Culture / Open Source / Technology

From Web 1.0 to Social Media with Blogging Pioneer Noah Grey

15 May 2022 6:00am, by
Ghosting (Noah Grey by Noah Grey

It’s not always easy being a blogging pioneer, but it does give you a unique and far-reaching perspective. Just ask Noah Grey, the creator of the influential early blogging platform Greymatter back in 2000.

Wil Wheaton’s new memoir argues that “blogs look like they do, with the main content in the center and blocks on either side, because Noah Grey did it first.” Yet just two weeks ago, Noah Grey made a surprise return to the online world with a GoFundMe campaign headlined “I am losing my home in four days” unless Grey could raise $35,000 to catch up on his mortgage. And then the internet surprised him by donating over $112,000.

Overwhelmed with gratitude, and with and so much to say about our current social media landscape, Grey agreed to update us on his life, and to share his thoughts on the march of technology, “the old internet,” and the blogosphere of today.

The New Stack: I have to ask, what blogging technologies are you using right now? I know you’ve been sharing your photography and art on your own personal blog at ManMadeGhost.com. Is that a WordPress blog?

Noah Grey: It is indeed! I do mean to redo it when I have the strength and the time. What’s there right now is a dormant holdover from 1-2 years ago when I came back from a very long hiatus in a “start over from scratch” mindset with my then-new work […]. But all of this has given me a boost of confidence in my own history, and sooner or later I hope I can put a more complete picture back out there.

So what are your thoughts on the general social media landscape of today?

Going through what I’ve just been through, I’ve heard a tremendous outpouring of love for “the old internet” that I suppose I represent in some tiny way. But I like to think it’s not merely nostalgia, but a longing for — and, I dearly hope, a slow recentering of — a decentralized, bottom-up, human-centered ethos. […]

I do think it’s safe to say that, like most other “web 1.0” people, my feelings about social media are very mixed at best. I’ve been online before there was a web (starting in the 80s with Quantum Link, which later became AOL), and blogging before there was a word for it. So I am as wholly born into and shaped by the entire history of the web as you can get, and cannot separate caring for its welfare from caring for my own.

I abhor Facebook but won’t publicly criticize it too much, partly because if anyone needs to hear all that’s wrong with it (and Twitter and so on), they’d be very ill-served hearing it from me — they can turn to the vastly superior eloquence of my web-1.0 comrades who’ve remained in the arena for that, if they really need that case to be made for them at this stage of the game. […] I do think that any one figure or body of unappointed people who would dream themselves our masters — and you better believe I’m looking in several other certain directions here — must, at the VERY least, always be held firm to the strictest scrutiny and skepticism.

But also, many people I love use Facebook and all the rest, who gain all kinds of value and fulfillment from it that’s absolutely not mine to gainsay. And I’m sitting here having just benefited from Twitter about as much as it’s possible for any one human to receive. They absolutely serve real needs, but I don’t think they — the particular companies/outlets on top right now — will be the last word on them.

“I think it’s helpful to remember that, for one thing, the web itself and everything we’ve built on top of it is still very much in its infancy in the long picture.”

I have no end of hope when I look at someone like Matt Mullenweg, the creator of WordPress, which currently powers over 40% of the entire bleeping internet — can Zuck and Musk even dream of holding a candle to that? But HE doesn’t control nearly half the net: he’s made it his life’s work to help the net better empower itself. Think of the vastness and the roots of that, and how much that is wanted, needed, and at work right the hell now. That’s a future I’ll absolutely stand on the battlements for.

Are there any interesting blogging technologies out there that you’re keeping an eye on these days yourself?

I’m probably not much more informed about “web 3” at this point than your average geek-layman, and certainly with no clue how it’ll all shake out. I’ll say this much, though: I think it’s helpful to remember that, for one thing, the web itself and everything we’ve built on top of it is still very much in its infancy in the long picture.

10-20 years ago may seem like ancient history to our digitally-retraining brains keeping up with the neverending rush, but the true track of social technology and society itself’s shaping of one another will only be seen in the big picture. Beneath the surface, the human current is vast, slow, and all-powerful. (Think about how “ancient” the telephone itself is, and how most of us might’ve thought 20 years ago that phones had more or less finished shaping society as much as they could.) Overall I think we’re in the middle of a sea change in history that we can’t measure with certainty any more than most people in the mid-1930s could measure to the end of the 1940s.

Every shiny-of-the-moment is standing on a mountain of dead and forgotten technologies and platforms. For all the money and power thrown at them, and for all that they tried to reshape us exclusively in their image, they were weighed and found wanting and moved swiftly on from. Today’s power brokers can throw as much money at any new whateververse they like, and try as hard as they can to control where it’s all going and shape it in their own image. And they might bend it their way for a little while, but the human heart will bend everything back into its own shape in the long run. I have to believe that.

So what do you remember about creating the original Greymatter blogging platform?

I wrote it strictly for myself, in little more than a week (one of the most dangerously manic weeks of my life). I basically taught myself to code as I was writing it, and gods know it shows. (I did BECOME a much better programmer from the experience, but couldn’t show it, outside the total rewrite I wanted to give it but ultimately couldn’t.) Greymatter went from a thing I shared with a handful of fellow ultra-geek friends into the thing that it became — a thing that I didn’t have the strength to maintain very long, and whose collapse and eventual erasure from the memory of the web (so I thought!) had scarred me in ways it took me many, many years to come to terms with. […]

This is obviously getting into highly personal territory here, but I really don’t mind — I’ve written about all this many times in my nearly-30 years of blogging.  Fighting back against stigmas around this and related issues (such as being a male survivor of rape) were very important to me even years before I did Greymatter, and what I always hoped would be one positive little thing I did with my life. I have a combination of bipolar schizoaffective disorder, autism, OCD, PTSD, AD(H)D, and chronic fatigue syndrome. […] With the exception of living in California and Ireland for several years, I’ve spent most of my life here in Texas as a shut-in. So I very naturally glommed onto being online as an escape, a way to leave my four-walled world, to be judged by the words and thoughts I could express when in my best states of mind […].

And — most of all — where I could find out I was not alone, that for everything I lived with, everything I was in mind and heart, there was someone — many, many wonderful someones in fact — who knew and lived with the same things, who understood, who heard and who listened and who needed to be heard and listened to as badly as I did… including a man in Dublin named Barry, who became the best thing that ever happened to me when I moved halfway across the world to be with and marry him — and whose sudden death became the worst. (He was a paraplegic with epilepsy & multiple sclerosis, and died of a seizure in his sleep […] )

I’ve remained isolated for most of the fifteen years since; I haven’t had any local friends for several years, and I haven’t left my home at all for the past few years except for medical reasons until now. […] I obviously had a “damaged” brain from the outset, but after a failed suicide attempt eight years ago (I tried to hang myself, and the noose slipped; I don’t remember it or know how long I was up there), I’ve been experiencing a slow, different mental deterioration. The part of my brain that could deal with code just… doesn’t really “work” anymore. It’s all just alphanumerical soup to me now that’s oddly painful to even look at. (It’s an intensely bittersweet thing to be celebrated for something that I will never be able to do again. […] )

I haven’t written any full software since Greymatter, couldn’t tell you the last time I wrote code at all, and my brain damage has affected me such that (among many other things) I no longer could even if I tried. But it pushed me into giving myself wholly over to photography and art, and those have been, if not nearly as impactful, immensely more fulfilling paths — my ultimate self-therapy. I didn’t choose the detour, but I ended up much better off there in the long run. (And I think the internet ended up far better off with WordPress than it ever would have with me).

And now I have all this, which has given me so much healing and reconciliation with my own past. For this aspect of my life and my heart, I think I can finally say that I wouldn’t rather be anywhere with it than where I am right now. […] My little world in here is my base from which I try to maintain my mind and keep up creative activity, which has always been my greatest self-therapy. […] And… now that my home is secured, I actually want to find a way to get back out there in the world, one step (or turn of the wheelchair, as it were) at a time. […]

And here I thought that after all the time I’ve been online, the internet could hold no more surprises for me…!

[During our interview Grey stressed his overwhelming gratitude — but also turned his thoughts to “countless struggling and disadvantaged people, in situations as bad or worse than mine.”]

No one should need GoFundMe, or to have done “something important” or to have awesome famous people have their back. Every human is deserving of love, compassion, and respect, except those who would take it away from other humans.

And right now — as I’ve said over and over above — I cannot help but believe in human kindness, and the love that we can and must all have for one another. This world won’t make it without it — any more than I would’ve made it here today.

Feature image: Ghosting (Self-Portrait) by Noah Grey.