Is there still a place for a family website in the social media age?
Before the days of blogs and social media, the way to establish your online presence was with a website. It was probably a free website from the likes of Geocities, Angelfire or Tripod, or you might have gone to the extra effort of buying your own domain name and paying a few dollars for web hosting. I’m showing my age here, but we’re talking back in the mid-1990s when AltaVista was my search engine of choice and my Nokia mobile phone was simply for making phone calls.
In those days your personal website was a place to tell the world about yourself and perhaps post photos of your family and friends. You might even post photos of your children and regular updates on their progress — the precursor to modern blogging but on a basic web page. Simple web design tools let anyone build a website, with generally hideous results. Of course we’re talking about static pages with no fancy multimedia or interactive features, just brash colours, ugly layouts, garish animated GIFs and horrid fonts. At best you might have a hit counter and a visitors book — back before the online trolls made such things impractical. These days jerks and spammers would descend on you in droves if you opened up your personal website to anonymous comments.
The late 1990s saw the birth of blogging, which made it easy to regularly post updates without needing to get your hands dirty editing code. Before long the personal blog was the new personal website, with platforms like LiveJournal and Blogger letting anyone set up a blog with a few clicks. Now it was easier to post family updates without needing to redesign the whole page and mess around with HTML tags. Such blogs were open for the world to see, but you were still relying on people to visit your webpage or perhaps subscribe to your RSS feed.
You might have been keen to share your life with the world, but the fact was that even your closest friends probably couldn’t be bothered to regularly visit your webpage or blog in search of new content. Bombarding them with a group email whenever you posted new content didn’t make you popular. As such the majority of personal websites were eventually abandoned, left to wither and die in the online wilderness. Mine is still hanging in there but it hasn’t been updated for about six years — roughly the same time I joined Facebook.
The idea of sharing your life online saw a resurgence with the rise of social networking giant Facebook in the mid-2000s. Rather than simply posting your content on a website in the hope that someone would see it, Facebook combined your content and communications into the one platform. Facebook made it much easier to publish content, from your computer and later from smartphones and tablets. It also made it easier to control who could and couldn’t see your content.
People tend to complain that Facebook has destroyed online privacy, but that’s only because most people don’t bother to understand the privacy settings. Facebook expects you to share everything with the world by default, but it’s not that hard to limit your photos and other posts to close family and friends. I’ve got an inner circle of family and close friends, then a wider group of acquaintances who only see some posts. Nothing is open to the general public, which is the way everyone should set up their personal Facebook account.
While controlling what other people can see, I can also filter what I see from my friends. I don’t have to wade through everyone’s family photos if I’m not interested, nor hear about it every time they play a stupid game like FarmVille. Once you get the hang of strategically restricting your own content and filtering content from others then Facebook becomes a much more tolerable place. It’s certainly worth taking the time to understand the privacy options and then checking them regularly. With the hassles of sharing your posts sorted, you can simply focus on creating new content. Of course there’s no accounting for taste and the bulk of what you find on Facebook is rubbish, but once you understand how Facebook works it’s not too hard to sift the wheat from the chaff.
Like I said, I think the time has finally come to decommission my family website and stop paying a few dollars each year for web hosting and a domain name. There are a few photo galleries that I’d like to keep, but I can recreate them in Facebook as photo albums. Of course I’ve got backup copies of everything because you can’t trust Facebook to keep them forever (or any other online service, for that matter). I could put them in Flickr or Picasa, but my family and friends are more likely to see them if I put them in Facebook.
It’s a shame to pull the plug on my family website, but the time has come. For now Facebook can act as our family website, at least until something better comes along. How do you share family photos online with your friends?