Web Masters Episode #31: Justin Hall

These days, kids grow up sharing everything about their┬ápersonal lives in an effort to become Instagram influencers and TikTok famous. They don’t know it, but their dreams of social media stardom were pioneered in the mid 1990s by a teenager who wasn’t looking for celebrity status.


Justin's Links from the Underground

Aaron Dinin:

When you were a teenager in the mid-90s, what made you think strangers all over the world would care enough about you to want to read about your daily life?

Justin Hall:

I think the nice thing is when I was 19, I didn’t think about whether people cared. I just said, I have this medium, so why don’t I see what my stories look like there, and if people are coming for this utility of finding links that they want to traverse, well, maybe they’ll accidentally read a poem. And if they want to read a second poem, well, that’s on them. The nice thing is because it was essentially I already had a computer, I already had an internet connection, it was basically free to put up another poem, and even more free to put up another poem, and so it didn’t matter to put stuff online. And if people wanted to read it, they could.

So I didn’t have the need for any audience research or validation. But then I got a lot of audience validation, which then pushed me to think that it was a good thing are that it was worthwhile to do this. And what I got was feedback from strangers saying, you’re helping me work through some personal tragedy. You’re being very honest and that’s exciting and you’re very brave. You are sharing super vulnerable stuff and I want to stick a gun in your face and blow your head off because I’m a person who can’t react to intimacy, and I’m going to death threat you. And then over time, all these strangers are sending me all these signals, right? I’ve got people over here saying you’re helping me with some deep trauma. I’ve got people over here saying I love watching your bravery. I’ve got people saying I want to hurt you. All these people I can’t see, it was so psychically taxing.

Aaron Dinin:

That was Justin Hall, the man often credited as being the world’s first personal blogger. And as he just told us, the experience of being an online personality in the earliest days of the web don’t actually sound that different than being an online personality today. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Welcome to Web Masters. This is the podcast that explores entrepreneurship by talking with some of the internet’s earliest and most impactful innovators. My name is Aaron Dinin. I teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Duke University. I also study the history of the web with a specific focus on social media. And On this episode, we have an interesting guest to help us learn more about social media. He is Justin Hall. His website is Links from the Underground links.net. He started it in 1994 as a way of helping people find interesting content online. And remember, this was before web search engines were prevalent or useful. That project eventually evolved into him posting stories about his personal life, and that turned Justin into what we today would describe as an online influencer or as he describes it …

Justin Hall:

I’ve had the chance to be an early personal publisher on the internet.

Aaron Dinin:

As you can imagine, the industry of online influencers and content creators has matured a lot since Justin’s days. On this episode, we’re going to learn what it was like to share your personal life with the world back before anyone had ever really done anything like that. But first, I need to take a minute to thank this podcast sponsor.

Web Masters wouldn’t be possible without the support of our sponsor, Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker that helps people buy and sell cash flow positive internet businesses and digital assets. That includes things like SaaS apps, e-commerce stores, domain portfolios, Amazon FBAs, and yes, content websites like we’ll be talking about in this episode. If you have a profitable internet business and you’re thinking about selling it, start by contacting the team at Latona’s. They’ve been helping people just like you sell their digital businesses for a long time, and they can help you get the best deal possible for yours. And if you’re thinking about buying an internet business, be sure to check out the Latona’s website where you’ll find a huge collection of listings for profitable internet businesses you can buy and start running right now. That website is latonas.com, L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com.

For the thousands of aspiring personal content creators out there who live in a world of Instagramers and YouTubers with millions of followers, the appeal to get started posting online seems fairly straightforward. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but plenty of people aspire to that type of celebrity status and the fame, wealth and opportunities that appear to come with it. But that’s a recent phenomenon. In the earliest days of the web, those opportunities didn’t exist. So what would inspire someone to share so many personal and intimate details of his life online back before anyone else was doing it and there was no clear benefit? To find the answer to that question, let’s start by understanding how Justin first discovered the ability to communicate with other people remotely via computers and why he thought that was valuable.

Justin Hall:

I think I had a chance to use modems on computers to dial into other computers with modems. It wasn’t the internet, but it was the 1980s. And it was people at home connecting to other people in their homes and sharing files. And I had a fabulous experience downloading The Anarchist Cookbook and naughty gifts and all the things that you couldn’t find in your middle school library. And then had a friend with an internet account on a VAX system, which is text only internet 1988 and he let me piggyback on his account.

And I was able to see Usenet news groups, which were basically sort of like Reddit before Reddit with many fewer pictures. And I loved seeing all these people talk about their passions, and these threaded discussions about sex, music, drugs, all the things that I was interested in and being able to talk with adults or who knew who they were, they were other students, and I could be one of them as a teenager, nobody cared who I was. But if I had an opinion about Frank Zappa, I could get in there.

Aaron Dinin:

So what we’ve got here is a young Justin enjoying one of the truly unique perks of the internet for someone his age. And that’s, well, the lack of anyone caring or even knowing how old he was. It reminds me of a classic New Yorker cartoon drawn by Peter Steiner and published on July 5th 1993. It’s an illustration of two dogs, one on the ground looking up at the other seated on a chair at a desk in front of a computer. The caption reads “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” That was true for Justin too, on the internet, nobody knew he was just a boy.

Justin Hall:

There’s no age gate for this content. I can be a young person who feels big and act big and have a chance to pretend to do that. And now in 2021, we’re living in a society where we see the ramifications of everybody being able to do that all the time. It’s very exciting.

Aaron Dinin:

After some tinkering with the internet during high school enabled by a friend who shared his internet access, Justin finally got direct access to the internet for himself, as well as the early web when he enrolled at Swarthmore College.

Justin Hall:

I went to college in 1993 to get my own internet account. And it was incredible to be on the internet but it was all text in ’93. And so I actually was reading the newspaper called the New York Times in December 1993, and a guy named John Markoff wrote an article about a web browser called Mosaic. And I was already on the internet, I had an ethernet connection in my dorm room. So I downloaded Mosaic and got on the web and gave it a shot. And the web immediately, I knew that the web was going to be something. Because I’d seen the internet and I knew all the fascinating information that was out there and the little niches that you could fill your mind with, I knew that if you took a mouse and you allowed people to browse this with a mouse, and you could click on the pictures, this was going to take the internet that we’d seen and blow it out big time. So as soon as I saw the web I was on the web all the time just surfing and seeing what there was and watching it grow.

Aaron Dinin:

So what were you doing on the web in the earliest days? It’s not like there was a lot to see, right?

Justin Hall:

I mean, in late 1993, if you were searching the web, you could literally get a list … You could subscribe to an email list where somebody would send you a list of all the new websites. And there might be like 30 this week, and 10 the next week. And you could surf pretty much all the web that was linked together. There were no search engines, so one link led to another and lead to another and you could find your way into a pretty interesting little corner. But you could always sort of see the path. And so by January 1994, I decided I wanted to be a guide to the web. I was making lists of the cool stuff I’d found and I started posting them online on a personal site that I created. Because as I searched the web, I saw that man, this can’t be hard. It can’t be difficult to make web pages because so many other people are doing it and the pages they’re making are not significant.

I mean, they’re not like, we have a big project to present. They weren’t pages about important policy or business or serious stuff. They were people just with a picture of their dog, people with their favorite constellations or something. I mean, it was really personal. So I thought, okay, if these people can put up a personal webpage, there’s got to be some way that I could do this. And my personal webpage I called Links from the Underground because I was collecting the things I liked and providing lists of links. And publishing those lists of links on the web basically changed the course of my life.

Aaron Dinin:

You mentioned wanting to be a guide on the web. So does that mean you didn’t intend to post personal content? You started by curating a collection of interesting links?

Justin Hall:

Yeah, I really started off as a sort of a tour guide saying, like, hey, this is my personal page and here are my favorite links. And the links got a lot of traffic, because there was a use value there. And because I had the taste I had, and the things I was interested in, and people could say, there aren’t too many other guides on the web at that time. So I said, well, there are other universities who are posting like links of the projects they’re working on and people are sort of posting things. But I’m going in between those things and trying to find the unusual or the weird, the wild in the wonderful, I called them, the weird, wild and wonderful of the World Wide Web.

So I shared these links and then it grew and grew. And I had these collection of art links, and a collection of music links, and a collection of sex links, and a collection of drug links, and a collection of Native American art links and a collection … I mean, just all these different sorts of areas where I was curious and doing research and then pulling together resources.

Aaron Dinin:

This collection of resources around the web would become hugely popular, at least in terms of the 1994 web, which of course wasn’t very big. Perhaps not surprisingly, a significant part of the popularity came from the type of content Justin was linking to. Specifically, Links from the Underground contained very popular collections of links for websites related to pornography and drugs, two vices the web has been enabling since its earliest days. Regardless, the success of Justin’s early online presence were enough to kickstart the beginnings of a long career in tech and media. In fact, he used the site as a resume of sorts for pestering his way into a job at Wired Magazine.

Justin Hall:

I had seen Wired magazine when I was graduating from high school. The first issue came out and I said, this magazine, they’ve got a person on the cover of a computer magazine. This is like they’ve really figured out how computers can impact culture. It’s not just like, what’s the speed of your motherboard? It’s like, what are you going to do with this thing? How’s it going to transform us? So I just like hurled myself at Wired Magazine. I called them repeatedly for an internship, asked if I could be an intern in editorial and design. I asked if I could be a custodial intern in the janitorial services team.

And then like I called a fourth time, I called wire four times. And the fourth time I asked them if I could be an intern on their web team because I figured they had a web team by early 1994. And they looked at my website, the editor, Julie Peterson, looked at my website on the phone and said, “Yeah, we’ll give you an interview.” So I got an internship and then a job at Wired magazine when they were launching the first website with ad banners built by another one of your guests, Craig Kanarick, and we ran the first ad banners.

Aaron Dinin:

By the way, that website was called hotwired.com, and those first banner ads were created by another Web Masters guest we heard from, Craig Kanarick, back in Web Masters episode number 12. Be sure to check it out. The lasting legacy of hotwire.com was basically that it was the first website with banner ads, and otherwise fizzled, thanks in large part to a decision by Wired leadership to run it like a traditional publication rather than take advantage of its being online.

Justin Hall:

I was part of a faction at Wired at that time that said, the people are the content. Let’s figure out how to get people on the web to tell us what they’re interested in. And then we will be as editors of the web, we will help sort of curate and call forth the good stuff, the fun stuff, the stuff we believe in. And I think the leadership at Wired, particularly Lewis Roseto felt like our job is tastemakers. We’re not here to like curate a million people sending us watch McCallum, we’re going to pick the stuff that we think is important and put it front and center.

And there was really like a very dramatic and early falling out of these two factions that were more like, hey, the audience is the content. The web is the thing. Let’s just amplify the web. And these other people who were like, hey, we’re going to be a branded magazine type experience bringing that onto the web. I mean, the web is big enough for all of that stuff. But just when I look at what I’m excited about, it’s always this edgy scrap at the edge of the future.

Aaron Dinin:

It’s this interest in the interactivity of digital media that really seems to define Justin’s passion for the web, which is in stark contrast with what lots of other people wanted to do online at the time. Heck, by this point, Justin’s links.net website was getting more traffic than the professional digital publication he worked for. But Justin wasn’t satisfied with just being a resource for the people who came to his site. He wanted to connect with them on a personal level.

Justin Hall:

People were writing me and saying, this is great. Thank you very much. I sent your page to my friend. And there’s more and more sort of traffic coming through. And I said, “I should introduce myself to these people.” So I put up a page about myself and then I put up some poems I’d written and some stories. And then to make sense of those stories and poems, I said, “I can use the structure of the web to say, well, this is a poem about my girlfriend. I met her at my school. And my school I came to after I left my hometown. And each of those could be a node in a sort of a connected story.

Justin Hall:

And so I started using HTML web links to create a hyperlink to autobiography. And it was very fun to be able to say any proper noun or anything that I write about, I could go in and edit the markup in the page and create like an essay somewhere else on a separate page, and then connect them together and create this sort of nonlinear journey so people could meet me, decide what they were interested in, and then go read just that part about me and maybe find some other parts or find some useful links and go out and just become part of the web.

Aaron Dinin:

How were they finding your site?

Justin Hall:

I put up my web page in late January 1994, and then I circulated it on campus to college classmates. And then there was a list of all the sites on the web run by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University Urbana-Champaign in Illinois. And I sent them my list of my website, and they put it in their list of all the websites in the world. And so this was a time when the people who were interested in the web were looking at these lists of links on the web. And you sort of put it out in a few places, and then it circulates on its own. And I just remember having this very unusual experience where I went to see the artist and performer, Laurie Anderson, give a talk. And she had a concert T-shirt that somebody was wearing. And I looked at my URL for my personal website, she had put on her concert T-shirt.

Somebody else was flying on Alaska Airlines in the late 1990s and my URL was heart of an article. I mean, like, I just had become, and then I’m getting quoted in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times or whatever. I think in the early days of a platform, like I was the platform of web HTML pages, I was there at the right time, I was active enough, I was pushing enough, I did a combination of content creation and telling people I was creating content. So I got lucky and I sort of rode that wave up of attention. The same thing happens when now there’s so many different apps that you could say, I’m going to become the star of TikTok.

Well, TikTok was some little thing a year and a half ago, or five years ago or something, you could sort of get in there and make a lot of content and tell people you were on there and try to get people to join the platform. And if your timing is right, and the platform is right, and your content’s right, and your marketing’s right, you can ride that wave. I just got lucky. And it happened that I could ride that wave.

Aaron Dinin:

But there also weren’t a lot of other people sharing so much of their personal stories online back then, right?

Justin Hall:

There were definitely so many other people personal sharing. There was one guy before me who had a website before me where he shared about his life, Ranjit Bhatnagar. I had the good fortune of meeting him after I’d seen his web page. And he was a role model for me in January 1994. But I think I just did more of it and more salacious stuff and a greater volume, so I’m more famous than Ranjit Bhatnagar. But there were other people, Magdalena Do├▒ana, and Lance Arthur, and just people who wrote about their lives online and were funny and interesting. But a lot of those people they’re now in their 40s and 50s.

Nearly every single one of them has retreated from public life as like internet celebrities. Because just like the beat the drum activity of like, look at me, look at me, it’s kind of a young person’s activity. So I think when I followed people, I followed people in that moment who were also in the personal sharing world. And at that time, I wasn’t like, I’m the first. These are all following after me. It was also like, we’re all trying to figure out what this internet thing is.

Aaron Dinin:

And what kind of things were you publishing as you were experimenting and learning about the internet?

Justin Hall:

In 1996, in January, I started a daily practice of writing on the web every day about my life. And it was like, what happened that day? Who did I meet? What did we do? And writing in public about that stuff and intimate stuff as well. And after a few months, I had all these strangers giving me all this feedback. And then later in 1996, ’97, ’98, I had all these friends and family coming to me and saying, hey, man, don’t put me in your diary. Don’t put me in your story. Because now all these strangers are looking at me. And I’m implicated in you. And I don’t want to be a part of that. And I never asked. And what is this? And your processing is not my exposure.

The project of writing on the web was really fun for strangers and totally fine before they invented search engines. And then like in 1996, 1997, they started coming out with search engines. In the earliest days of the web, if you wanted to find a page, somebody had to give you the address or you had to find your way there through a series of links. But if you’re on the web and there’s a search engine, you just type a name and see what the web has. Suddenly, I was the first search result for a bunch of my friends and family. And it’d be like, here’s my friend, Bob. We did mushrooms and then we went out and I met his cousin. I thought she was cute.

People did not want to see that as the first search result on their name when they’re like, the internet, I want to see the internet. Am I on the internet? And they’d be like, what? I met that guy a year ago and he wrote about this? And suddenly I’m on that and my boss said this. I did not want to be a tabloid journalist exposing my friends, because it was very clear that if I did that, I would not have friends. To live a life where you expose people in public that you know is like a very, I think, unsettled kind of righteousness I just couldn’t practice. So I tried to figure out how to write in detail about my personal life online, because it was cathartic for me, because I still felt that I was helping those people who were processing and I enjoyed performing for those people who are brave, and there weren’t enough of the death threat people to scare me.

So I wanted to keep going, so I stopped using people’s last names, then I stopped using so many identifying details. And then it just got impossible to do it. The more popular the web got, the less possible it was for me to be a super raw personal guy on the internet. And that was, I mean, now 27 years later, I’m cool with it. It was not sustainable. And it was part of my identity formation as a teenager. I mean, I think that’s one of the things that happened is I was able to experiment with my identity and come of age on the public web. Unless you are wired up in a very rare and probably unsustainable way, that’s not something you’re going to do indefinitely. You just can’t live that much in public indefinitely.

Aaron Dinin:

Do you think it was the rawness that caused people to gravitate towards you and your content?

Justin Hall:

I think at that time, there were people would put up personal pages, but the volume of pages that I put out about myself, just the sheer word count, plus, the subjects that I was eager to talk about. So my personal, intimate experiences with sex and drugs, I think, made for salacious, lively content that seemed exciting and unauthorized, like why can this 19-year-old college student just put out whatever he wants? And I put out like centerfolds and myself because like, why not? I can, it’s the internet and just having fun, I think. And also some serious stuff, like I had one part of my childhood was particularly tough around substance abusing parents. And so I wrote about that. I think that the heavy stuff was people reaching out about that.

So is people saying, I don’t see too many stories in the media of people telling firsthand accounts about sort of growing up as the child of an alcoholic, how you put your life together after a parent committed suicide, or some of these things that I went through on a personal level writing about them and sort of wrestling with them in public. Unmediated writing about personal tragedy was unexpected to people and I think gave my site sort of a different resonance than if it had just been about sexual pranks or something. It was different because it was sexual pranks and personal wrestling, and all these things mixed together.

Aaron Dinin:

Thousands of mixed together hypertext pages of sexual pranks and wrestling with personal demons, that’s a pretty good description of what Justin created on his website and how he helped define the age of personal publishing. Seriously, it’s all still online at links.net for anyone to explore, go check it out and see for yourself. It’s an incredible archive. And as you heard Justin reference, he wasn’t just publishing online to connect with other people. His publishing was a way of reconciling with his own childhood trauma. Specifically, Justin is very open about the fact that when he was eight years old, his father committed suicide, his website became the place where he both grieved and reconciled with that experience.

Justin Hall:

I think I wanted a lot of attention because some of my upbringing stuff. So I wanted more time with my parents, I wanted more sort of feedback from my dad, he was not able to be there for me and give me feedback on how I was growing up, so I had to seek it externally. If I was doing some armchair psychology, that was sort of my explanation for what made me the type of person who posts myself data naked on the internet.

Aaron Dinin:

This public struggle was a source of inspiration to others, and it led to Justin’s work as an early web evangelist.

Justin Hall:

People would write me and say, hey, your story about your dad really touched me. And now I want to tell you my story about how I’m trying to be there for my kids, even though I’m wrestling with my own substance issues, and how I’ve had trouble understanding whether I should be alive and what I should do. And I’m saying, “You’re sending me a big psychic load. What you’re telling me is so … I can’t hold that. Like I’m not able to be a therapist for you and I don’t know how to hear this well. I can read it and feel it but I don’t know what to do for you.” So what I would do is encourage those people.

I’d say, “You should start your own website because I get all this catharsis from the writing, and I get this connection with other people who suffered as I have, or in their own ways. You should also write on the web.” So I put up a bunch of tutorials, I started hosting classes. At one point, I got people who are reading my website to sponsor me. They sent me money, I bought a Greyhound bus, you could get like a tour pass. And I traveled America by Greyhound bus and stayed in houses of people who read my website. And I taught classes in their local cafes, and schools, and churches saying everyone should have a personal website, because if you have something that you care about, you should tell the internet.

Aaron Dinin:

So that’s interesting, because most of the people I’ve spoken with were focused on the commercial opportunities of the internet. But that’s not what excited you. Why didn’t you care about the business things?

Justin Hall:

My philosophy was really that I knew that commerce was going to come for the internet, that was not a problem, they were going to … People would figure that out. But maybe we could make the internet seem very personal if we worked hard in the beginning to put an unusual amount of very personal content online, we could perhaps build this kind of empathy engine, where if you’re like, man, I don’t know what’s up with those people. Why are they like that you could go meet some of them virtually. You can read their essays about their life and their upbringing and their experience.

I mean, now I look back at it and it seems sort of naive, but I think it was sort of a necessary naivete grounded in this cathartic experience I had, the responses I was getting in the desire to not be another privileged white guy who’s able to use the tools of publishing to get attention for himself. But could this be empowering for other people who are not in my position of being in college and having ethernet in their dorm room and being liberal arts trained to talk about themselves? Like, how could we get people who are outside of the voices of publishing to have access to the internet to tell their stories so we can hear more of the stories we don’t hear? So I tried to do a lot of teaching and evangelism around the web of that type.

Aaron Dinin:

But you still had to pay bills, right? So was your professional life related to your digital life at all? Or were you keeping them separate?

Justin Hall:

When I graduated college, I was looking at this choice of could I figure out how to be a personal journalist for money? Could I write about the things I was interested in and sort of get paid by it? I had my readers of my website sent me $500 a month in 1996 and I had the little pre-Patreon kind of thing gone where people were sponsoring me. But that wasn’t enough. And in reality, I couldn’t figure out a way to write about myself personally and make money and live a whole life. Like, what was I going to do? I would have to do crazier and crazier stunts. My personal life would have to be at a continuous level of interesting in order to sustain traffic. And I realized I wasn’t writing about Legos, or stone masonry, or grinding flour. I didn’t have like a topic. It was sort of like the internet and sex and drugs.

I either would have to do a lot of sex or a lot of drugs. I’ll always be the internet guy or something. I couldn’t line all those up. I got a job as an on air TV host, instead, teaching people how to build web pages. Because I thought if I can teach web page making on this side, and then I’ll build web pages for myself over here, this will be a good balance. But I got hired by a TV station that no longer exists. It was called ZDTV for Ziff Davis television, and I was on a few episodes with Leo Laporte and I got good reviews. But then they got a letter of protests from somebody in Tupelo, Mississippi, who said that they saw me on the TV channel, and they read my website, and they said, I use profanity. And I had talked about homosexual/bisexual behavior, I had you talked about drug use, and they were going to be advocating a boycott of the TV channel if they didn’t kick me off the air.

And so the people who ran the TV channel said to me, “Justin, would you take down all the adult content off your website, please, and we’ll leave you on the air.” I just remember, it was immediately clear to me, I was like, oh my God, if to be in this professional media world I have to take down all the mature content, then I’m literally only going to have immature content left. So I said, “No, thank you.” And I left. And I became a freelance journalist. And I decided to work on video games, because I was like, okay, I’ll have my personal love of the internet over here. And then I love video games, too, but I can make work out of that and write about that.

So for me, I had to divorce what I love doing, the personal expression of what I loved doing from the work. And I think that unless you have a very focused niche that’s about an external thing that you can evaluate consistently for decades and enjoy, then you can make a web online social influencer career about that. But if you want to be yourself, and live your life, and have people support your fancy, that’s a very difficult road to take in public. And I think for me, I was in a position due to the privilege of my upbringing that I had choices. I wasn’t like, the only thing I’m going to get paid for is if I take my pants off on the internet, that wasn’t true for me, I had other options.

So I wouldn’t discourage someone from trying it, but there’s a real psychic cost to being an influencer, building that audience, having people think they know who you are, and then trying to figure out who you are. When you have people you’ve never met tell you who they think you are repeatedly, you have to have a very strong psychic hold on yourself to not lose yourself.

Aaron Dinin:

What you just heard Justin described remains the core challenge of being an online influencer even today. By making yourself a public figure, you’re voluntarily inviting complete strangers into your life. Those strangers are going to have opinions, and whether you like it or not, they’re going to let you know about them.

Justin Hall:

You can think, man, it’s so easy. I just like going out with my mates and we drink this favorite cider, and I’m going to get this slider company pay me, and then I got this car, and we’ll just be sponsored life. It’s all great. I mean, it’s a brutal amount of work. And a lot of the work is not just about calling those companies to get them to give you money. It’s about telling your users to leave you alone when they want that extra level of detail. I mean, what happened to me is I wrote about my life in some detail, trying to be nice to my friends and family, so not implicate people. So sort of a diminishing level of detail. I did this for about 10 years.

And then I met someone I really liked, really liked and felt very compelled by this young woman. And I was going on some dates with her and I wrote about it on my website. And by this time, I now had installed some blogging software called Movable Type. And I was experimenting with blog comments. And people started analyzing and saying, Justin, your relationship with this person reminds me of your interest in this other person and this other person, and they would cite pages on my website from like the thousands of pages in my archive. They’d be like, this relationship with this person, this relationship with that person, they both failed, because of these behavior traits of yours. And this new relationship you’re in is a manifestation of those behavior traits, and it’s destined to fail.

And I was like, I just got like textually psychoanalyze based on my own prior material about something. And they’re giving me a bad forecast on the thing I actually care about now. This website is kind of not so great right now. And then I told this woman I was interested in about this. And she’s like, “I don’t want to be on your website.” And I thought, okay, if I can’t write about the person I like, and if I write about the things I care about and people take them apart and make me feel anxious, I can’t do this thing anymore. And I sort of had a personal breakdown as I faced … In January 2005, I was like, oh, my God, I can’t do this website anymore. I can’t be with people I love and be authentic with people I love in person, and also tell the world about my emotional bowel movements. I cannot do both of those things.

And so I decided to prioritize my in-person relationships and that part of my psychic health. And I cried and recorded myself crying and sort of explained my breakup because I literally had a long history of self-discourse and personal opening and unburdening. And I was wrestling with trying to untangle that. And then people saw me crying on the web. And now, somebody doxed me, published my phone number and my address and said, look at this pathetic crying faggot, we’re going to go get him. And then they doxed the woman I was interested in and they publish her photo and her name and her address. I thought, this is a mess. Why do I want to open my personal life to all these people?

So I basically went dark on personal web sharing, married that woman, and then we got divorced, and then I started writing on my personal website again. But in a much different way. Now, it’s like I write on my personal website a few times a year, it’s not every day, and it’s very much like I hide who the other people are. So it’s really just, I’m only accountable for my feelings and the stories that are about me, and not putting anyone else at risk or up on stage with me. It’s very complicated to live a long, sustained life of integrity on the internet.

Aaron Dinin:

It is very complicated to live a long, sustained life with integrity on the internet, because the currency of the internet is attention, and the things that get the most attention are rarely good things. Since Justin’s heyday, we’ve got endless examples of people struggling with that exact issue. Well, Justin couldn’t have known for sure that would be the case back when he first started publishing online. What makes his story so compelling is that he, as a teenager, had a better sense of what was coming in the future for the web than just about anyone else. And it’s because he knew it had all happened before and it’s all going to happen again.

Justin Hall:

Someday you and I will be dead. And maybe this recording will be etched on a gold record, flown out into space and aliens will listen to this someday, but probably our memories will be wiped from the earth in a couple of decades. And so, we could be sad about that. I think we could recognize that we have a finite amount of time on the Earth. So if you really think about death, it really helps understand attention. Because if we die, the only thing we have to do is to be alive and do whatever’s in front of us, or whatever we choose to put ourselves in front of, or whatever is forced upon us.

So when I think about the internet, giving us all a chance to totally dissolve our attention into a pool of … There’s so much that if I open up a YouTube or a Twitter or a Facebook, I am immediately offered so many things that could consume my attention for the rest of the day. And so having that ability to both totally immolate ourselves in public or to totally dissolve ourselves in these pools of attention is, I think, the great focus exercise for us as individuals, and then as a society. Your attention is your guide, right? Do you naturally keep going back to this thing? I mean, I was lucky that I couldn’t stay away from networked computers with raunchy shit on them.

And so it turns out that network computers with raunchy shit on them is popular with other people. I was fortunate in that where my attention drifted was useful at a time when that was emerging as a field, but it’s always there. I mean, people are so desperate for novelty. People are looking for something that’s new. And every time we find something that’s new, oh, my god, it’s the best way to share videos, oh, my God, we got this new way to get people doing this thing with each other, and it all comes back to the same things. So it’s that oh, my God, we’ve got all these tools, we’re all going to be so connected, we can learn anything we want, and we’re still going to be subject to people who are vain, or greedy, or sad.

All those challenges that we have about being angry with ourselves, about being angry with each other, about fighting, about being afraid of people we don’t know, about being in love with people we’re near, all these things are timeless, and the internet just amplifies them. And so I love thinking about this internet as sort of like an attention exercise for all of us. We have to learn how to do what Howard Rheingold talks about his crap detection and techniques to sort of understand what our sources are and how we fill our brains on the internet. And as soon as we master all this stuff, we’re going to get some telepathy type technology, it’s just going to blow it all out again. And then we’ll have all the same stuff. And it’ll be people just freaking out and some kid takes their pants off on the internet. And everybody’s like, it’s the telepathy with the pants off. It’s a crazy story of our times, and it’s all just the same stuff.

Aaron Dinin:

In other words, according to Justin, the technology isn’t what really matters, what matters is human nature, and the newest technologies of the day just amplify it. Which, of course, we know is true. People were doing drugs, taking naked pictures of themselves, managing difficult relationships and struggling with grief long before the internet, Justin was just the first person to put all those things about himself online. He was definitely not the last. I’d like to thank Justin for taking the time to share his story. Again, I suppose, since this obviously isn’t the first time he shared it, you can definitely go see a much more detailed version on his website, links.net. I highly encourage everyone listening to go check it out. It’s a truly remarkable archive and we all owe Justin a huge debt of gratitude for making it available.

Speaking of gratitude, I also want to thank our sound engineer, Ryan Higgs, for his help with this episode. And I want to thank our sponsor, Latona’s, for their support. Remember, if you’re interested in buying or selling an internet business, don’t forget to check out the latonas.com.

If you’ve got any thoughts or questions about this episode, find us on Twitter. We’re @WebMastersPod. I’m on Twitter too @AaronDinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I-N. And, you’ve got a bit of time, check out everything I’ve written about startups and entrepreneurship over on medium.com. You can find my content just by searching my name. My archive isn’t quite as extensive or salacious as Justin’s, but I think it’ll keep you entertained. And before you go, don’t forget to subscribe to Web Masters on your podcasting app of choice so you’re sure to get the newest episode when it’s released. That’ll be happening soon. But for now, well, I guess it’s time for me to sign off. Goodbye.

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