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From the Undergrad overline

Our Web Sites, Ourselves
Personal home pages tell us a lot about each other -- and ourselves.
By Jon Kaufthal

 

MY DOG HAS HER OWN HOME PAGE. But wait ... I can explain everything.
   Well, sort of.
   You see, when I got to Penn three years ago, I knew more about the Web than most -- which was not all that much. Since Penn offered free space for me to create a page, I began to play around. Within a month, I had a mediocre home page with links to some of my favorite sites and other goodies. Over time, my page, an ongoing project, has grown in both size and quality. While my site (http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~jkauftha/) may not be much compared to its professional counterparts, it's not bad for something I work on strictly as a hobby.
   And I'm not alone. In addition to the "official" University or department-maintained pages, Penn's Web servers are packed with the personal home pages of students, faculty, and staff. Topics range from design tips to rock lyrics to the run-of-the-mill autobiographical missive -- not to mention a very popular homage to supermodel Niki Taylor. For a tour of some of the more popular home pages of College (but not, unfortunately, Engineering or Wharton) students, check out http://www.sas.upenn.edu/ ~shuque/web/tophits.html.
   Why all the fuss? Well, for better or for worse, the Web makes a great soapbox. You can post your views on life, death, and love -- or maybe just photos of yourself with friends. The typical student home page might have some personal information, links to favorite sites and to friends' pages, and a résumé. Sounds boring, but you can learn a lot about a person that way. Sociologists could probably construct an elaborate model of Penn's social circles based on the complex matrix of whose pages are linked to whose.
   Personal pages aren't just for their visitors, either. Creating a home page is more an exercise in self-reflection than in technical learning. Understanding the system of tags that make up HTML, the lingua franca of the Web, isn't especially difficult. What is more challenging is creating a coherent portrait of oneself. A résumé might be easy enough to throw together, but deciding how to present yourself takes some thought -- and even if you don't have your "life story" as such on the Web, your site is necessarily a self-portrait. Do you want it to convey the same things to friends from school and from home? How about to total strangers? Your fifth-grade teacher who stumbles onto your page (and mine has)? What about potential (or current) employers?
   Though I, for one, hope to be unique enough to defy trivial categorization ("How would your friends describe you?" ranks among my all-time least-favorite interview questions), explaining yourself to the world makes you think a bit about what defines you as you. And come to think of it, that question is probably worth spending more time on than the 10 minutes between your Economics and Calculus classes, anyway.
   But why the Web? Why not write poetry, paint, or become a rock star? Go ahead, by all means! There's nothing magical about the Web, it's just one of many powerful tools available to us. In reality, many create a home page for reasons no more profound than the one George Mallory climbed Everest for: because it was there. The Web is not the answer to all of life's problems, but there are lots of things it does well. One thing that makes it unique is that it helps to level the playing field. A student with a bit of free time can post a page that is viewable from anywhere in the world just as easily as CNN can. And though Ted Turner may have a few more people on staff than the average college student, even a technophobe can learn to put a basic page up in a couple of hours.
   Of course, even though anyone can see your page, there's no telling whether anyone actually will see it. But if you've got interesting content, or at least keywords -- maybe nothing more than your high school or hometown -- that get searched for occasionally, and if others link to your page, people will see your work: I get an e-mail almost each week from a stranger who has come across my page. Figuring out how they got to you is half the fun.
   So maybe this whole Web thing does have some potential, but making a page for your dog? Well, what can I say? We had just gotten her, and in a moment of weakness I scanned in a couple of photos. The funny thing is, my friends and family got a real kick out of seeing her (and hearing her bark!) on-line. And while my Shih Tzu's page probably won't overtake CNN.com anytime soon, all the other dogs on the block are jealous. At least that's what they write in their e-mail.


Jon Kaufthal, C'99, is a senior economics and PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) major from New York City. He is 34th Street's technology editor and a freelance contributor for Wired and PC Magazine.
   

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