the fastest growing phenomenon on the Internet: AOL counts 300,000 personal pages on its server, CompuServe reports 80,000. More importantly, they are gaining in sophistication, depth, texture, personality, and purpose. Unlike commercial Web sites, personal Web pages serve individualized aims, ranging from expressing personal values and political views to creating community and establishing links with like-minded individuals. As a consequence, the ubiquitous measure of Web site success — number of hits — misses the point. "Success is measured by the number of people who consider your page valuable enough to link to it," says Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community. "It's more important to me to get an e-mail that says, 'I saw your page and it changed my life,' than how many hits the page got."
In a Web world where you are your URL, three distinct varieties are beginning to emerge: the personal, the hybrid, and the corporate career-builder.
Meet Sandra Hall. Her job is all about building Web pages — for Orincon Corp., a research and development firm in San Diego. Recently back from a month-long journey to the Arctic, she's busy documenting the activities of a research team sent there to study the oceans.
But the Web page she's devoted to is her own — WebDiva , which has attracted more than 18,000 visitors since October 1995. WebDiva is a collection of links to resources that illustrate Hall's intense interest in African-American heritage — everything from black literature to black-owned businesses, from African newspapers to historical archives. "My Web page allows me to express my political position and my view of life in ways that I would never be able to in my work as a support person for a project," Hall says.
More than just a site where she can post her hobbies and interests, Hall's Web page is a launchpad from which she catapults into life. She used it to organize an investment club where 22 members have pooled their money to invest in stock. Her Web page attracted the attention of an African-American Internet service provider, which offered her the opportunity to host a chat room featuring technology tricks and tips. And she's built a network of cyberfriends she can contact for advice or information through her site. A self-described "information-intensive Internet junkie," Hall is on a mission to empower herself — and others — by using her Web page to publicize her interests, values, and personal priorities.
Work Meets Life
In contrast, Richard Seltzer's home page (http://www.samizdat.com) intentionally blends his personal and professional interests. "People tend to separate their work and personal identities," says the 50-year-old Digital Equipment Corporation employee. "My Web page is a place where I can put both."
For instance, Seltzer's Web site, which has recorded more than 17,000 visits since December 1995, offers an archive of every book he's read in the last 38 years — as well as some of the fiction he's written. You can find the text of his children's book, The Lizard of Oz, which will appear at Christmas as an interactive CD-ROM. Seltzer also posted an original film script about a group of young Vietnam draft dodgers — and heard from a movie producer in Iceland. "Nothing will probably come of that," Seltzer says, " but who ever heard of movie producers in Iceland, and even if you did, how would you ever get in touch with them?"
But Seltzer's home page also integrates his work for Digital. As a marketing consultant in the Internet Business Group, his job is to spread the word about the Net. He uses the contacts he's made on his own home page to stay in touch with what's happening on the Net. His Web site also provides a forum where he can test out new ideas that he may later incorporate into customer presentations.
US West Communications has embraced the idea of personal home pages within its bustling intranet, called the Global Village. The company has just launched an effort to create personal home pages for all of its 50,000 employees. According to Sherman Woo, director of information tools and technologies, the notion that "you are your URL" has both corporate and personal benefits.
For the company, personal home pages are a convenient, cost-effective way to manage vast amounts of information about its employees; for the employee, they are an opportunity to become more visible — and thus more valuable. Several thousand pages are already in place, Woo says, and the benefits are evident. "It's made work more visible, so there's more collaboration. It's helped members of a very lkarge organization make themselves known to one another."
Once US West creates the Web pages, each employee claims his or her own and takes responsibility for updating it. What they post may determine their career path. "People's skills, the fact that they're pursuing a degree on the side in computer auditing, or have a particular interest - that kind of information is useful when managers are looking for someone with the background to solve a problem or participate in a project," says Woo. Eventually, the pages will act as a directory of expertise or "yellow pages," opening up new channels for people to find each other and undermining the strict hierarchy that persists at many companies. "People who have home pages have work," Woo says. "and people who don't, don't have to work."
Sidebar: RULS for URLS
What does it take to make your URL a destination and not a detour?
Web guru Howard Rheingold, whose own home page, Brainstorms
(http://www.well.com/user/hlr), has received more than 70,000 visitors since December 1995, knows. Staged as a virtual jam session for scoping out the future, the site pops with fresh content, including the latest on all things "rheingoldian," reports on the digital zeitgeist, and discussions among the community of "humanist futurists." "It's swallowed my life," says Rheingold happily. Here are his dos and don'ts for keeping house on the Web:
1. Put up pictures of your family and pets. It's the ultimate cliché of the boring Web page.
2. Assume that users know as much about your site as you do. Be sure to provide navigational cues — a table of contents, a site map, or a search feature.
3. Overload your home page with too much information. No more than 40K on the top page. You don't want people downloading all that extraneous stuff to find out what you're all about.
4. Use blink. Blink says, "This is an amateur!" Animated gifs are the new blink. They're flashy and cool — the first time — but they're a dead end.
5. Leave your page untouched for months on end. Stale material labels your site a Ghost Town. Update frequently — at least once a month.
1. Have interesting content. Of course, what's interesting depends on what you're interested in. Whether it's sheepdogs or parallel processing or technology IPOs, there's an opportunity for you to narrowcast your interests and get in touch with people who share them.
2. Remember that usability is more important than visual impact — people have limited bandwidth and limited time. Stay away from those huge online graphics.
3. Include a "mail to." People want to know not just who you are, but how to get in touch. Feedback is everything.
4. Provide fresh links. If you make the effort, the regulars will come back — and they'll bring friends.
5. Try this at home.
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.