Never Say Die

Bytes and Pieces Live on in AfterLife

You will die, that much is certain. But now, if AfterLife has its way, your virtual doppelgänger, the personal home page, will survive.

Headed by longtime industry writer and consultant David Blatner, the Seattle-based organization first floated the idea of what amounts to virtual cryonics—long-term Web site maintenance—a year ago. Point of Presence, an Internet service provider for small businesses, has donated the server space and bandwidth for the nonprofit project and grant money's been applied for. Now, with the help of some other volunteers and propelled by the glut of free Web page providers and the inevitability of death, AfterLife is poised to take off.

It all began with Irv Thomas. A latecomer to the wonderful world of the Web, the 71-year-old has spent the last three years posting his life's work onto his University of Washington Web site (practically free from the school as long as he takes one class a quarter). Like millions of other computer users, he found an outlet in this medium when traditional ones didn't cut it. Fear of the future prompted him to ask his friend Blatner to look after the site after his death—which, to anyone's knowledge, won't be anytime soon. "When you get this age, you start thinking about eventualities," he wryly notes.

That request was the genesis of AfterLife. As Blatner explains, "This man had put several years of work into his Web site, and it has become an archive of his life's musings and beliefs. He felt (and feels) strongly that this material should remain available to people after he is no longer around to share it."

AfterLife, Blatner says, will preserve the vitality of the virtual present even after it's become the past. "History has always been dates and events for me, not real life and real people. AfterLife is an outgrowth of that discrepancy and how these Web sites become living history."

For his part, Irv Thomas thinks his site (www.weber.u.washington.edu/~irvthom/ Realhome.html) is one folks should know about, even if he's not around anymore. "The material on it would stand or fall on its own merit in 50 years," he says, "and that's fine with me."

The same could be said by a lot of folks. Whether motivated by egomania or just good ideas, the veritable deluge of candidly shared personal reflections found
only online are unique, ethereal oral histories, like it or not.

Blatner says he's received hundreds of e-mails since he introduced the idea last fall, ranging from "the totally wacko (i.e., virtual immortality and cyber cryonics) to the opposite (someone who's written that their best friend has just died and they want to save their Web site.)"

The group hasn't accepted any sites yet, since it's still in the start-up stage, but Blatner hints at criteria to determine which sites will live on. "The things I'm personally most interested in are sites that are some sort of personal creative expression, artistically or through words."

But keep your pants on, Cyberslut. "We're not interested in porn," he says. "It's not a legal issue or a matter of censure, but it's not going to be of interest, since I'm sure it's always going to be around. What we want to capture is a person's individuality at that time."

 One thing's for sure: The home page market is booming. Tripod claims that more than 7 million html documents are out there among their 2.4 million members. And, according to Cyber Dialogue, an online market research company, more than 43 percent of the 53.5 million people in the U.S. who use the Net have either built a personal home page or are interested in the prospect.

At theglobe.com, they've hit gold, raking in $97 million when their stock went public on November 13. The New York Post reported that "Analysts said it was the hottest sale of an initial public stock offering in U.S. history." Cofounders and CEOs Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman trace the popularity of home pages to the fact that "for the first time ever, the media of the Internet allow users to say something. It's the idea of letting users say what they're thinking." Plus, says Paternot, "Everyone wants to be someone in the world. Everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame."

AfterLife might be a nonprofit, but these businesses certainly aren't. With all these free home pages, where does the
money come from? It's kind of like a free newspaper—advertising. All the companies interviewed stressed the importance of feedback tools in hooking the interest of members, who in turn whip up more traffic for their providers, which leads to more money for their advertising sponsors.

Theglobe.com advocates a Darwinian approach to whether or not a site survives. Paternot says,"since it's so cheap to be a host, we leave it up." Those that get more traffic stay afloat while those that don't languish in cyberpurgatory. Paternot says much of it has to do with what's hot. Diana last year, Monica this year. "What we don't do is purge the sites."

Neither does Tripod. VP Margaret Gould Stewart says that home page elimination is something they don't take lightly. What they call "poking" means that "instead of batch-deleting them, we occasionally send e-mail to gently remind them there are new opportunities for page-building."

Unlike Tripod and theglobe.com, AOL charges members for pages; the company recently introduced Hometown AOL, a new environment for viewing pages, with over 300 community-level interest areas. Just another project intent on cashing in on the phenomenon of mainstreaming Internet users in that AOL now allows nonmembers to take advantage of its tools. It's part of the industry's campaign to make even the most rabid technophobe a Web site guru.

These companies knew from the get-go that the real business was hooking the newbies to whom home page–building was intriguing but daunting. To that end, Tripod just upped the ante with Homepage Studio, a one-stop do-it-yourself online kit that helps old and new builders enhance their sites, also appealing to the rising wave of entrepreneurs tagging associate programs onto their pages.

With the ease of personal publishing, maybe people will be able to extend their 15 minutes ad infinitum.

Blatner is hopeful. "We're in the middle of two revolutions. One is that almost anyone who has access to the Internet can publish. Secondly, for the first time in history you can actually hold on to information without any degradation." There's no page like home.


Signal and Noise

  

  • Samizdat.com: Every December 1, New York arts group Creative Time stages a "Web action" for the Day Without Art, in observance of World AIDS Day; this year, they've tapped the Net's design gurus to create site banners for the general public to download. If Web designers aren't known for their politics, this is stark (and welcome) evidence to the contrary. Lance Arthur (glassdog.com) created his for his friend Brian who is HIV+; Derek Powazek (fray.com, kvetch.com) made his because "the politicians who refuse to fund [needle exchange] programs are killers." Leslie Harpold (smug.com), Alison Cornyn and Sue Johnson (www.picture-projects.com), and others have cooked up their own, but the standout is word.com's Yoshi Sodeoka's over-the-top animation: a female samurai, with sword unsheathed, who holds up a condom and winks. To browse the selection or join, check www.creativetime.org/dwa/98/ banners1pre.html...

  • Junkemail: Just when you thought davidbowie.com was headed for extinction, now—for those fans who can't stand to go unbranded—you can get free e-mail accounts at depechemodemail.com and garbagemail.com, courtesy of Electric Artists. At the bands' sites, "users can view, reply to, forward, move, delete, and create new e-mail messages," says the EA press release. Unfortunately, the software can't get them a life. —Austin Bunn
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