Verevolf

CSotD

This is the story of Cool Site of the Day during my time as its creator and operator.

It’s pronounced see-SOUGHT-dee.  Heather Champ decided that, and it sounded good to me.  I am, of course, talking about Cool Site of the Day, a thing I both loved when I ran it, and hated after I left. 

You know how a child will run around wanting to show you all the really neat things they’ve discovered?  That’s always been me.  When I see something I really like, I want to share it.

So there I was in heaven.  I had my obsession with the web going full blast, access to it both at home and at the office, where I was the de facto webmaster.  And there I was running around the office showing people the cool things I had found.

I know you’ve probably heard the next part.  The origins of CSotD were always asked in interviews.  It’s time for me to talk about more than just the basics.

Tom Manos, head of InfiNet, said “Wouldn’t it be great if you had a place to show everyone all the cool things you find?”

I mean, challenge accepted.  I went back to my office and created Cool Site of the Day.  Then I came back to talk about it.  I really expected he wouldn’t let me run with it, but he did.  But InfiNet was very specific in that I had to make it very clear that CSotD was entirely my work and not associated with InfiNet.

And so my name was on it very the very beginning.  Branding for the win, right?  They said I could have the site as long as I kept them out of it.  So the initial URL for CSotD was infi.net/cool.html.  Later it would become http://cool.infi.net, but for now, it’s what I had.

I was also one of the system administrators.  You may have figured that out by my reconfiguring their telecom gear, as in the last article.  I’d never been a sysadmin before, but I learn fast.

So, Cool Site of the Day started as two files.  One, the cool.html was the daily site pick.  The other was the archives of all the past sites.  At first, I would manually change the two files, and depending on how tired I was, was how close to midnight the files changed.

I soon put that into a crontab.  A crontab is a table of processes that happen at a certain time.  So now I changed backup copies of the files and they would be moved at midnight.  Isn’t technology great?  Oh, yeah, this is also how the alarms on your phone work, crontabs.

Six days after the site launched, www.announce processed my announcement and traffic started trickling in.

So when I launched it, August 4, 1994, the web was grey.  Literally.  There is no archive of the net prior to 1996 so most of the designs are lost.  Not that many of them were great designs. The link on the initial site was a picture I took off a stock art CD I had of a mountain scene from the Himalayas.  A few weeks later the man who took the picture would write me saying how excited he was to see one of his photos used.

Another email I was sent was really a statement of the times and how new the web was.  A man wrote to tell me that the site wasn’t changing, it was just the same picture every day.

In 1994 the web was little more than potential.  Oh what potential though. 

The beginnings were all about showing that potential.  They were the things I found cool that people were doing on the web.  Now any one of these things were interesting in some way or another, but it was the possibilities you could achieve when you combined them all.  That was the potential that held me in thrall.

So while I was struggling to use transparent GIF images to make a peanut appear to blend into a grey background for a very early online store, The Virginia Peanut Company, my audience was growing.

If you only had a few minutes to take a look at something new on this cool new web thing, you needed a filter.  If the filter was daily, better yet.

I was daily.  I was seven days a week, 365 days a year.  I took no holiday off.  Like they wrote in Suck, I was nothing but a goddam link.  But people liked what I found them and I liked looking for them.

I looked at a lot of websites.  Some days I’d find something right away.  On others, I’d be long into the night looking for the next Cool Site of the Day.  It really was daily.  The site was never selected any more than 24 hours in advance.  You find something, you stop looking, right?  So I’d stop looking until the next day.  

Looking meant I was finding lots of things to see still.  It was never ending.  But it was also educational because I would examine the source code of things I liked, in order to learn how to do them myself.  All of my HTML and Javascript skills came from looking at the code of others.  Copy, modify, see how my changes affected the code.  This is how I learn many things.  I learn by doing and observing.

In those days the web was easier to learn. It was downright simple.

All web browsers had an option to view to source code for the page you are on.  Go ahead and try it now.  If you do, today you’ll see a lot of confusing code and you really won’t be able to tell what’s going on very easily. It was very easy back in the days of a more open web.

Viewing the source was the major source of knowledge for myself and many beginning web developers then.  Cut and paste, tweak the code, put our own graphics in.  Standard Operating Procedure.  Later I would document special code of my own and tell people to steal it as well as teach them how to use it.  But that was still in the future.

Once the web became more designable, my focus turned in part to their designs.  Later I would say “A great website is one that works well for its intended audience and does so with elegance and style.”  That was my criteria long before I was able to express it.

Before we go much further, we need to talk about how I examine design, and it’s related to how my neurodivergent brain processes visual information.

When I was a little boy in the 1960’s there was little entertainment available, mostly books.  So sometimes when I was bored I’d grab one of our cheap grocery store special encyclopedias and lay in the floor paging through it.  I’d read some articles again and again, and in the end I had read the set several times, every article.

There was one picture, just one, that when I would see it it would make my brain feel crinkly and spiky.  Even thinking about it now does that.  I realize how strange that sounds and I never gave that image much thought again until recently, when reevaluating my life after learning of my autism.

For years though I’ve spoken to a few people about an emotion I call Bonitas, from the Spanish word for Beautiful.

There is evidence to suggest that animals as well as people experience this.  Global studies of human reaction to art have found that people respond most favorably to works that include woodland cover, grasslands, wildlife, and water.  The same things other predators look for in their hunting grounds.  We look at these places, and they feel good. Even to people who have lived their lives in cities and never seen these things.  So, bonitas.

As an autistic person I have a more limited set of emotional responses.  I don’t have the emotional range you do.  I can’t perform a 1 to 1 correlation of my emotions to yours.  Bonitas, however, is something I experience.

As design became more and more prevalent on the web, I was more and more able to quickly judge the front page of any website.  As the web evolved my criteria for selection evolved as well.

The initial sites were primarily picked for showing new things or possibilities.  CSotD was always about the possibilities of the web.  I also used CSotD to direct what the web would become.

Here’s how that worked.  You see, everyone wanted me to pick their site for CSotD.  Being selected was instant web fame and death by 10,000 hits.  The servers behind the web were quite limited by today’s standards.  Being the CSotD meant your server could crash.  (More on that later.)

If you wanted to be picked, I had to like your site.  So people would look at my picks, try to figure out why I picked them, then imitated the sites I picked.  I’m sure you can see how that worked.  I didn’t talk about why I picked things because mostly I couldn’t explain it.  And to be honest, I enjoyed letting people try to figure it out.

So, over time, the web felt better.  Everyone else noticed that it looked better. 

When I left, I typically had a backlog of 900-1500 emails from people submitting their sites.  Most often they would send ‘nothing but a goddam link.’  Unless I was in dire need of finding a site as I approached deadline, I’d never look at those.  The sites I wanted to see were the ones the creators were proud of.  

These craftspersons differentiated themselves by telling me what they thought was important to them about their site.  These weren’t the ad agencies with their print designers trying to get hits for their just like everyone else’s websites.  These were the ones who loved what they were doing and would help us all reach the future.  These were the people who mattered.

They passed the first test, so I’d look at their site.  If I liked it, I’d feature it.  If I really liked it, I’d email them and open up a dialog. 

In some ways I was like the Hollywood producer finding stars working in service jobs about town.  I discovered them and brought them into the light.  Some of them truly prospered.

Over time, I collected an army of web developers, sung and unsung, watching everything I picked and some in communication with me. Together, we guided the web.  That’s not ego, that’s fact.

Oh and I used to say that I crashed web servers for a living.

The most famous example of that was Smitty’s UFO Page.  Smitty hosted their website in their personal space on one of NASA’s servers.  At about one in the afternoon, InfiNet got a call from NASA asking us to remove the link.  They had an important demonstration to give and their computer was having a hard time keeping up with everything it needed to do.  I took that one down, put up a brief message, and added it to the archive for the next day. 

I shut down a NASA computer.  I loved it. As a kid I was a huge fan of space.  I had a relative who was one of the engineers on the Apollo 11 lunar lander.  The fact that I caught NASA’s attention was a feather in my cap.

Heather Champ’s site was a different case.  Princeton was taking her site offline because of the traffic.  Since she and I were friends, I arranged to mirror the site and take the load off of Princeton’s lackluster IT department.  She gave me all of her files, I put them up, pointed to them, and finished off the day that way. Heather would later design the CSotD website and create the little boy badge to represent me.

While I might pick a friend’s website, I never picked anything because they were my friend.  I don’t think that way.  In fact, I lost many false friends because I didn’t pick their website and I told them what was wrong with it when I could.

Once, I made the mistake of picking a website hosted on a New York Provider named Interport.  They shut it down.  Wouldn’t even consider leaving it up.  I never again picked anything on their servers and they got a bit of bad publicity for the move.

Toward the end of my run at CSotD I would get in touch with people after the traffic started on their websites and pass along some hints to improve how their site functioned under a heavy load.  Not always, but when I could.

I was offered many things as bribery to select a particular website.  The most memorable one was when Swedish Erotica offered me a blond for the day.  I could in no way shape or form pick them.  I sometimes walked a line with my picks, that would have been crossing it.  I did, just for fun, write back and ask them if they might have a brunette instead.  They didn’t respond.

While I never accepted anything anyone offered to either look at or pick a site, I did accept one gift after a site had been selected.  Sarah McLachlan’s record company gave me balcony seats to one of her concerts.  I still love her voice, and I accepted the gift since it was never planned and she was one of my favorite artists at the time.

InfiNet didn’t understand what they had with CSotD.  They didn’t understand content.  But I have to give a big thanks for all the branding they made me do to make sure everyone knew it was mine.

Until they decided to move me out of the picture.

We’ll get talk more about InfiNet in a later article.  They didn’t fully understood what they had even after CNET offered $10k a month to advertise on CSotD.

In spite of all the branding I had done, as per their instructions, they owned CSotD.  Virginia Employment law meant they owned anything I created, even if I did it at home on my own time.   It was made sure I knew that.  I was basically trapped in a $45k a year position in which they told me my salary would never go up further.

They also told me that they wanted to debrand me and put other people in charge of CSotD.  Some of the reasons behind this, though, were someone else’s influence that we will get into when I write about InfiNet.

The text was on the wall. 

I was fine with that, though, as there were a couple of things going on in the background that I’ll talk about elsewhere.  What I had though, when I left, was a huge cadre of web designers curious about what I’d do next and who still wanted me to anoint them in some way.  

I really didn’t care about the mainstream users at this point.  InfiNet made what I suspect was a political move to appoint Richard Grimes my successor. He was friends with Suzanna Di, the woman who had tried to have me fired.  He ran it longer than I did, but his lowbrow vision cost them CNET’s sponsorship the day he featured Rate-A-Babe.  And CSotD’s new design?  I’d have never picked it.  The design tried too hard to be something it wasn’t, cool.  Or maybe I just had creator’s bias.  I saw the design again recently while looking for related graphics.  They were trying too hard.

Throughout my time running CSotD, the archive of all the previous sites was still just an HTML file when I left.  Shortly after I left one of their bozo programmers imported it into a database, in the wrong order.  The months were all reversed.  I contacted David there, who knew the guy who did it, but he reported it wasn’t going to be fixed.

CSotD no longer seems to exist, so I can’t look at the list and tell you which was the actual first site.  I can tell you, however, about my last site.

At the time I was leaving I was Special Projects Coordinator.  That’s a title you get when they don’t know quite what to do with you because you really don’t fit into the company structure.  My boss, Gordon, came downstairs to say good-bye.

“You know, Glenn, I always just let you pick whatever you wanted.  I just checked that you never featured a site that used the F word.”

I couldn’t help but laugh.  “So you didn’t look at today’s site?”

“Sure I did.  It was a fashion site from England.”

So I went over to my computer and pulled it up.  There, in large type on the screen was the logo of the letters F.UK.  Fashion UK was the site, and it was November 17th, 1995.

I did a lot at InfiNet besides CSotD.  Some things were firsts, some things had great potential they never saw.  They really didn’t understand the web or the net.  I’ll be talking about InfiNet at length, but this marked the end of running the site that had made me famous.  F.UK was my final message to the company that owned everything I did on the web, until I walked out the door.

At the end of the day, Gordon sent an email to all employees with a simple message announcing my departure.  “Elvis has left the building.”

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