Search Engines: Second site Up close and personal

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PERSONAL homepages are the last major folk art form to emerge this century. Naive, confiding and garish, they now make up the downhome neighbourhood of the Net, pulling ever further away from the sophistication of technique and design of the professional Web.

They are also a form of expression without any real precedent. Individuals and families are able to publish presentations of themselves to an international audience, using words, images, colours and sounds, without any external editorial control beyond the terms of their Internet service. Their homepage designs make the kinds of statements made by the decor of their real homes, but in public.

Manchester-based artist Nick Crowe has explored the personal homepage phenomenon in a project called The Citizens, recently published on the Web. During 1997, Crowe looked at about 1,000 sites, and chose 15 for his compilation. He traced the pages into line drawings, scanned them, restored some of the original links, and collated them within a format that resembles a Web browser.

The drawings were bound into a single volume, while the electronic version has been multiplied into a "limited edition" of 1,000 copies. This is a bit of a play on conventional art publication since, unlike limited edition books, any of the electronic copies can be duplicated once they have been downloaded. And, in the spirit of the Net, they are free.

The purpose of using fine-art processes is "to point up what is interesting about these Web pages" and Crowe believes that his technique encourages viewers to read rather than browse the pages. He is disposed towards simple pages, rather than the mood music playing extravaganzas that are the acme of the form (the point of those would be lost in the translation to line drawings anyway).

Several examples are minimal displays in an off-the-peg format. The Anvaripour family's page contains a photo of four people, their names, and an e-mail link labelled "Questions?" It would be hard to know where to begin. These simple pages form a baseline for the sites that Crowe finds most intriguing, in which revelations or hints of deep emotion are embedded in the pleasantries. "Welcome to Ron and Nancy Cutler's World" begins with a short text extolling the leisure facilities of Edmonton, Alberta. It concludes with the information that Ron is a union official, while Nancy is looking for work and keeping active with step aerobics. In between is a group of photos taken around 1974 showing the couple with a small girl. The Cutlers want information about her, saying only that her name is Anne Francis. There is not a word about their relationship with her.

"Ryan and Ralph's Newsletter" makes their situation pitifully clear. The boys are four and two years old; their parents have written their pages on their behalf. In the case of Ralph, this involves giving him a voice which it is uncertain he will acquire in real life: "I'm just an ordinary toddler. The only problem is that I don't talk. Doctors have said that I might be Autistic." Ryan describes his epileptic fits: "I am often angry, and don't concentrate well."

Crowe gives no links to Ryan and Ralph's original site. In other cases, it is possible to click through the drawing, as it were, and see how the people who created the pages have changed in the two years since the drawings were made. One of them has put on an awful lot of weight, remarks Crowe, who watched the lives of his homepage authors unfold as he worked on the project.

Personal homepages don't seem to have changed much as a genre. They still use basic hypertext language, while professional designers now have skills beyond all but the most dedicated amateurs. Crowe points out that the professionals have also abandoned the ideal of intensive linking envisaged by the Web's scientific devisers. Personal homepages "still use hypertext the way it was meant to be used".

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