Going to California

Making Magic — 16

It was a simple idea, as these things go. After having spent years wondering what the Internet would first look like — only to be disappointed to discover that no, it wasn’t going to be the virtual-reality interface promised by science fiction but a series of crappy-looking flat pages of text no more sophisticated than a daily newspaper — I was the right person at the right time to ask why it couldn’t be just a little bit more.

Since quarterly newsletters and bi-monthly magazines were too infrequent, especially in promoting a project we’d started only ten weeks earlier, the answer was something online. Because our Web site was one of the first couple of hundred destinations on the Internet, if not one of the first hundred, and a good chunk of people who were online at that time were, well, geeks, our little game company got a fair bit of traffic. So you’d want it to be a Web page.

But it would be great if it wasn’t any old Web page, not least because I didn’t like Web pages at the time. For example, here’s what The Telegraph looked like in 1994’s November.

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Not good. What about yesterday’s stories? What about related stories? Because traditional media was crapping themselves about how they were going to make money online, they had no plan to make older content available. A number of media outlets seemed to presume they’d end up adopting a business model like Lexis-Nexus, which had been successfully selling subscriptions to case-law records and news archives for many years by that point. Still, I don’t remember anyone being interested in organizing what little content they were putting online towards the end of 1994.

What if you didn’t care whether or not anyone was paying for your content? We sold issues of Pyramid Magazine, because it cost a lot to print. We gave away our quarterly newsletter in stacks because it was a compact bit of self-promotion. But what if you did care about letting people look back, to see the full scope of content you’d posted in the past, and you wanted to make it as easy as possible?

Begin with a Web page, basic HTML, with a header across the top naming your publication and a short column of text saying whatever you wanted to say. Then every day, you could add another column on top of yesterday’s story, growing the page out in reverse-chronological order. Add something like a little calendar in the upper-right corner of the page, which would show readers which days had seen updates, and let them jump to specific days, and you’re golden.

You could put all sorts of things in these columns. You can give people your email address, you could link to other pages on your site — you could link to other sites.

It could be a better promotional tool than a magazine or a newspaper. It didn’t need to be a daily editorial, it could reach out to people in a very personal way. I was afraid that it would become more personal journal than advertising copy, though I figured there were worse things in the world.

I didn’t have a name for it, though 19 years later most people would call it a weblog, blog for short.

I had a serious problem, though. I called it postpartum depression over having gotten the card game out the door, but it turned out to be normal depression, in a serious way. While I expect I probably looked fine, it would control my life for almost exactly a year.

We didn’t have a year to kick this thing off, though. The printer was mowing through the card stock, and the retailers were hungry for the game, so we had four weeks to get our fans fired up enough to send them into the stores.

Every day, Steve asked me, “How’s it going with that news thing?” I don’t know what I said. I should have said, “Listen, I’m pretty depressed and I can’t even see how to start making something that isn’t crap.” Because while Steve was not always a mentoring type, he was a problem solver, and one of his special geniuses was improving things that sucked.

Instead, I did almost nothing for ten days after Andy and I got back from the press check. That’s not totally true: I took the time to assess what it would take to get my book project back on track. With the confidence and the credibility I’d earned from my work on the card game, I still thought it would be possible to get it out in two months.

It wouldn’t come out for two years, though I’ll get to that.

My work on the HTML page quickly got hung up on how to make the little calendar, and though I spent nearly all my free time brooding about it I made no progress. After waiting nearly two weeks for me to get off my ass and do something — anything — Steve caught me in the hall upstairs one Thursday morning.

“I went ahead and started a page for the newsletter idea you were talking about,” he said. “I don’t know what to call it, but we can figure it out.”

I was mad, though I knew I could only be mad at myself. I’d wanted to make something great, while Steve saw how to make something good enough.

“I gave you permission to update the file,” he said with a shrug. “If you want to be the one to update it, go ahead.”

I was too mad and depressed to do anything about it that night. The next day, Steve told me that a fan had recommended calling it The Daily Illuminator, and that’s what it’s called to this day.

Click here to read the first two weeks of the Web’s oldest blog. The first entry was November 16, two days before the page from The Telegraph shown above.

By Sunday, I’d crawled far enough away from my depression and didn’t feel overwhelmed by the pressure to return to my derailed book project, so I took the time to add my first of many updates to the Illuminator. After a short line reporting that we’d signed off on the most recent issue of Pyramid, I said this:

“The rest of our weekend has been surprisingly calm. After much cold and rain this morning, the clouds parted and we had a lovely autumn afternoon.”

I’ll call it my first blog post, and that’s why to my closest friends and I take credit for co-founding the world’s oldest blog. Though it made me grit my teeth at the time, Steve Jackson deserves credit for being its first blogger, with me being the second.

Was it the first actual blog? I don’t know. In 2008, I heard about a guy who’d posted a reverse-chronological diary of his summer intern a few months before our column started, but I don’t know anyone who heard about it at the time and he didn’t keep any archives. The basic idea had appeared before as a “plan” file, which some older-school Internet people used to make available for public browsing, which was kind of a personal “what I’m planning to do” text file. What we did took the concept to its logical Web-based conclusion. If it wasn’t the first blog, it was the first one we ever saw, and it remains the oldest, longest-running, regularly updated blog, though the credit for that goes to the great number of people who’ve stepped up over the years to keep it updated.

Call it a final bit of magic to show up in my life that year.

We updated it every day, letting fans in on the blow-by-blow of getting Illuminati: New World Order, and soon other projects, wrapped up and available in stores. It was 10 days before we included our first link, though the ability to link to other pages across our site was cooler than any worry about people getting sick of reading text littered with links. It was the Web: people hoped your text would be littered with links, because that felt like a more useful thing to do. Other news sites were repulsed by the idea of putting up columns linking to source material or definitions on other sites, because it was taking readers away from their content and their site. It sounded to us that by doing the right thing for readers, they’d be more inspired to come back to us again.

The Daily Illuminator is still going strong, nearly 20 years later.

Exactly one month after the Illuminator’s first post, on December 16, Illuminati: New World Order hit retail stores. I hit a couple of comic shops on launch day, and it was an eerie feeling to see our neatly packaged decks of cards there by everyone’s cash registers. I was swollen with regret over so many aspects of the design, but seven or so people had put it together from scratch in two months — and that included bringing the team of seven or so people together. So it wasn’t great, but I had to admit it was good enough.

It was an even eerier feeling a few days later, when all the decks were gone. They were gone because they had sold out.

People liked it. In seven days, we sold 23 million cards.

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