Years ago, back in the heydays of HotWired.com, June Cohen stopped by my desk to show me the project she was working on. June was a producer then – developing new content ideas for the site, pitching them, building them. She eventually rose to be executive producer of all of Wired Digital. But at this point, she was getting ready to start working something new.
Her idea was a good one: She wanted to mine the accumulated knowledge of the HotWired staff for Web development and design tips and tutorials. This was in 1996, I think, and there still wasn’t a lot of quality content on the Web that taught people how to make Web stuff. We had figured out quite a bit at HotWired by then, and she thought it only made sense to share it.
“It’s going to be called ‘WebMonkey’!” she told me.
“That’s a stupid name.”
“Oh, come on. It’s like greasemonkey. We’re mechanics for the Web, after all.”
“Ha! That’s clever! What’s in it?”
“We’re going to start with weekly columns,” she explained. “We’ve got one on scripting, one on plugins, a question and answer feature, and a column on browser developments.”
“Browsers?” My interest was piqued further. I had just started a stint on the W3C’s HTML/CSS working group and had been meeting with both Microsoft and Netscape, looking at their next generation browsers. “Awesome – who’s writing that one?”
“Um… you?” She showed me a prototype, just a quick mockup in Photoshop. It was a column of greeked text with my photo at the top.
“Really? And when does this start?”
“Can you get me 800 words by tomorrow?”
And thus I started my tenure as columnist for Webmonkey. Over the years, I wrote hundreds of columns, branching out almost immediate from just writing about browsers to covering the broader topics of Web design and eventually usability and user experience. The rigor of writing weekly forced me to develop and record ideas in a way I’d never known. And the exposure I got from those ideas led to speaking engagements and the book HotWired Style.
Webmonkey also gave me a chance to experiment with what a Web site could do, and how they could be produced. About 18 months after its launch, I helped the Webmonkey team with a complete redesign of the site, moving from a daily column format to a repository of reference material. That work was significant in that it represented the first time I’d dove into dynamic publishing. We stripped the presentation out of the content and ran it through templates, cutting the amount of production effort required to publish the site down to an almost trivial push of a button. That was seven years ago – a remarkable time to be working on the Web.
Later, Lycos acquired Wired Digital, and scoffed at the amount of effort we put into Webmonkey. We had a dozen people working on a property that did just barely a million pageviews a month. The decision makers at Lycos were more interested in disposable content they could license cheaply and cram down the throats of users who they considered “sticky eyeballs.” We fought them, and refered to them as our “evil overlords” and “those bastards from Waltham,” but inevitably it was for naught. One by one the Webmonkeys – actually all of HotWired’s talent – walked out of the neon green doorway for the last time. A skeleton crew worked under the radar for a few more years, lovingly maintaining the site.
I was in San Diego last week at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference when the news came tearing through the IRC channels that Lycos had pulled the plug. Everyone was fired, and Webmonkey was no more.
I don’t know what that means for the archives; I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Lycos take the whole thing offline. But there are enough of us with a copy of the tarball to ensure the Monkey will spring up somewhere if that happens.
Even though the site has been slowly fading away for the last few years, it’s still tough it see it go. It’s a little like returning to my old high school campus to find it shuttered and overgrown with weeds – an important part of who I became reduced to a cell in a spreadsheet, showing a loss that’s a little too big this quarter.