Hugh Pearman: Searching questions

Maintaining your own on-line archive might not be much of a money-spinner, but it is a great way to avoid getting on with real work, explains Hugh Pearman

As anyone who works at a desk knows, the trick is to delay the core activity – whatever it is you’re paid to do – until the last possible moment. Whereupon panic, or guilt, or at any rate boredom, kicks in and makes you finally do the thing you’re supposed to be doing all the time. And what exactly are you doing all the rest of the time? Displacement activity, of course. Otherwise known as research.

For anyone who sits in front of a computer, the key displacement activity has to be surfing the Net. All of human knowledge is out there, and – this may come as a surprise to many – it’s not all porn-related. Which is why there is an increasing tendency among those of my trade – writers – to turn their displacement activity to financial advantage. They start by reviewing websites, then they begin to write for them, and finally they end up running them. I’ve only done one of those three things. I run my own website, after a fashion. But this is not an earner. My website is an on-line boxfile of things I write, with pictures. Er – that’s it.

It began back in 1997 when I was about to have a book published and was surprised to find that my publisher then had no website.

So I taught myself basic HTML code, acquired some free Web-space, and made a site. It’s probably the only thing I’ve ever designed. No nasty pre-designed templates used, no over-complications, nothing flashing on and off – though I admit I was seduced at first by the freedom to choose from a million background colours, and chose them somewhat over-liberally. To say I was a novice was an understatement: it took me ages to work out how to make a site consisting of more than one page. But I did it. Then I learned how to do the other basic stuff – such as submitting your site to search engines so it shows up somewhere in cyberspace, or tagging pages with invisible relevant keywords so, again, search engines catch hold of it.

Did anyone notice? I don’t think so – it’s like shouting in the middle of an ocean. And now, four years on, things are only slightly different. The site quickly expanded away from the book to become a stockyard of other things I wrote. A few portal sites noticed it and put in links to it. Traffic grew, very slowly. At the start of this year, I finally abandoned amateur status and had the site redesigned professionally – albeit keeping that ultra-basic feel.

Today it’s maintained by Dublin-based Desire Publishing, creator of the rather good Irish architecture site, Archeire (take a look: Why Desire? Because I liked the cool, pared-down look of its other sites, and because the people manning the machines understand what I’m writing about. Which is all you can ask of any publisher, really.

But who visits it? I can tell you that there are about 280 hits a week, so it’s clearly not a porn site, that most of them find it through Yahoo, and most of the rest through MSN Search; that slightly more originate from North America than Europe, with Asia trailing and Africa nowhere. That the US Military scores exactly as many hits as the Russian Federation. I can tell you what browsers they use, their screen resolutions, their operating systems, how many visit direct and how many are referred from elsewhere. These are statistics you get from an ordinary Web tracker. Fascinating, but useless information. The only clue I ever get as to the identity of these mysterious visitors is when they e-mail me: almost invariably students.

So, the website remains displacement activity, something to tinker with when I should be working. No print magazine selling 280 copies a week, for instance, would survive. By comparison, most of the articles originally appeared in a newspaper which sells 1.5 million copies a week. But it’s not a magazine: it’s a personal archive that happens to be publicly accessible, and I’m not so stupid as to think people would continue to visit if I slapped on an entrance fee. So I give it away.

What is it there for? Why bother to have a tiny one-man, ultra-specialised presence in cyberspace? I’ve only recently realised why, and this is very strange. It’s not just a way to avoid knuckling down to real work. It’s because, curiously enough, it feels permanent. A lot more permanent than a stack of yellowing cuttings in a library somewhere. But this is pure illusion: the plug on such sites is pulled as soon as your domain-name subscription is not renewed. Your site will not survive you.

After all this, no doubt thousands of you are itching to visit right now. Tough. I’m not giving you the address. Get on and do some real work for a change.

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