Last month Katherine called out the tension inherent in a “personal” website which is that it is both public and personal, and one’s public (or professional) persona is often different from that of their personal life. Robin Rendle riffed on the concept and said that it’s totally fine for personal websites to be messy or imperfect or weird (i.e., not necessarily how you’d want to present a “professional” front) and declared, in a pretty great and punchy/pithy statement, “You’re a poem and not software”. Manu also picked up the thread and brought up a good point which is that people are complex and are allowed to have multiple selves that they present in different ways (and one great thing about your website is that it’s yours and you can choose which self or selves to present, and how).

So much of this resonates and, like many online discourses, it got me excited and saying things like “yes, THIS” and “oh, I hadn’t thought about that” and “dang, I wish I had said something that insightful” and ultimately pushed me to get out of my head and put my take into words. Specifically, exploring the answer to this question for myself and this space: “How do I want to present myself here, more professionally or more personally?” or, “Which self is this?” I think I’ve landed on something, but to get there I had to reflect on my own story of being Very Online over time and how my respective personal and professional selves have evolved.

First era (circa 1999-2002)

In my first era of personal website-ing, I was an angsty teenager and young adult, and it was the early web. Most of us used aliases or first names only, perhaps out of instinct but also by design (since services like message boards and Internet Relay Chat and AOL Instant Messenger asked for a username, not a first and last name) and were not actively trying to be “professional” and certainly not thinking about our online presences as a way to earn a living. The web was a new place, and when choosing a username and knowing that you had full control over how to present yourself in ✨cyberspace✨, why would you choose FirstnameLastname (boring) when you could be any combination of letters and numbers that you felt better represented you online?

I have a lot of nostalgia for this time, booting up the Compaq desktop in our family’s computer nook, literally spending hours at a time on the web. My parents were totally baffled about what could be so interesting and would constantly ask me what I was doing on the computer for so long and I would be like, “ugh, it’s the Internet, dad, you wouldn’t understand” [puts on wired Sony headphones and fires up a Taking Back Sunday MP3 on Winamp at full volume]. I don’t remember the first personal website I found or how I found it, but I had a general curiosity about how the web was built and started tinkering with websites myself, without calling it web development or front end software engineering or anything, just having pure fun. I represented myself as Rachel, and whatever my URL was at the time.

Second era (let’s say 2001-2012)

When I went off to college, I was more excited about the blazing fast wired ethernet connection, pirating movies and music on BitTorrent, and redesigning my website with astonishing frequency than I was about academic and intellectual growth, setting up the foundation for my career, developing my professional network, and other things I was supposed to be doing. In my mind I very much separated being online (fun! exciting! a bastion of creativity!) from growing up and having a career (tedious. obligatory. dull). I assumed they were mutually exclusive, which I now see was a flaw in my thinking. My contemporaries on the internet were starting to grow up and get real jobs, many of them in design and software engineering which was probably the most logical choice given their interest and skill in the internet and technology as well as a smart bet that the market for the technology running the internet would explode.

I chose a different career path from many of my peers, to become a physician, and specifically a surgeon which is itself a different beast within medicine. My approach to that decision and the factors that informed it could constitute a much longer note, but for now the short version most relevant to this context is that I did very briefly consider working as a designer or web developer and while I was never 100% sure what the best decision would be, my 21-year-old self figured it’d be “easier” (and less illegal) to be a surgeon who dabbled in design as a hobby than a designer who dabbled in back-alley surgery as a hobby. 🤷 But I never seriously considered that my job could be fun or that fun could be my job.

Concurrently, platforms like LiveJournal and Tumblr were being developed, and I joined them out of curiosity. Those platforms of course optimized for the social/connectedness component more so than individual customization, including having a friends-only visibility option (and therefore the opportunity to be more candid about things including work and career), at the cost of full control. At the time I was spending a lot of time writing and designing and building my personal webspace — first hopping around my friends' domains, then on my own space when I bought my first domain in 2002.

Going quiet (2010-2016ish)

Like knowing to use an alias to represent my online persona in my first era, I instinctively knew before and during medical school that my online self, who, while earnest and genuine was also a bit messy and still figuring herself out, was not and never could be the self that was expected to show up to see patients. (At the time I saw that as a required tradeoff, that I necessarily had to give up one thing in exchange for something more important, a noble self-sacrifice that I was willing to make. Now I’d reframe it in less zero-sum terms and more as a type of code-switching: I don’t have to be a martyr or hide the core of who I am; I get to have different selves and speak different languages, which is a good thing! But along with that comes the responsibility to choose which self is the best, most appropriate one for the situation. I could say a lot more about the environment of medical training and the institution of medicine but this note was supposed to be about websites, so I’ll stop pulling on the thread for now.)

Anyway, because of this and also the general time and energy limitations of working up to and sometimes over 100 hours a week, I wrote online with much lower frequency and mostly behind walled gardens throughout most of my clinical years.

Third era (~2016 on)

So here I am in my third era of being Very Online. Even though I’d spent a lot of time consuming stuff online during the previous phase, it was mostly through social media and, like everyone else, I shifted from desktop to mobile as a primary mode of accessing the internet. I also stopped doing any form of web development entirely, and coming back to all of that was kind of overwhelming. The last time I’d maintained a personal website regularly, I was designing layouts in a pirated version of Adobe Photoshop, Chrome developer tools didn’t exist, and I had never used any form of version control (didn’t even know what it was). I ran my site on Textpattern and assumed I’d have to choose a CMS again; I had no idea what a static site generator was.

Around the same time, I got my first job outside of clinical medicine working for an online medical reference. I certainly wasn’t hired for any technology expertise, but I wanted to be around people building tech products so I could learn from them, and I think my sheer unbridled enthusiasm, plus a psychologically safer environment where kind people were willing to teach me things, did help me learn a lot on the job. For the first time in my professional career I felt like I could be more like the version of myself that I was most comfortable being, and instead of just barely being tolerated, that version of myself was celebrated.

I also continued to be online, for fun, outside of work, and in the past several years, instead of presenting different selves personally and professionally that I have to toggle between, I feel like each of those selves is becoming more congruent with the other.

I have a few more things to cover but this feels like a good place to pause, so would ya mind holding my spot? I’ll be right back. (Part 2 coming soon.)