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It All Started with GeoCities

How did I get my start with coding? You might think it’s because both of my parents worked as computer programmers. That was almost certainly why I had a computer as a small child, but I never had an urge to follow in their footsteps. As a child and teen I was more interested in learning natural languages and ballet than how to program.

But around 1997, after we got AOL service, I discovered GeoCities. They had neighborhoods! Your website wasn’t floating out in cyberspace by itself; you got to pick a virtual community. Plus, one of my friends had one. I decided to move into the EnchantedForest neighborhood.

From the beginning, I was aware of this tool they called the Advanced Editor. I think the word “advanced” caught my attention. It was like a challenge. I’m smart; I can master this thing! The advanced editor was just a box for entering HTML (not that I had a firm grasp on what that was at the time) with some links to outside resources.

So I started learning. My favorite guide was Lissa Explains it All (possibly because it seemed to be named after one of my favorite shows from several years earlier). And this was one of the early results:

Yes, those horizontal rules are raindows. Fancy coding, right?

– Yes, those horizontal rules are rainbows. Fancy coding, right? –

I even had a blog, which I coded by hand. As I started meeting other young website creators, hand-coding your website with a blog was like a badge of honor. It was a must. We didn’t know anything about PHP or databases back then. After a few years, we even started microblogging (not that we called it that!) by creating a little space on our home page for shorter updates.

For us, it wasn’t about becoming savvy developers and learning the latest languages. And it certainly wasn’t about creating a brand or a look for ourselves. We showed off our creativity and skills by putting up a completely new design every few months. We pushed each other by adding new features and design elements. We created cliques by joining exclusive peer-reviewed website listings and having our sites hosted by our nearest and dearest designer friends. I spent hours wandering through the CSS Zen Garden.

I didn’t remember to save all of my designs, but I did take screenshots of some of them:

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But then the age of databases and templates came along, and instead of adapting my skills I dropped out. It’s true: I think WordPress killed my community. (Just kidding! I think it was Moveable Type.) The best websites weren’t about carefully designed and hand-coded HTML/CSS anymore. Suddenly you needed PHP and themes and backend user interfaces, and I didn’t want to be a part of that. So I took a break.

Thankfully, I didn’t run away entirely. I tinkered with other platforms and eventually created a blog. Then I downloaded and installed it locally. Modified the CSS, eventually peeked at the PHP. I still only know enough PHP to make a child theme, maybe modify a few functions here and there, but I am learning. There is so much power behind these platforms, and they offer something for everyone from a total novice with no understanding of HTML to the most advanced developers. I love that.

And something about my familiarity with web development makes other formal languages like Python seem not so foreign, not so intimidating. Understanding how inheritance works in Object Oriented Programming isn’t so strange when you have dealt with CSS inheritance for years (although I understand it can be confusing to go the other direction). And it seems almost too easy to tell a program what to do when there’s only one way to execute your code — I’m looking at you, Internet Explorer. I don’t think I would have meandered into programming without my start in creating websites.

So before I go, let me pause and have a moment of silence for my dearly departed GeoCities. May you live on forever in the Internet Archive.


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Happiness Engineer for Automattic, the company behind Linguaphile and Translator. Tester.