Tuesday, October 20th, 1998
Looking back, there are only a few things I remember about that day – flashes, really, like one of those old carousel slide projectors throwing images on a screen. In so many ways, it seems like it could have just been a couple months ago – and in so many others, so far back that it could have happened to another person or another life.
I was working full-time as a contract programmer, consulting at a Fortune 500 corporation in northern New Jersey. The job had become a little slow at the end of the summer (which meant that fourteen-hour days had become ten-hour days) because the company was grinding its way towards being acquired by another company, and a lot of development work had been put on hold. Despite that, the higher-ups in the corporation didn’t want to let any of the consultants go, in case they were needed. I had been writing finance and sales reporting software – things that are important in an acquisition or merger, so I was kept on.
In any case, I found myself with some spare time in my day, a bullpen-style cubicle, and an Internet connection (which was fairly unusual then in a corporate environment, but I needed it for the work I was doing). I don’t remember how I found the first one – I was messing around with search engines (there was a new one called Google that was pretty good, and I was playing around with it to see what it could do). So I came across something that I didn’t even know existed – a web journal.
I’ll always remember that first journal – it was by a young man from the South (Alabama or Louisiana, I think) who had been involved in a drunken driving incident and had skipped town with an arrest warrant hanging over his head. He was nineteen or twenty, and had moved West to escape his legal troubles, living out of his car as he went. I caught up with his story as he was living on a ranch in Colorado (?), working under an assumed name as a ranchhand in a place where people didn’t ask a lot of questions. It was all so different from the kind of life I was living, and his descriptions were so lush and insightful – it sucked me right in, and I read along for several weeks. Having discovered that this sort of journal existed, I went looking for others – and found that there was a small, extremely diverse group of maybe one or two hundred people that were keeping diaries online. I spent quite a bit of time in my cubicle cruising around the web, finding more of these journals and reading more about people’s lives.
Just like today, some of the journals were brilliant, and some were inane – but they all had what was then a unique quality – they were real stories (mostly) about real people. Remember, this was before “reality” TV and way before the word “blog” had been invented. The idea of posting your life online was beyond highly unusual – 99% of people would think you were downright crazy for doing it.
The experience I had as a reader and searcher of journals in those weeks provided the seed of the idea that would soon become Open Diary. I found myself returning to the same small handful of journals every day, checking back to see what had happened in the person’s life. It was like a soap opera, but better – because it was stuff that was really happening to people, not some prefab drivel. However, keeping up with each of them was difficult, because they were scattered all over the web, and also because they were all completely different. To keep a web journal then, you had to create your own pages in HTML and have your own webspace to post them on. This meant that the structure and navigation of every journal was completely different, and finding your way around was inconvenient.
It seemed to me at the time that if I was drawn back to these journals to read day after day, that other people might feel the same way. But if I could make finding those journals and navigating them somehow easier, it might be something that would be useful to those same people. I had also always been somewhat of a writer (of one sort or another, journalism, stories, etc. – but never turned pro) and I could see that the mechanisms for creating a web journal were beyond what an average person was going to be willing or able to do. In 1998, a normal person was not going to go out and get webspace and write HTML just to post their diary online – as a result, the only people who were doing it were a pretty exclusive group of web-savvy young adults.
I figured that if I could create a website where it was easy for people to come and type journal entries into a screen and save them, and easy for other people to come and find them, it might be useful – at least to me. I thought about it for a few days, and then presented the idea to my wife over lunch – she was wonderfully supportive, and encouraged me to go ahead with it. At that point, I was renting a small amount of server space for some other projects I was working on, and it wasn’t going to cost anything to get started other than the time involved.
I spent a couple weeks coding at night, creating the core of what would become Open Diary. It was pretty simple then – you could write your entry and save it, change the front page of your diary, and there was an index of member names. That was about it. There was no changing fonts or colors on your diary, no searching, no circles or boards or theme of the week, no reader’s or Editor’s choice, not even any notes. In my mind, it’s like that old Ford tractor my grandpa used to have on his farm – a hard steel seat with a steering wheel and a shifter handle – bare bones. The original code was simple and small – a couple thousand lines of programming, finished and tested in about three weeks.
I can’t remember how I came up with the name “Open Diary” – it seems obvious now, but I can’t remember ever saying, “AHA, that’s the name!” In any case, I purchased the domain in early October 1998 and got all the code on the server and tested it. On October 20th, I went to work at my regular job, and put some finishing touches on the code during the workday. When I came home, I told my wife that the site was ready to be turned on (my kids didn’t really “get” the Internet then – they were less than teens, and at that time, there were few kids on it). I had all the code online, so I connected to the server and uploaded the “final” version of the front page – making the site available to the public. Even then, there was a column for the latest entries down the right side of the front page – so I knew I would see it if anybody came and posted anything. After hitting Refresh a couple times and seeing nothing happen (I’m sure I didn’t expect anything at the time), I went and had dinner with my family.
After dinner, I came back to my desk and hit Refresh a few more times – still nothing. I sat down and typed a short entry – the first entry ever posted on OD. It was quick, because I had other things to do, and has since been lost to cyber-heaven (if you would like to see the “real” entry that I posted over it the next day, it’s here). I don’t remember exactly what it said, but I think it was approximately, “Having created this site, I have now put it online and am waiting anxiously to see what will happen”. Or something like that. It showed up on the front page, and I went off to do kid and family things. I checked a couple more times during the evening, and there my entry remained on the front page, all alone. The kids went to bed, and after awhile I sat down at my desk to make some changes to the OD front page – I didn’t like how it was displaying my entry, or something like that. I was changing and uploading, changing and uploading, and refreshing the front page, and suddenly – sometime after midnight – a second entry appeared. I didn’t believe it right away – I remember sitting in our quiet, dark house and feeling that first thrill as I realized somebody else was using what I had created.
That first author and first entry are long gone – it was actually pretty short, as I remember, and not particularly insightful – mostly “hey what is this thing, and is there anybody here?”. But it was from a young man in another state, and I felt a little bit of the magic that would become OD right then – people communicating in a way that weren’t before. I went to bed that night feeling great – I thought at the time that if we were lucky, we might even have one or two hundred members in a few months. I clearly remember telling my wife that if I had a thousand members after a year, I would be very happy (and we weren’t even thinking yet about whether or not this was something that could ever make money or pay for itself).
I got up on Wednesday morning, and checked the site before going to work. There were two more new members, I was amazed to see. Even more surprising, I saw that one of them was a woman, an American expatriate writing from the United Arab Emirates. I felt the magic of OD a bit more, as it expanded the boundaries of my world. I went to work glad, with four entries on the front page – and was even happier to see later that day that two of the people actually came back and posted again. It was that afternoon that I wrote the entry linked above, since I felt like there might actually be people reading my diary now, and I should probably say something that was worth reading.
That’s all for the ancient history lesson today. I’m going to add some more about that first week of OD when I have more time later this week, and we are going to kick off a month-long celebration of OD’s tenth birthday. More about that later, as well.
For now, I do want to say this – ten years ago, I never could have dreamed or imagined what this site would become. That so many people would come here and make OD a part of their lives is extraordinary to me, and I owe all of the thanks and gratitude to all of you. It is the people that live here that make this community what it is – I have always believed that OD is a unique and wonderful place, unlike anywhere else in the world. That is not because of the shell I provided, but because of the hundreds of thousands of people who moved in here and made it their home. Without each and every one of you, the OD story would have been a short and pointless one. Instead, we have an unbelievably rich and textured living village, woven from the threads of all of your lives.
I thank you all, so much.