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Celebrating 20 years of Marlborough Online

Last Modified: 10-4-2019 18:18

In 2019, the Marlborough Online website marks twenty years of continuous internet presence. Twenty years is a long time in internet time. To put that in perspective, back in 1999, there was no Facebook, no Wordpress, Google was just one year old, and wouldn't launch Gmail for several years, New Zealand's own Stuff wouldn't launch for another year, and Trademe was just getting off the ground. (Maybe if I'd launched an online marketplace back in 1999, I'd have been much better off financially today!) Top of the South History website, The Prow, wouldn't launch for another ten years, (established with funding from three councils). Digital cameras of the time used floppy disks, and even the cheapest modern smartphones can take higher resolution images than those early cameras. The nearest thing to 'broadband' that was widely available was an expensive ISDN connection that ran at 128Kbps - about the speed of a 2G mobile internet connection – except mobile internet didn't exist back then, and most people used much slower dial-up internet connections from their landlines. Internet access was quickly expanding though, as Telecom had introduced its XTRA service in 1996 with a flat hourly rate of around seven dollars an hour and no data charge, which consumers could pay for with their phone bill. By 1999, quite a few other operators had also entered the market, so that many people had become familiar with the screech of dial-up modems connecting to the internet, occupied phone lines, slow connections that frequently dropped, and websites full of small animated gifs.

Beginnings of a dream

I first connected to the internet in 1996 as one of XTRA's first customers, and by the end of that year, I had already started work on putting together my own website on the free Geocities site, which in a way, was sort of like a forerunner of modern social media, in that it operated chatrooms, and monetised user built web pages with advertising. Though expensive, my internet connection was something of a lifeline for me back then, as I spent a good part of the year recovering from meningitis that nearly killed me, and left me I lacking the strength to get out and about much.

Back then, to built a web page, was rather geeky as you had to get down and dirty with the HTML code which you edited on your computer, and then uploaded with your precious minutes to the web server.

(Note about terminology: The difference between geeks and nerds is subtle but significant. Geeks are technophiles, and love dabbling in technology, so do nerds, however in the case of nerds, their obsession with science and technology tends to take precedence over other things such as personal hygiene, appearance, and relationships, whereas geeks love technology, but also have a life outside of technology, and may also play sports, have an appreciation of arts and culture, and take an interest in fashion. In short, the difference is passion vs obsession. Ironically many modern social media users have more in common with nerds than geeks, even though they might seem highly image conscious whereas nerds typically aren't. Geeks see technology as a cool tool, but keep it in context and balanced with the rest of their lives.)

Anyway, I digress, back in 1996, in my geeky (and occasionally nerdy) excitement about this new thing , the internet, I'd started building a website on Geocities with some information about Marlborough. I'd never intended spending my adult life in Blenheim, and probably like many young people even today, my plans had been to leave Marlborough for brighter city lights, but when I found myself unexpectedly back in my home town, I decided I'd better make the most of it, and start finding out what it had to offer, and share it with others via the web. In a somewhat prescient moment, I felt that depending on a third party to host my information, who might change the rules at any moment, might not be a good idea. (Geocities was later absorbed by Yahoo!, which as it self-destructed, closed down Geocities, destroying thousands or maybe millions of user generated websites in the process.)

I felt it was worth spending money to build and host a website with local information, that was not dependent on the whims of some Silicon Valley dotcom for its continued existence.

Off to a shaky start

In 1999, I formed a company, Marlborough Online Limited in partnership with a couple of other people to among other things, realise my vision of a Marlborough information website hosted on its own domain, as well as develop websites for others and provide technology services. Commercially, the company wasn't a success, however it did get the website www.marlboroughonline.co.nz launched. After a couple of years, those of us who founded the company went our separate ways, amicably I might add, - the issue was that there simply wasn't enough money to go around. After I left the company, I decided that I wanted to continue with the website, even though financially, things were tough for a while.

I can't find the exact date that the Marlborough Online website went live as over the years, not all records have been retained, however I've found from email archives that I did have a marlboroughonline.co.nz email address by May 1999, and by the end of 1999 the website was listed in several web directories. Although the website has undergone a number of changes over the years, some of those first articles from 1999 are still online.

Keeping up with technology

Over the years, I've gradually added and updated content, as well as redesigning the site several times to keep up with modern web trends.

While I'd been with the company, I'd started writing a CMS (Content Management System), as I'd soon figured that hand coding web pages was getting unmanageable as the site grew. Wordpress didn't come on the scene until 2003, and when it did, it was primarily a blog platform, so in 2001 I started developing my own CMS to run the site. Only in 2017, I retired the system Webpression, that I'd developed, and switched the website over to a modern free and open source CMS, Processwire, so that I could concentrate on content and functionality rather than having to maintain a large piece of software in addition to the site itself. Having written a CMS myself, I was a good position to evaluate other systems objectively. I evaluated and rejected many systems before I finally settled on Processwire as a system that would allow me to customise to my heart's content while keeping things user friendly and simple.

I've avoided going down the path of putting content into an app, as this breaks the whole concept of the web, where information is supposed to be openly accessible on any device with a web browser. Apps lock up content in a proprietary closed system. Given that among other things, I have an interest in local history, the idea of placing content in a system which is impossible to link to or archive is an anathema to me, as it risks loss of digital heritage to future generations.

With the advent of smartphones, I've put a lot of work into ensuring that the site is not only mobile friendly, but also mobile optimised as far as possible.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Back in the early days of the site, I went out and shot photos on film, and either scanned the photos, or as film processing services started offering CD-ROMs, I would have films processed directly to CD-ROM so that I could upload images to the website.

In late 2003, I acquired my first digital camera, which greatly enhanced my capability to quickly capture and upload images, although the image quality was still not as great as what I could achieve with film at the time.

Today I work with a Pentax DSLR with a wide selection of lenses for specific applications to cover everything from close up macro photography, to landscapes, to portraits.

I grew up with a fascination for natural history, so I've made a point of photographing a lot of local plants, animals, and fungi as I get the chance, but it takes time to photograph them, then more time to identify them, so a single page on the website can sometimes involve several hours work even if there's only one photo and a paragraph of text. I currently have quite a backlog of images to work through and add to the site to document Marlborough's natural history.

I'd like to do the same with prominent Marlburians, however I'm a bit of a shy person, so asking people I don't know for photos is a bit hard, although it's on my list of things to do.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I suppose one could say a video is worth a thousand pictures, although that's probably quite an underestimate, as at 25 frames a second, just 40 seconds of video is quite literally a thousand images. I do have quite an extensive library of Marlborough footage which hopefully I'll get online at some stage, but it's always a case of time (or money, if I'm going to devote more time to Marlborough Online).

Content and communication

Today, Marlborough Online has over three hundred articles as well as an online shop area which was added in 2018, and a discussion forum area which is powered by another piece of free, open source software, phpBB. I've also set up social media channels on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

I've had a few interesting emails from people searching for information about Marlborough, and it's been quite common for people to email me thinking that I'm the Marlborough Express newspaper. If I were a bit devious, I probably could have made quite a bit of money from people over the years if I'd offered to take there advertising orders, but I've always referred them on to the Marlborough Express.

I perhaps could have developed the site a lot more quickly if I'd investigated applying for grants to fund content development, but I'm not good at asking people for money, and I've always felt that if I could self-fund this website, that would be sufficient.

I've tried a few times over the years to encourage collaborators, but apart from my initial time as part of the company that launched the site, I've never had any success, but the offer remains open.

The future

I don't know what the future holds, but barring any health issues, I'll still likely be working in another twenty years, and hopefully Marlborough Online will have continued to grow in that time. In an age where 'free' social media has come to dominate so many people's lives, perhaps it's a bit quixotic to be spending my own money to build and maintain a website when other people are content to remain within the confines of social media platforms. When I have my doubts, I think back to my own experience with Geocities, and the collapse of former internet titan Yahoo! itself. I consider the somewhat questionable ethics of companies like Facebook, and remember that no one is too big to fail. Because I've stuck to open systems, there's even the potential for Marlborough Online to outlive me, as long as someone is prepared to pay the hosting bills, since the whole website can easily be backed up and transferred to a different hosting provider if necessary. Marlborough Online, I hope, is built to the vision of what the inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee envisaged of his creation; an openly accessible system with information that can enrich the experience of users, without treating them as products or trying to manipulate them.

I'm a proud Marlburian, yet even having been born and raised here and having spent most of my life in this region, I know there is so much about the region that is not well documented online. Though I know quite a bit about the region, I never cease to be amazed at new little details I discover when I investigate.

How should I celebrate twenty years of Marlborough Online? It's certainly not made me rich, indeed it's cost me money, and the content on the site is freely accessible anyway, so some sort of giveaway doesn't make much sense. Given my interest in photography, and desire to showcase Marlborough, I think perhaps a good way to celebrate would be a photo gallery featuring images of Marlborough from the last twenty years. If you'd like to contribute, you're welcome to contact me, and I'll see what I can put together.

 

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