behind the news

Is this the Web’s first blog?

Justin Hall's 20-year-old website shows how opportunities in online journalism slowly developed
November 5, 2014

Justin Hall runs a blog that has landed him several jobs in journalism. While that statement doesn’t raise many eyebrows today, it was far out of the ordinary 20 years ago when Hall, a freelance writer, started Justin’s Links in 1994. Hall was 19, and the website was among the first of its kind, prompting the New York Times Magazine to title Hall “the founding father of personal bloggers” in 2004. Hall became something of a media phenomenon through the eccentricity of his blog, where he shared everything from nude photos and diary entries to his thoughts on the future of media and the potential of the internet.

Understanding how to build personal brands and audiences have since become crucial skills for many media professionals, but in 1994 there were hardly any precedents.

Today, as online blogs celebrate their 20-year anniversary, Hall’s is something rare: a two-decade-old blog that is still active. Few people can trace their online trail that far back through the same URL: Even those who have been nursing MySpace or Facebook profiles since the very early days of those platforms only have about 10 years to peruse.

But, with its thousands of pages safely archived, not only does Justin’s Links map Hall’s personal coming-of-age-story, it also illustrates the internet’s rapid expansion, and the development of online journalism. Here are some thoughts from Hall, now 40, on what it was like to be an early blogger.

Building an audience

As a techie teenager, Hall had been attracted to the internet but didn’t have a chance to create his own website until he became a student at Swarthmore College. “My timing was good. In ’93 you couldn’t just get an internet account; being in college was one of the only ways. So I got lucky,” he says.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

As the name suggests, Justin’s Links was first a collection of links to what was new and interesting on the Web, at a time when search engines had yet to be fully developed.

The site grew popular because of Hall’s flair for finding the juicier corners of an online world that was still largely inhabited by institutions and researchers, with his popularity peaking at 27,000 daily readers in January 1995. Hall started gradually adding personal stories, sharing everything he cared most about at the time. Being a teenager, that included nude self-portraits, detailed accounts of sexual encounters and experiments with drugs, thoughts about his father’s suicide, and personal relationships—not without reason, journalist Scott Rosenberg credited Hall with having “invented oversharing” in his 2010 book about blogging, Say Everything.

“The personal stories were my contribution to making the Web weird. The early Web did not appear to be very interesting,” says Hall, who describes much of his early writing as a raw stream of consciousness. He had no concerns at the time about privacy or information securitythose were more innocent internet timesbut simply enjoyed the feedback from people who related to his stories, he says. The popularity of his blog may have looked like voyeurism to some, but to Hall it felt more like a sense of community.

Internet idealism and online journalism

Jobs and assignments would soon start trickling in, not despite the overly personal content, but because of it. In 1994, he finagled a call with someone from the Wired’s new online section—his dream internship. The editor typed in the URL of his website during their conversation and got a good laugh, according to Hall.

“The fact that I already had a website meant that I was a good candidate. It was a bit difficult or weird to have a website,” Hall says. He got the internship.

In that same year, he developed an HTML tutorial to help make the Web more widely accessible, later traveling the country promoting what he calls “internet advocacy,” teaching HTML to whoever was interested. “I thought it was important that I wasn’t special. Everybody could do it,” says Hall. “I was very passionate about the idea of creating media space for people to be honest without commerce.”

At the age of 20, Hall was speaking at several conferences, where he delivered that same message. Various industries had started realizing that the internet was a big deal, Hall says, and he spoke twice at the conference New Directions for News.

“So here was this long-haired internet guy talking to these guys in neckties, who thought, the internet is coming, and I could say, yes, it will put you all out of business,” Hall says. Some of his predictions about the future of media and journalism proved prescient. “This is journalism of the future. Give someone a digital camera, a laptop, and a cellular phone, and you’ve got an on-the-spot multimedia storyteller from anywhere in the world,” reads a transcript of one of his talks from 1995.

Jobs in online journalism, and the drawbacks of oversharing

Hall has never profited directly off Justin’s Links, though the blog did lead to other paid work later on: At a fellow Wired alum’s next online enterprise, as a broadcaster at ZDTV, and later as a freelance gaming journalist.

At ZDT however, Hall learned that his online presence could have consequences for his professional life when the obscenities on Justin’s Links were regarded as compromising to the channel. Hall says that realization made him consider censoring his blog, “I thought about that, but only for about a second. I thought, ‘Maybe I should do this so I can get paid.’ But I didn’t see happiness coming out of the other end of this. I had invested so much more in my personal writing.”

Hall’s reaction was different when his online persona started encroaching on his personal relationships. As search engines became prominent, friends and lovers from the past started discovering Hall’s detailed descriptions of them, and not everyone was appreciative. In 2005, Hall was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline “Time to get a life” when he shut down his blog rather than sacrifice a new relationship with a woman who wasn’t interested in internet fame. But neither the blogging break nor the relationship lasted.

As both he and the internet have grown older, Hall’s attitude toward public information has become more guarded, but he hasn’t abandoned the blog. His latest project is a video that looks back on his 20 years online. “I have invested in this crazy, rambling record of someone’s life—why not keep adding to that?” Hall says.

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.