My 1st Website Competition- Swing Your Pants

123-reg, the webhost and domain registrar are running a competition to win a MacBook Pro. They’re interested in knowing about the first website/blog you motley lot had. Details can be found on their website if you’d like to take part but you’ll have to run the gauntlet of me and my awesome tale of bad haircuts, old Apple Mac’s and bearded Canadians* if you want to be in with a chance of winning I’m afraid.

Fashion passed me by in the 90’s

The year was 1996. I was short of hair but long of drinking ability and if the world wasn’t my oyster, it was certainly some slightly less impressive shelled ocean dweller at any rate. I was at university completely failing to talk to girls, playing too much pinball and availing myself of my last year of freedom before I had to grow up and get a proper job. That’s right, I was in my final year of my degree at Lancaster University. Lancaster, whilst being a great university (it must have been I was there after all) was in the arse end of nowhere and still had a certain grunge vibe going on when I started in 1993. By 1996 it was still a bit behind the times but nevertheless rocked.

It was of course pre-mobile phones, so if you went and knocked for a chum and they weren’t in you either went and did something else or waited for them in the pub. Happy days.

I started playing with computers in my first year at university, 1993. At that point to get an email account, you had to fill in a 3 page paper form and then wait a couple of days for some poor sod in the computer department to manually set up your email account. The university network was run an a Unix cluster that someone was always joking had a network enabled toaster plugged in for the busy periods. And the Internet? Let me tell you where/what the Internet was in late 1993. A lot of people confuse the Internet (round for years and years, home to all sorts of stuff like Gopher, Telnet, FTP, Newsgroups and so on), with the World Wide Web. Well, the World Wide Web was effectively invented in my first year at university. All those web pages? All that content? Nothing before NCSA Mosaic came along and allowed us to have (more or less) the modern internet that we all know and love.

Immediately the entire membership of the sci-fi society became the fledgling members of this brave new world. At this point in time, if the sci-fi society wanted to watch Star Trek the Next Generation before UK broadcast, they were beholden on an exchange student posting a VHS recorded off the telly from America. Remember, this was 3 years before Google was even founded, and the immediate uses for the world wide web were:

Geocities has of course died a death but the other two are going strong. It’s worth bearing in mind the early web browsers couldn’t show embedded images. Clicking on a link would open an image in another window. This was helpfully called spawning an external viewer. It led to some interesting cultural differences- in the computer labs on campus the pale spotty English kids sitting in the corner would be quietly viewing porn whereas the Greek lads would be boldly sitting in the middle of the lab viewing porn and calling their friends over to look at particularly interesting images.

I spent a fair amount of time on Lubbs, the universities bespoke bulletin board system, and surfed the net, which put me ahead of an awful lot of people outside of the computer science department. This was the era of the 486 PC, none of the students actually owned a PC, a few of us had Atari ST’s or Amigas we fiddled around on but home internet still depended on dial up with a 56k modem, that clogged the line and was expensive. 

So this was the context in which a couple of fellow students and I embarked into the relative unknown of the web. I was doing a new multi disciplinary degree called Culture and Communication. It spanned several different departments- anthropology, linguistics, sociology, business studies, history and had a smattering of media studies thrown in. In practice, judicious application of course selection meant that I had about 4 hours of lectures and tutorials a week in the first two terms of my final year, then I was cut some slack. A large proportion of our final year was given over to a project, supervised by a certain Dr Rob Shields. 
our sites “borrowed” logo

Because even at that tender age I didn’t really equate sitting in front of a computer screen as work, I concocted the idea that eventually led to Swing Your Pants- Lancaster Universities first online music reviews website. The name, and if you know me you’ll be entirely unsurprised at this, was entirely my idea. It was based on a Calvin and Hobbes strip which we used on the site and made a desultory attempt to contact Bill Watterson for permission to use.

Back then, putting content on the web wasn’t as straight forward as it is now. WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editors existed but were expensive and a bit temperamental. Content management systems like WordPress or Blogger didn’t exist yet. Swing Your Pants, complete with excessive use of the blink tag was written entirely in a mixture of a freeware Mac programme called WebWeaver and by manually adjusting the actual HTML. To this day the site is still evidenced in the supervision list of my old lecturer too:

click for larger image, we’re the last one!
Yes, it was altogether more technical work than I had expected (I had to constantly show one of the other students, Wai, how to double click a mouse, which didn’t help) but the genius in it all was the fact the university had effectively sanctioned me to go down the pubs and venues on campus, listen to live bands, get a bit pissed, and write about it for a large percentage of my final year degree mark. The project itself was split into two- the product, Swing Your Pants, and a 10,000 word dissertation about the new media we were employing and the challenges we faced. Considering I’d written a 7,000 essay pompously entitled “Computer mediated conversation and the reinvention of the self”, the previous term, this was a doddle.
And Swing Your Pants was great. The website obviously doesn’t exist any more, nor does a copy live at archive.org’s Wayback Machine (it didn’t have it’s own domain, it was a sub-directory in the departments fledgling webpage) but I have fond memories of swearing a lot and doing considerable resizing of images. Of course this was well before digital cameras, so we had to use the ancient and exceedingly slow flatbed scanner to scan in pictures we’d taken on our film cameras. It sounds wonderfully primitive now but it was 17 odd years ago now. There are probably dot com billionaires younger than that website.

The best thing was trailblazing a wild new frontier, whilst not having the foggiest idea what we were doing. Think Almost Famous with a dash of computers thrown in (and haircuts that were different, but fundamentally just as bad). I was the only member of our intrepid team that had English as a first language and none of us had done any actual journalism or even student paper reviews. We really made it up as we went along. I ended up with a 2:1 and a fascination with the web that’s just as strong today as it was back then.

I think I’m a bit of an oddity in that I was right in there at the start of the web but wasn’t particularly a techie. The best I ever managed was a smattering of javascript on top of the good old HTML (which isn’t even really a language), but I muddled along and have been doing just that for the last twenty years.

*Dr Rob Shields is currently still bearded and a professor of sociology at Alberta University. He was a top bloke.

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