By the mid-nineties, Michael Sippey was a graduate student at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley in San Francisco, yet described himself as “still a frustrated English major with the writing bug.” Acting on the urge to share his opinions in writing, he ran a website, Stating the Obvious, to which he posted “weekly commentary on web technology, business and culture.” The site was “written in a personable yet professional voice” and featured commentary ranging “from the nuts and bolts of the technology to the potential of this or that business model to fresh ideas on both no one else had come up with before.”
Sippey’s site belonged to the then-flourishing zine genre, an idiosyncratic and eclectic form of publishing that favoured a “person’s continuing compendium of humor, insight, literature or wicked prose” and conveyed “the most important aspect, the preeminence of a person’s voice or approach.”
The media commentary site Suck.com, launched in August 1995, was “widely considered the e-zine.” In posting an essay’s worth of link-laden railing satire to its front page every morning, Suck both pioneered the daily publication schedule on the web and set a tone that was hip, sarcastic, and full of attitude.
Sippey was among the “legion of colleagues” who were inspired by Suck’s particular brand of writing. A “devoted fan” of the zine, he admired its co-founder Carl Steadman for being “before his time.” He also contributed four pseudonymous essays to Suck and, in collaboration with Greg Knauss, founded Suck Harder, a zine made up of pieces that had been submitted to Suck but were rejected by its editors.
No zine was an island. Sippey’s network diagram of his “self-absorbed world of Internet publishing” evokes a tapestry of interwoven zines held together by bonds of collaboration and mutual esteem:
Figure 1: Sippey’s network of zines (detail)
Filtering the Web
In May 1997, Sippey launched the Obvious Filter, a new feature on his site that complemented the essays yet departed both from their weekly publication schedule and, in fact, from the essay format that was favoured by his peers. Nested one directory into his site, the Filter offered a handful of briefly annotated links nearly every day. The links were selected and presented “so tastefully it makes your teeth hurt.” They were “always thought-provoking” as well as “smart, timely, and concise.” Sippey’s “incredibly adroit” Filter was “cooool.” The feature ran until mid-October 1997 and appears to be fully preserved by the Internet Archive in these instalments:
In mid-October, Sippey chose to suspended his whole site and step back to contemplate its future direction. He launched a redesigned site in late December, now offering an implementation of the Filter as a weekly selection of topical links under the name “Filtered for Purity.” The archives of that feature run until late April 1998 and seem to be fully preserved on Stating the Obvious. In another redesign of the site in early May, Sippey promoted the Filtered for Purity feature to the front page and restored it to its original daily publication schedule, which enabled him to drive a “huge amount” of traffic. The “links to and smartass commentary on other people’s content” remained on Stating the Obvious until the end of the year but fell victim to Sippey’s new-year resolutions for 1999, in which he forswore “the self-induced stress of producing daily content, even if that content wasn’t really content at all, but merely meta-content.”
The Internet Archive has preserved a sampling of the Filtered for Purity links in their waning days, but the Filter’s contents from May to late October 1998 are presently unaccounted for.
The Obvious Filter’s tagline, “a sentence, a link, and sometimes a quote,” was a play on Suck’s inscrutable tagline “a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun,” and may have been intended as an oblique commitment to Suck’s daily publishing schedule. A much more immediate point of reference, however, was Dave Winer’s news page model of reverse-chronologically presented, date-stamped and lightly annotated links, whose adoption in the Obvious Filter Winer immediately recognised and celebrated in a brief note.
Sippey considered Winer’s zine DaveNet “required reading” and read it “regularly,” especially since it had alerted him to the “possibilities of fully scripted web publishing and (more importantly) connecting with people.” However, Sippey would not build his site in Frontier, Winer’s content management software, as he was “not interested in using a dying platform,” a reference to the fact that Frontier ran only on Macs at the time, and that Apple’s imminent demise was widely expected. As a consequence, Sippey “didn’t have tools to automatically archive” his site, and would “code manually” instead.
Although Sippey didn’t use Winer’s software for automating web page generation, he did launch the Obvious Filter on a distinctly Winerian note. He made an ironic announcement of his news page as an instance of “pushnetcasting technology,” and thus not only satirised the fashionable “push” news personalisation technology, but implicitly endorsed Winer’s recent assertion that “the web looks just right” without push, and that the news page model of “putting interesting stuff on your home page as often as you can” was a perfectly fine alternative to the unproven new technology.
News Pages and Weblogs
Sippey wasn’t the only site owner, nor the first one, to adopt Winer’s news page model. Early adopters included Andy Affleck (né Williams), Chris Gulker, Cameron Barrett, Peter Prodoehl, and Harold Check (né Stusnick). Neither was he the first to apply the term filter to the news page model. In early May 1997, Steve Bogart set up his own news page in Frontier and named it “News, Pointers & Commentary.” This page had “links to interesting stories or columns that I encounter, complete with any observations I feel like making,” and it would highlight the “one or two stories that I think deserve attention on any given day.” Bogart wanted his news page to be a “useful filter for the vast amount of news and information on the Web.”
Unlike his fellow early adopters of the news page model, Sippey had won several accolades for his zine prior to launching the Filter, including the prestigious Cool Site of the Day award. Outside the circumscribed world of Frontier, he also enjoyed greater visibility than any of the other early adopters of the news page model. It may have been this high degree of visibility that led more than one observer to ascribe the news page concept to him and assert that, “Sippey’s model was adopted by countless others.” Still, there were a number of people in the original weblog network who did adopt the news page model via Sippey: Check credited both Winer and Sippey for being “original in concept,” Peter Merholz was “inspired” by Sippey’s Filter and Jesse James Garrett called it the “inspiration” and “primary influence” of his weblog.
Sippey never affirmed Rogers Cadenhead’s contention that the Filter “may have been the first weblog” as it “demonstrated the concept as a distinct web publishing form.” In late 1999 he did, instead, invite Knauss to publish “My Ass is a Weblog” on Stating the Obvious, an essay that stoked a polemical backlash against the weblog format that zine authors Leslie Harpold and Ben Brown had ignited earlier that year.
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