Building a Home on the Web

By Paul O'Brien

I find myself faced with a serious consideration: How do I want to design my home? Lucky for me, this home is free because it's just my homepage. But is it really just a homepage? Sure, you're not going to live in it, but it's going to have many visitors (hopefully). That means it has to be presentable and clean. More than that, you want to feel satisfied with the look and the content of the place; you want it to be worth someone's while to swing by. When they come to my homepage, for instance, I want it to be a reflection of me... which raises interesting questions about just what a person is and what really expresses their true self.

With so many choices available to me, I wonder what really belongs on a homepage. Should there be a picture of myself? No, a face doesn't really represent a person very well, at least not by itself. I would love to create a whole ambience and style to the page so that the visit is a real experience, not just some boring connection. But what ambience would be appropriate? Something relaxing and comfortable? Something quirky, silly, and fun? I'm tempted to opt for something more moody, something dark, intriguing, and sophisticated. (Now, already, what does that say about how I want to appear to others?)

Before ironing out the details of that, I have to wonder, what kind of content can I offer on my homepage? Well, a good start would be to link it to my articles here on the Neural Surfer. Still, there is more to my life than atheism and philosophy (and silly reflections about the internet, for that matter). What else then? No personal data, of course, but maybe I could leave a story or two, maybe some poetry of mine. Still, even that seems too personal. I find myself torn between seeming too dry with my philosophical writings alone, and being too exposed with more personal interests of mine... which is not altogether much different than how I feel in real life, to be honest.

A homepage can also have many links, which is handy. I could link myself to the homepages of friends of mine, first of all. Moreover, a nice list of my favorite sites would also be useful for myself and reflective of my interests. Of course, I'm a little new to which sites are good and which are bad --I'm just testing the waters, still-- but in time, I think I could find appropriate connections. Still... mere links are dissatisfying too. Why would people want to come to you just to be referred to somewhere else? Why bother? I want there to be something about the page itself that makes people content to visit, not just because it's linked to something else. Ironically, I want the same thing to be true when people regard me in person, too.

Now I'm realizing that creating a homepage is just figuring out how you want people to regard you. You want it to be respectful, but not boring; personal, but not too personal or self-centered. You hope it's useful to some people, but also fun to go to just for its own sake. Ideally, I hope for all these things, but the details are so difficult to design, I really don't know.

So I figure that the best way to help myself figure out what to do is to see how other people have designed their homepages. Keeping my eyes open, I begin to surf, hitting topics of interest and following my whims from link to link. Along the way, I visit the homepages of some friends of mine. All they have are links, though; some have little bios of themselves and little pictures. I wonder what that says about them. I know they're more than just links, but they're too busy with other work to develop the page further. I wonder if there are times when I become too busy with work myself and forget to stay approachable and friendly. I click the mouse and surf away.

Many pages that you visit have incredible imagery, simply beautiful (though it takes way too long to download). When you scroll down through the page, though, you realize it's not much better than other homepages. It has links and little tidbits here and there, little more. It's just an ordinary site that's dressed up very nicely... which is like a lot of people you meet on the street, actually.

Surfing on, I reach some truly interesting sites that contain on- line books, reference sources, and specialized information. I find obscure song lyrics on one page, a rare interview on another, and extremely rare guitar tablature for a song I love. Happily, I print the material, but then wonder: why am I printing this and not the pretty pictures I saw before? Well, because the information means more to me than the images. That told me something, too: content is greater than style. Still, some of these pages had great material, but I would never want to go back. There was no experience or atmosphere, really.

Then I hit something I didn't expect. I go to a Sandman website (after all, I'm a fan) and find a remarkably drawn picture with the words "Heart of the Dreaming" in the middle. Intrigued, I click on the words and am led to a poem and an image of a map. Clicking on places on this map, I go to various sites related to the comic, but with original art, stories, and obscure material all provided. I'm guided through various locations by characters from the Sandman comic, and I can't help but smile... it's a wondrous sight and a wonderful site.

It donned on me that that's how a website ought to be: creative, original, and interesting, first of all. But beyond that, you could just tell that the designer was being very personal with her work and interests; there was an honesty that made me feel welcome and comfortable. Why, then, can't I make a homepage like that? What's the harm with being honest? It's something we usually enjoy in others, and something we always wish for. But having the opportunity is somewhat frightening too. I know that most people won't give a damn one way or the other (because most will have no reason to come to my homepage), but still there's something in me, maybe in all of us, that resists being open, being exposed.

Torn as it makes me, I make my decision. I can't worry about the critics, really; only the considerate visitors will matter to me. I'm going to try to give them an enjoyable stay, then, even if it is only ten seconds of passing through. I'm going to offer more personal material of mine, some creative works, but only in the hopes that it will make people feel as comfortable as I felt on that page I visited. Maybe some people will even enjoy what they read, who knows? Just so long as I am satisfied, everything will be fine.

I can't help thinking that making a homepage is uncannily close to living one's life. And for those who would say, "oh, you're thinking too much, overanalyzing something as simple as a homepage," I can only wonder how that opinion might reflect how many people conduct their lives as well. More and more, I'm convinced that the internet really is an extension of ourselves; I can only hope people become more conscious of that fact and treat their new homes accordingly.

As for me, I've got a home to build.

Let me know what you think... By the way, check out the Heart of the Dreaming for yourself...