July marks the 21st anniversary of my website, and that’s…pretty cool. As the old joke goes, my site is now old enough to drink. Well, old enough to drink in the U.S.A., where we have stupidly high drinking laws (thanks, M.A.D.D.).
This post is going to be different from my usual style. I’m not a huge fan of celebrating arbitrary milestones, but given the magnitude of this one I figured it’s worth mentioning. Besides, it’s been kind of revealing seeing how my site has evolved over two decades.
The whole thing started way back in 1998 as a response to the general lack of reptile information on the web, and over the years it has grown into what it is today. I’m skipping ahead of myself, though. First, we need to go back a little further.
1996 — Dan’s TLW: JP Fan Page
1996 was the first year that I really spent any kind of quality time on the internet. This was a little late for my generation, but in my defense, my only experience with the internet before then was hanging out at a friends house and watching them roleplay or troll around on chatrooms.
That kind of social interaction was never my cup of tea. So, at the time, I decided that the internet didn’t offer much and I steered clear of it. Then, in 1996, I started using the internet to do some research regarding video games and the soon-to-be sequel to Jurassic Park, The Lost World. We were on the cusp of a new generation of videogame consoles and I was trying to figure out which system would be best for me between the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64 (I wound up going with the N64, which was a mistake for someone wanting a licensed JP title, but more than made up for it with the Turok series). During my research, I stumbled upon a website dedicated to news and rumours for the Jurassic Park franchise: Dan’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park Fan Page (now Dan’s JP3 Page, which is largely a ghost site) The site was pretty limited (as all websites were back then) but it did contain something very special: an active message board. I had not used message boards before, and I quickly grew fond of this style of communication. Message boards were slower than chats, so you had enough time to formulate your thoughts, and they lasted in perpetuity so you had to be sure of what you said since the record would be out there for all to see. Dan’s board brought people from all around the world to talk about their shared interest in dinosaurs and the JP films. It was during this time that I conceived of my handle (which you can read more about here). Dan used the infamous Matt’s wwwboard. This was the hot message board of the time, with hundreds of sites taking advantage of its threaded design. Back then, one had to have a good working knowledge of PERL, as well as access to the common gateway interface (CGI) bin on their website in order to have the board work at all, but every site I went to that had one was always booming with interaction.
The Dinosaur Mailing List
My interactions with various paleophiles on Dan’s board further stoked my interest in paleontology, but it never quite slaked it. Few people had more than a basic level of knowledge on dinosaur systematics and biology, so most interactions devolved into the standard “what if” match ups between different dinosaur species (along with in-depth interpretations of the films themselves). In early 1998, I learned of an e-mail list server that was frequented by professional paleontologists and that often had higher level dinosaur discussions. It was the Dinosaur Mailing List (DML).
The DML started in late 1993 / early 1994 at the University of Pennsylvania. It stayed there for a few months before getting officially archived at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The DML formed as a list server for paleontologists and avid paleophiles. It was and still is operated by paleontologists Mickey Rowe and Mary Kirkaldy, along with their sister listserv—the VertPaleo mailing list—operated by Sam McLeod. Learning of a place where professional paleontologists routinely hung out was an exciting discovery for me, and figuring out how to join the list was a fun little mystery. The instructions for joining the list are now readily available, but in the late nineties you had to rely more on word of mouth to get on the list. You also had to be pretty devoted. When I first joined the DML I was immediately inundated with ~100 e-mails a day. The big thread at the time: “Pack Hunting” theropods. It was basically the same type of discussion I would see on Dan’s board, only with more detailed and well-cited arguments.
I initially read every e-mail that came in, but as the months progressed I got more discerning and would delete the e-mails that didn’t really interest me. The DML continues to this day, but the rate of new e-mails has dropped considerably (typically 1–3 a day, all about new discoveries or news stories). Much of the discussions has moved to other venues that I will discuss further down.
The point is, the DML played a large role in cultivating my paleontological knowledge, argumentation skills, and secondary research abilities (i.e., looking up papers).
Okay, so enough preamble. Let’s get to the meat of the post.
It was in mid-year 1998 while frequenting the message board on Gremlin.net. I had brought up some random bit of trivia regarding some reptile or another when someone mentioned that I really should just write a webpage to correct people’s general information about reptiles. The statement was mostly in jest, but it struck a chord with me. I thought to myself, why not? At the time, the internet was just starting to swell with new information about every subject imaginable. Most websites that talked about reptiles at all, usually focused on reptiles as pets. I was more interested in reptiles as animals in their own environments. I felt that this was a need that had yet to be filled, so I decided to fill it.
I already had basic knowledge of HyperText Markup Language (HTML). I certainly knew enough to make a simple webpage. Between my basic knowledge, the tutorials on the now defunct Webmonkey website (now just a crummy redirect to Wired magazine), and cannibalizing other website source code (a standard programming technique), I was certain that I could pump out a website in no time flat and start disseminating accurate reptile information to the world.
So it was decided. Now came the tough part.
Where should I put it?
Limited income at the time meant that paying for my own web host and domain name was out of the question. I had to look for free alternatives. Thankfully, back in the nineties, free web hosting was all the rage. The heaviest hitter at the time was Geocities. It was the number one place that people with no coding experience (or worse: FrontPage experience) would go to make a webpage. Since it catered to the lowest common denominator, Geocities webpages were notorious for looking terrible. They often featured popups, random MIDI files running in the background, poorly coded frames, and the bloody <flash> tag encouraging epileptic seizures among anyone daring enough to stay on their page for more than a few seconds.
It was basically MySpace before MySpace.
Of course I didn’t have to make my page look like a cancerous eyesore, but the mere thought of being associated with Geocities was too much. Furthermore, all Geocities sites were simple webpages that people would just tack their latest update on top of. As such, many pages had slivers for scrollbars, because their damned page would extend forever. So I looked elsewhere. Eventually I found Tripod.com. They still had popups, but only one per page load. Further, you could have multiple pages and multiple directories (it was a big deal back then). On Tripod I wasn’t limited to making a webpage and instead could focus on making a full-blown website. Tripod was the perfect fit. So I created an account and got to work.
Building the website
I spent the better part of the first month working on the site. I started with a simple intro to the site, along with some basic navigation information before moving into the individual reptile pages. This turned out to be a greater undertaking than I anticipated, but I was dedicated and I had the free time to pull it off. The end result from that first month’s worth of work was the main page, a few ancillary pages, and a breakdown of each major reptile group including a remarkably fleshed-out crocodylian section complete with individual species pages.
All of those pages can still be found using the links on the side of the site (e.g., my first species profile).
There was also this page talking about what it means for an animal to be cold-blooded. This seemingly innocuous page would wind up foreshadowing the direction that the site was going to go.
Most of the images I collected came from books on reptiles (e.g., practically all the crocodylian image content came from the Crocodiles and Alligators book edited by Charles Ross back in 1989), though a couple of them were pilfered from Adam Britton’s Crocodilian.com. The concept at the time was to collect the images I needed and then make a dedicated photo credits page that detailed where each image came from. Ideally, what I wanted to do was have each image linked to their photo credits page. So you could do a rollover or a click and see who took the picture. Unfortunately, that was a level of coding I wasn’t familiar with and as I wrestled with how to do it the photo credits option got pushed further to the back burner. It wasn’t until Dr. Britton contacted me directly to let me know that my method of collecting images was not acceptable, did I finally get off my duff and get the Photo Credits page up and running.
My goal with the images I used was to make sure that they always showed the animals being active. One of my biggest pet peeves—then and now—is when books talk about some reptile group and only ever show the animals in a very lethargic, sluggish pose. These poses are often not accurate representations of the animals in life. They are either taken when the animals are inactive (e.g., crocs sleeping through the daylight hours), or are staged (many lizard and snake images are taken when the animals have been artificially cooled down, so they won’t move away before the shot can be taken). This bias in how reptile photos are taken compared to bird and mammal photos, has helped to foster the misconception that reptiles live in the slow lane. By only ever showing active poses of the animals I was writing about, I hoped to help push back against this way of thinking.
Leaping without looking, Webjump
Tripod was a great host for my burgeoning website, but it did have its limits. I didn’t have a domain name, so it was simply members.tripod.com/~jurassosauridae, which was asking a lot for anyone to type in (Note: the URL still works, but it features a redirect to Webjump. I strongly urge you not to go there for reasons outlined below). I also had a limit on how far down I could make my directories (two levels only). This made it hard to try to put together the directory tree that I wanted (essentially one that mimicked the taxonomic relationships of the animals I was writing about). After a year and a half on Tripod, it was time to move Jurassosaurus’s Reptipage to a webhost that offered more freedom.
This was another free hosting site. However, unlike Tripod.com, I could have multiple directories with Webjump. Instead of a popup, I would get a single banner ad, which seemed less intrusive, and instead of a long, cumbersome URL, I could have a subdomain (reptilis.webjump.com). With all these potential improvements to site design I was quick to move things over there.
That turned out to not be such a good idea. Webjump suffered from management problems and there were multiple times when the site would not come online at all. Many times I would try to adjust something only to have it fail on the Webjump servers. Webjump was also a bit shady, with malware being a common problem. Heck, I can’t even link to the Webjump website now, since it is apparently infested with a malware redirect.
At this point with the website, I had started experimenting with frames. These were the HTML equivalent of MS Word tables (and just as buggy). The site had not grown much during this time. The crocodylian section was still the most fleshed out area. I did start expanding the chelonian and lacertilian area of the site, but the individual species webpages were nowhere to be found. I also was not happy with the site’s navigation and so I kept experimenting with ways to make it better. I even played around a bit with affiliate linking and advertising. As far as I can tell, none of that really went anywhere.
The birth of reptilis.net
Ultimately, the limitations of a subdomain had grated on me and in February of 2001, I decided to bite the bullet and buy a domain name. On the bright side, domain names were pretty cheap now. My financial situation was much better, making recurring payments for a domain name no big deal. Reptiles.com and .net were both too on the nose and had already been taken up by domain squatters (which are still holding the domains for ransom). So I decided to go back to basics. In this case, Latin. I wanted something that represented the content of the site—reptiles—without being too wordy. My options were either the ancient Greek form for reptile, herpeton, or the Latin form, reptilis. The latter ultimately gave rise to the name we all know and love today, so I went with that (besides, herpeton also gave rise to word herpes, which I’d rather not have the site associated with).
My frustration with Webjump had reached its peak at this point too, so I decided to move the website once more. This time to a free hosting site that would let me link to my domain name. Freeservers.com.
Freeservers worked well for quite a while. I had access to a few gigabytes of webspace and a usable chunk of bandwidth. I still needed to show a little add for Freeservers somewhere on the site, but it was largely unobtrusive. Along with the domain name I also had access to domain-based webmail. I took advantage of that for a time too, sending my DML mail there and using the e-mail as a direct way to contact me with website issues. This turned out to be a mistake as spam had really started to taking over the internet. Leaving an e-mail address out in the open was a surefire way to be the target for tonnes of useless e-mails. In the end, that e-mail wound up getting left for dead as the lack of any spam control on the Freeservers side made it exhausting to have to wade through hundreds of useless e-mails a day on top of the hundred or so DML e-mails.
It was at this time that I also decided to trim the name of the website. Jurassosaurus’s Reptipage was just too cumbersome and sounded more like a personal diary website. So I dropped my internet handle and just used The Reptipage. This was easier to remember and easier to talk about.
A whole lotta nothin
From 2001–2007, the site stayed largely static. Real life requirements of work and college ate up much of my free time. The creation and rampant success of Wikipedia meant that much of the initial intent of the website was already being catered to via Wiki entries (at least it seemed that way). The amount of effort that it took to create an entire page dedicated to a single species, could be done in an afternoon using the WYSIWYG editor built into Wikipedia. I tried playing around with some WYSIWYG editors (Dreamweaver, mostly), but I was never happy with the extra bloat code that it would stick in there.
More importantly, though, my goal for the website had started to change. When I initially created the site, I wanted it to be a place where people could get up-to-date information on the various reptile species. However, in the process of making the site, I came to realize that what I really wanted to do was dispel a lot of misconceptions about reptiles. These included misconceptions by the general public, and the eerily entrenched misconceptions I was seeing in paleontology. Speaking of paleontology, there was a dearth of paleo-information on my site too. For a paleontologist in training, this bothered me. I had sections devoted to extinct reptiles, but I kept getting caught up in the extant realm, so those pages stayed static. Things needed to change.
So I started playing around with the format of the site a bit. I still wasn’t sure exactly what it was that I wanted at the time. I tried messing around with server-side, to see if the increased dynamism would make the site more user friendly, but my Freeservers account did not allow access to a CGI-bin, nor support for Personal Home Page / Hypertext Preprocessing (PHP). At one point, I threw in a “mission statement”, which I wrestled with since it gave off more of a religious vibe than I intended. I routinely would look back and read my various older pages to see what stuck out about them that I liked so much.
Every time I would come back to the page on Cold-Bloodedness
This simple page was the one that most closely encapsulated what I wanted to do with the website. It offered useful facts and information about different reptile species, but it was done in service to a greater message about the animals themselves and how we interpret their lives. This was what I wanted to do more of.
I tried a few test pages for a new edition to the site that I was going to call Editorials. It would basically be a more opinionated take on something in the literature or current zeitgeist, that I felt needed clarification and fixing. Despite starting fairly strong, the requirements of my real life kept getting in the way, and made it harder to come back to pages that required so much back-end work to finish. Ultimately, the Editorials section died on the vine, but not before it gave rise to the biggest and most effective change to the website.
The Blog (Reptilian Rants)
In January of 2007 I decided to do a drastic reformat to the site. Web 2.0 was already well into full-swing, and blogging had become an incredibly popular platform for disseminating information. In the nineties, most blogs were just site updates that doubled as life updates, but by 2004, the general public latched onto the concept of blogging, and free blogging platforms like WordPress and Blogspot, allowed them to do so. In many ways, blogs became a more permanent extension of message board posts. Of course, most blogs sucked (surprise, surprise). The diaries of the average person are rarely all that interesting. However, during this blogging explosion, a subsection of blogs appeared: science blogs. Here, scientists or science journalists from every possible field, were writing about their work and the work of others from a critical perspective. Science blogging gave us Tetrapod Zoology, Not Exactly Rocket Science, Bad Astronomy, Laelaps, and many others. This “extended message board post” was the direction that I wanted The Reptipage to go.
Placing a blog on my website required another web host move. I didn’t simply want a reptilis.wordpress.com site. I wanted The Reptipage to remain as it was, but with a blog running on it. I could do this using the open-source software provided by WordPress. However, the inability to use server-side code such as PHP, meant that my time at Freeservers had come to an end. It was time to pay for a web host.
So I moved the site to 1and1.com. Here, for a modest fee, I could have the necessary PHP and My Structured Query Language (MYSQL) access that would allow for the WordPress software to run.
After some trial and error, the WordPress blog was installed on the site, and Reptilian Rants was born.
Finding my (blogging) voice
The first two years of the blog were filled with some more attempts at seeing what worked. For the most part, I would comment on biological and paleontological news stories that interested me, but these were pretty few and far between. In February of 2008, to help increase traffic to the site, I decided on doing a 30 day challenge where I would write a new blog post every day for 30 days (it actually wound up being 29 days, because February was a dumb time to start that challenge). It was an interesting experience, but it did little to stop the trickle of content. For much of 2008 I continued to just give quick takes on science news stories, with the occasional “rant” thrown in. It was during this time I came to a realization:
I didn’t want to be science blogger.
At least, I didn’t want to be a science blogger who only ever talked about new discoveries. The internet had plenty of those, and that style of writing just wasn’t what I wanted to do. Ultimately, I just wanted to write about things that interested me, and to give my take on concepts in the fields of paleontology and biology. I also wanted a place that I could just do a knowledge dump, so that if I ever needed to remember it again, I could just look up the blog entry. So in 2009, that’s exactly what I started to do.
The Reptipage finally hit its groove.
The rise of social networks (and the death of blogs)
Social networks started around the same time that blogs were booming, but they didn’t really hit their stride until Facebook opened its doors to the general public in 2006. On Facebook, people could create groups where they could chat about that a specific interest. One no longer had to go to a unique URL to read someone’s thoughts. They could just visit that person’s page or see their new post in a group. The building of walled gardens on the internet had begun. Twitter.com allowed for immediate posting of thoughts to the internet and encouraged glib communication. It effectively gutted chatrooms. Slashdot / Digg / Reddit re-imagined message boards and allowed groups to chat about whatever subject they liked. Between this and Facebook, site-specific message boards all but withered away. The rampant success of YouTube, changed the whole interactive landscape by moving people into video-based interactions rather than text-based ones.
The internet as a whole underwent a radical shift in format during the late-stage noughties and early teens. Among the many casualties of this social media revolution were blogs.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I mentioned earlier, most blog entries were extremely mundane accounts of a person’s daily life. Social media gave the average Joe a place to share their news and express their views. This freed up the blogging space for journalists and scientists. As such, blogging quality took an upswing during this time, even though individual interaction was on the downturn. Sadly, this quality uptick would not last. As we progressed through the teens, the pull of social media grew ever stronger, and more and more interactions took place behind these walled gardens. If you were a professional blogger, and your income was reliant on ad revenue from visitor clicks, you had to move over to social media if you were to survive. Thankfully for me, The Reptipage was never designed to generate revenue (though it would have been nice), so the drying up of internet blogging had little effect on the site.
All that said, one might wonder why The Reptipage doesn’t have a social media presence. I’ve been asked to start a Twitter / Facebook for the site before, but the interest just isn’t there for me. The main reason why, is because doing so locks my content to those social media networks, and that’s just not good. Had I said this back in the early teens, I would likely get lambasted for this pessimistic take on social media. However, now in the late teens, more and more people have come to realize that social media is not what it is cracked up to be. Rather than encourage the democratic exchange of ideas, most if not all social media sites have devolved into a cesspool of tribalism, hot takes on news, and memes. Perhaps worst of all is that social media has encouraged the sharing of links rather than the creation of new content. The majority of what goes on on sites like Twitter and Facebook, is just people swapping links around (often, multiple times). Occasionally there will be an interesting discussion where someone posts a well thought out argument complete with extensive citations. However, because of the way in which these social media sites work, these posts are quickly lost to time as they get buried by ever more “new” content. The search function on all of these websites is atrocious, and the locked-down aspect of these sites keeps search engines from crawling them. Thus, a good or even great discussion has a very short shelf life on these platforms.
That’s not what I built The Reptipage for. Further, the site is not a character. I have a social media presence, but my site will forever just remain this spot on the internet. Link sharing is encouraged if one likes one of my posts, but I don’t see myself migrating the site to any of these social media platforms anytime soon. Judging by the way public opinion has been turning as of late, I suspect that social media is slowly but surely starting to lose its grip on people’s attention spans. As for what will replace it, or if we will ever go back to the internet of old, who knows?
So here we are, twenty-one years of The Reptipage on the internet. What started off as an exciting idea, has become an integral part of my life. It survived the creation of my academic career, and several interstate moves. The site’s never been very prolific, since it’s just me, but it’s always been rewarding. I think if I ever did a word cloud of my blog posts, the largest phrases that would show up would be “sorry for the delay” and “the site has been quiet lately”.
Despite the sporadic updates, my site has continued to grow, and even gain a bit of a following. Many more prolific science blogging sites have shut down over the past few years due to the lack of time commitments from their creators, or the lack of revenue needed to sustain them. The Reptipage, however, just keeps on trucking.
The future of The Reptipage
That brings us to today. What does the future have in store for the site? Well, probably
more of the same. I have no shortage of things to write about, only a shortage of free time. Truth be told, this whole post was mostly written last year in celebration of the more round, 20th anniversary. However, a rather large shift in my current academic life forced the site onto the back burner just a few weeks before I was going to polish this post and publish it. This was very frustrating, but this is what occasionally happens when blogging is the hobby rather than the job. This post isn’t even the most egregious. I have some drafts that are approaching 5+ years now.
Posting frequency will probably always be sporadic as the site takes a backseat to research, publications, teaching, etc., but I will continue to do my best to put out well-researched content offering that contrarian point of view from my little dark corner of the internet.
Here’s to another twenty, er one, years!