Web comic xkcd is sporting a fresh redesign Monday morning, paying tribute to the free web-hosting service GeoCities. Yahoo, which bought GeoCities in 1999 for $3.5 billion dollars, is shutting down the service today after ten years of stewardship.
GeoCities was a place anyone could start a website for free. The company sold cheap banner advertising against your content, but that didn’t matter — you finally had a place to post that Melissa Joan Hart fanpage or your fully-annotated Art Alexakis discography.
In the web’s early days, you actually had to know how to author a web page in order to publish anything on the internet. You had to have working knowledge of things like HTML, FTP, GIF and DNS. For people with these new-found skills, a GeoCities page was an essential first step into the web, a rite of passage. Next came the easy authoring tools like Dreamweaver and Blogger, then the social networks like Friendster and MySpace, which let anyone establish a web presence with a few clicks of the mouse. GeoCities, along with other free hosting communities like Angelfire, faded into obscurity.
Many of those early pages survived in all their gaudy, glitzy glory — complete with scrolling banners, animated Gifs and blink tags.
Until Monday, October 26, 2009. Rest in peace, GeoCities.
There’s a particular badge of honor you earn in web culture when you gain a high-profile impostor — Fake Steve Jobs comes immediately to mind.
But Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel and a bona fide hero within the free software community, is so beloved, he’s gained four pretenders.
For the last month, four Fake Linuses have emerged, each one posting 140-character bursts of humor and insight to Twitter and Indenti.ca, a free software alternative to Twitter that’s gained some traction among open source devotees.
All four pranksters are voiced by high-profile individuals within the Linux community, but their real identities have been kept secret by the Linux Foundation. The nonprofit advocacy group is running a contest between the four Fake Linuses. The one who does the best (and funniest) impersonation of Linus will be unmasked publicly and given an award at LinuxCon, which begins Sept. 21 in Portland, Oregon.
Webmonkey scored an exclusive interview with one of the Fake Linuses (FLT#2, we’re told). We communicated over e-mail to ensure the poser’s identity would be kept under wraps.
The real Torvalds, who has remained suspiciously mum about the whole thing, has a reputation for being both genial and bristly in his internet communications — he once famously compared OpenBSD developers to “a bunch of masturbating monkeys.”
Thankfully, we found his doppelganger to be just as audacious.
Webmonkey: You’ve been active on the web since its inception, but you’re new to Twitter. What’s more fulfilling, tweeting or posting to Usenet?
Fake Linus Torvalds #2: That’s hard to say. Usenet attracts a very specific group of people, so my flames hit their targets more directly. On the other hand, Twitter is a larger and more varied group, which means I get more flames from all sorts of folks.
Webmonkey: Have you ever asked for help with the Linux kernel on Twitter? If so, what was the response like?
FLT: Me? Need help with the Linux kernel?? Pfftt…
Webmonkey: As a web service, Twitter is notoriously flaky. Any ideas for improving its stability?
FLT: You mean, besides making it open source? Seriously, with so many people depending on Twitter to get up-to-the-second updates on what their friends are eating and which games they’re playing on company time, we need to get an open source development community involved to make it stable and, um, even geekier.
Webmonkey: What other social networks are you on?
FLT: Identi.ca, of course, because that’s where The True Believers hang out. But, I’m not all that “social,” if you haven’t noticed. I prefer to hang out on the kernel mailing list.
Webmonkey: Do you also only have those accounts because the Linux Foundation makes you?
FLT: Nobody makes me do anything. That’s what so great about this job. I spend many days simply trying to learn Napoleon Dynamite’s dance moves. If [Linux Foundation director] Jim Zemlin weren’t always bragging about his moves, I wouldn’t spend so much time on it.
Webmonkey: Which feels more sacrilegious, Twitter on Android or Identi.ca on the iPhone?
FLT: Hands down: Identi.ca on the iPhone is more sacrilegious. Look at it like this: If you’re using Identi.ca, then you’re open-source-minded and tech-savvy enough to know better. The only reason you bought that iPhone was to look cool.
Webmonkey: How difficult is it to compress a complex insult into a 140-character tweet and still assure yourself OpenBSD developers will be able to understand it?
FLT: The BSD crowd generally has trouble reading anything longer than 140 characters, so tweets work quite well for the purpose of insulting them.
Webmonkey: How do you feel about Richard Stallman’s campaign to have Twitter renamed GNU/Twitter?
FLT: Well, is it any surprise, really? He failed to get Linux renamed as GNU, so now he’s trying for Twitter. If that fails, he’ll go after Apple next. Just keep working his way down the food chain. Maybe someday he’ll realize no sane person wants to name their product after a wildebeest.
Webmonkey: What’s up with that guy who has @linus?
FLT: It’s rather charming. It got a little creepy, though, when I caught him going through the garbage cans behind my house. Funny thing is: A lot of people actually thought he WAS me on Twitter. So now I’m trying to be less predictable: I’ve even thrown a few bugs into Linux, just to keep things fast and loose. The bizarre thing is that Microsoft copied them! Those guys…
Webmonkey: On average, how many direct messages does @jzemlin send you each day?
FLT: These days, I have no idea. I had to block him once I started receiving pointless messages every 10 minutes. “So, whatcha thinking about?” “Just heard this song and I thought of you.” “How come you haven’t responded to my messages?” Yeah, pretty weird.
Webmonkey: What was the message that drove you to finally block him?
FLT: I think the tipping point came when he sent me this DM: “Did you know that ‘Linus’ means ‘love’ in Swahili?” It was then that I realized: this bromance had come to an end. I considered a restraining order, but then I remembered that he cuts my paycheck.
Webmonkey: Why can’t the KDE people just give it up, already?
FLT: I can’t venture to guess. But, legend has it that Matthias Ettrich started KDE because his girlfriend could not use the desktop applications of the time. Who’s he kidding? Matthias knows he’s never had a girlfriend.
Webmonkey: As the story goes, you met your wife over e-mail. Do you think there’s any opportunity for people to find love on Identi.ca or Twitter?
FLT: Thanks to the internet, and services like Identi.ca and Twitter, people can search for love 24/7, without ever leaving their parents’ basement.
Webmonkey: About a month ago, Novafora, the company that acquired Transmeta, ceased operations. As a former Transmeta employee, how do you feel about this — in 140 characters or less?
FLT: Sad to see Novafora and Transmeta disappear, but in Silicon Valley, such is life. Companies come and companies go. Only Linux is forever.
Webmonkey: How do you say “tweet” in Finnish?
FLT:Tyhjiöfluoresenssinäyttö. OK, not really. But all Finnish looks the same, doesn’t it?
Webmonkey: Do Fins tweet much?
FLT: Fins love to tweet! How else can they tell their friends about the 20-pound perch they caught ice fishing, without having to set down their beer or turn down the volume on the heavy metal?
Webmonkey: Does Tux tweet?
FLT: It’s hard to tweet when you have flippers instead of fingers.
Webmonkey: You’ve been gravely injured, and you only have the energy for one status update with which to cry for help. Twitter or Indenti.ca?
FLT: I’d cry for help on my Identi.ca account, which automatically feeds to Facebook and Twitter. Triple my chances for help! Microsoft, don’t get any ideas. You come after me, you’ve got to take the whole Linux community down, too. Ain’t gonna happen, baby!
Disclaimer:Fake Linus Torvalds #2 is not the real Linus Torvalds, and these statements do not reflect the opinions of Linus Torvalds or the Linux Foundation. The identities of all four Fake Linus Torvalds will be revealed on Sep. 21 at LinuxCon. You can vote for your favorite FLT — the one with the most votes will receive the coveted Silver Penguin cocktail shaker at LinuxCon.
Firefox enjoys one the of the fastest upgrade turnarounds in the software world. Typically, Mozilla can boast that about 90 percent of its users will upgrade within a year of major new release. But what about that 10 percent that holds on to its older, potentially insecure browsers?
The Mozilla Blog of Metrics exists largely to answer questions like that and, in the case of the migration from Firefox 2 to 3, it turns out that shame and embarrassment were at the top of the list of reasons for not upgrading.
Firefox 3 introduced the new smart address bar, aka the “Awesome bar”, which significantly changed to the way history and bookmark searches worked in the browser’s URL field. But it turns out that a number of you are heading to websites you don’t want showing up in later searches.
It can be awkward. Imagine you’re interning at Pitchfork and someone sits down at your workstation only to discover you’ve been visiting an ABBA cover band’s MySpace page. Or imagine if Wired.com’s tech team discovered that Webmonkey staffers had hacked all their admin sites to customize their default installations?
Then there’s the porn thing.
The initial version of the awesome bar lacked a good way to selectively control what shows up in your URL bar when you children sit down to do a bit of web browsing. And, clearly, a sizable slice of the Firefox user base was adversely affected by that oversight.
But what’s really interesting is that even though that issue has since been addressed — the URL bar in Firefox 3.5 allows you to choose between searching just history, just bookmarks, both or nothing at all — people still don’t want to upgrade.
Of course, concern about exposing your dirty web browsing secrets isn’t the only reason people won’t upgrade. Head over to the Mozilla Metrics Blog for some other reasons, ranging from the pretty good (web designers who need to test sites in older versions of Firefox) to the deeply confused (“If you say this is free… I have always heard there is really nothing free in this world”).
A black hole is the perfect place for stuff you never want to see again. So Webmonkey is joining Wired.com’s extended black hole party by chucking in some of the worst technologies ever to grace the web’s sleek, well-machined tubes.
This purging project was kicked off by our pals at Wired’s Underwire blog. They were inspired by scientists at the Israel Institute of Technology who, while searching for Hawking radiation, recently created an acoustic black hole using Bose-Einstein condensates. So Underwire jumped on the opportunity to throw five terrible albums into that black hole, never to be heard again. Autopia then launched five atrocious car models into a black hole (the regular kind out in space, of course). Other blogs followed suit — Wired Science chose its worst science writing clichés, Gadget Lab banished its most hideous hardware and Game Life picked five of history’s worst games. This week is our turn.
The web hasn’t been around nearly as long as videogames, the phonograph or the auto industry. But it sure has seen its share of total failures, major annoyances and eyeball-shredding pixelated shitstorms. After consultation with Webmonkey’s staff and key contributors, we’ve come up with a list of the web’s worst offenders.
1.Microsoft Internet Explorer 6
We’re taking care of this one first, and it shouldn’t require much of an argument. One of the most reviled pieces of software on the web or anywhere, IE 6 debuted in 2001 and immediately started causing headaches among web developers and corporate IT staff. It didn’t properly support stylesheets and other web standards, didn’t properly display web graphics and quickly developed a bad reputation for its many security problems. It didn’t help that it shipped with every copy of Windows sold, or that Microsoft didn’t release a significant update until IE 7′s arrival a full six years later.
Maddeningly, something like a fifth of the web’s users are still surfing with IE 6. Some sites, like YouTube and Digg, have even announced they’re going to stop supporting it, hoping collectiveaction can force the blind masses (or their overseers in IT) into upgrading. We’d like to speed things along and offer IE6 a first class ticket into the black hole. Free, no strings.
In theory, MySpace is a great product — the web, after all, was built to encourage communication and community. Some very nice, intelligent people work there. It kick-started the widget craze. And along with Friendster, MySpace is responsible for introducing social networking to the mainstream.
But it’s the other things MySpace introduced that make it worthy of a one-way trip down the throat of Cygnus X-1. Namely: the ease with which anyone (really, anyone) can make a sparkly, spangly, pink unicorn-bedecked profile page with which to punish their friends as if they were their worst enemies; a user interface lifted from a mid-’70s Soviet ATM; those infernal auto-playing music widgets; the spam — Oh, sweet lord, the spam!
To be fair, MySpace did eventually disable the auto-play function of its default music player. But its other sins are too great to overlook.
3.Auto-playing audio/video widgets
Do you think we’re too dumb to figure out how a “Play” button works or something?
4.Drop-down lists in address forms with every country on the planet
These long lists are easily replaceable with a suggest-as-you-type Ajax box, plus some sort of filtering and alert system so you don’t end up accepting bad data. Better yet, how about automatically filling in a choice for the user with your best guess? It’s not too hard to do if you know the person’s IP address. And, using the newly proposed Geolocation API and geo-aware tools within the browser, it’s already possible to do away with the lower half of those address forms in most cases.
Known colloquially as “Acid Green,” this color was once near and dear to our hearts. It was part of the original Hotwired brand’s color scheme, showing up as an accent color in older designs of Wired News and Webmonkey, and even playing a primary role in the design of Wired’s old search engine, HotBot.
But you know what? The web-safe color palette is dead. We’ve moved on to more pleasant tones that don’t remind us of 1998 — or the morning after that party where we mistakenly downed about 16 Midori Sours.
6.The <blink> tag
Yeah, it’s officially deprecated, and most browsers just ignore it. But we’d prefer to pretend it never existed in the first place. Goodbye. If we have room, we’ll send <marquee> along to keep it company.
The supposed goal of this forgotten product was to rival Craigslist by letting people enter database information directly into Google’s brain. But Google Base came off as too esoteric a vision worth doing at all. With no real interface and poor support, it ended up being totally impractical. We don’t think the guy who originally said “All your base are belong to us” got what he wanted, either.
Animated GIFs in particular, but also spacer GIFs and crufty, pixelized raster image GIFs that should really be JPEGs anyway. It’s the 21st century, we have PNGs now (and we already tossed IE6, so they should show up properly). Let’s do away with this nonsense and send the file format where it belongs — down the black hole. Or, at the very least, donate it to the world of retro-kitch art.
Black hole illustration: ESA/NASA, the AVO project and Paolo Padovani