Whatever happened to the good old fashioned academic home page?

How should you present yourself as an academic on the internet? It’s a vexed question. There are just so many options for making a ‘place’ where people can find out more about you that it can be hard to make a decision. I’ve been thinking about this since Blair wrote to me with a question:

I am in the final six months of my PhD and am currently starting to look for academic jobs. I have noticed that a lot of near PhD graduates have their own personal websites that showcase them, their research and experiences. I was wondering if you have written anything on creating one of these and what is the best way to do so and what to include?

Good question Blair – I’ve been so focussed on helping people negotiate the demands of social media and blogging I’ve neglected the good old, stand alone ‘home page’. Remember those? Just a simple page where you put a picture of yourself and some information, maybe some links. You make a home page out of code, or a simple editor link it to a domain you actually own. The idea seems curiously retro in this age of platforms and channels, but since I started to look into it in an attempt to answer Blair’s question, I’m starting to wonder: is the humble academic homepage making a comeback?

Image search for ‘home pages of the 90s’. Takes me back!

The idea of the home page that you edit yourself makes me nostalgic. I was born in 1970, so I remember a world before the internet – even before computers. My first memory of the internet is a friend showing me the text based browser ‘Lynx’ in 1993: we spent a fun afternoon doing this new thing called ‘surfing’. I used a dialup modem to connect to the university internet service in 1994, much to the annoyance of housemates who couldn’t receive incoming calls. If you can believe it, I still have a home-brewed home page, which I only just realised was last updated over ten years ago! I edited the code on this page by hand – which is why it’s nothing fancy. Interestingly, it doesn’t turn up in searches, perhaps because I have so much out there now (I guess I should update it, given that I haven’t worked at RMIT since 2012…).

Webpage aesthetics have changed so much over the decades. The first pages I saw were just green text on a black background. Then came visual browsers, Mosaic and Netscape, allowing pictures and even movement. This led to some truly horrible looking webpages, as most people do not have design training… Academics have always been early adopters of trends in self presentation on the internet. I remember academics making their own ‘home brewed’ webpages in the late 1990s; most were in maths, computer science or physics. You could tell they were Hard Core Scientists who didn’t need no Dreamweaver. Their pages have a recognisable aesthetic that is informed by simple implementation of html: plain white backgrounds, blue text for links and, if you were feeling fancy, perhaps a line break or two.

Non-sciencey academics didn’t seem to bother so much with having a webpage in the 90s, but by the early 00’s, even architecture academics were starting to put up custom built webpages to advertise their research. It made sense back then because University websites did not have content management systems, so getting your details up on the web was a painful process. But the so called ‘Web 2.0’ revolution happened, which signalled a decline in the webpage cottage industry. Suddenly there was things like LiveJournal, then Blogging platforms, later came Facebook and Linkedin and all the rest. Now academics have lots of options for sharing information about themselves and their research, including Academia.edu and ResearchGate, who are both hopeful start ups who want you to spend time making their platform look lively.

As someone said: “If it’s free, YOU are the product”. The problem with so many of these platforms is that you don’t own the data you put on them. Nor can you control what the data you enter into these sites is used for and how much it will generate annoying advertising directed at you (if I see another menopause cure…!). Although I love the convenience of large platforms, and the immediate networks they open up, I think the humble, stand alone webpage has a lot to offer your average academic in terms of self presentation. I asked on Twitter and people sent me a broad range of examples that demonstrated the contemporary, stand alone academic homepage comes in many shapes and sizes.

The home page of David Stern at the Crawford School at ANU is pleasingly simple and shows you don’t have to really push the boat out, design wise, to communicate effectively who you are and what you are about. Likewise Seamus Albion has a charmingly 90’s style page that projects ‘serious academic’ as well as anything. Michael Bulmer sticks with a simple aesthetic, but through his placement of texts and images gives us a hint of his personality too. Ben Swift, a design academic at ANU, had one of the more sophisticated ‘home-brew’ pages I looked at. Interestingly, Ben’s first picture is of his back – which works really well. Most of us would not make such a brave design choice, but you would expect that from a design academic! Alexandra Hogan has a very neatly organised and approachable page, that I quite envy. I also really liked Laura Portwood’s page for the same reason. Both these pages made me reflect on how important the photo of the person is to a page design and how a different emphasis on the portrait can create a very different sense of who the person is.

I asked a few people about what they thought the value of a self owned, self managed webpage was for academics. Most said they liked the simplicity and control the humble homepage offers to ‘package’ their academic identity. As Andrew Glassner put it: “I hope it offers people a sense of the work I do and the things I’m interested in, and it lets me keep these projects organized and in one place. It’s also a single resource to point people to for a CV, or article, book summary, artwork, etc.”. Of course, having a place for people to find out more about you is not a bad idea when you are job hunting, Cadace Lapan put one up and noticed “bumps in page views” when she was looking, although no employer ever mentioned they looked at it. I guess the key advantage of a simple home page is there are no comments to manage!

In my Twitter conversations, some academics, unsurprisingly all women, told me that their decision to maintain their own presence online had raised eyebrows around the workplace. One told me: “I have been questioned at work why I would want one separate to my standard university-provided page, but I strongly feel that building an independent academic online presence is important.” She noted that lab heads in science disciplines will often have one. Perhaps, if you are seen to be coping the ‘higher ups’, you can be perceived as an upstart? Or perhaps it’s just mundane patriarchal crap: policing women’s behaviour is as rampant in academia as it is everywhere.

To get back to Blair’s question, if you are to make a home page, what should you include? Start with a simple picture and bio, written in the first person. This is enough for a useful placeholder and you can use the rest of the space to direct people to other sites, such as your research page at the uni, Linkedin, or your blog. If you’re enthusiastic, you could set up a couple of linked pages to showcase your research and projects, but bear in mind you’ll have to do some routine maintenance to keep it up to date. Don’t forget contact details! I think you should give some serious thought to the images you use, especially if you plan to include a photo. I don’t think you need to have a serious professional portrait taken: you might have one on your phone that better represents your personality and approach to life and work. A little bit of simple fiddling with the photo editor on the phone can make it look nicer (I use SnapSeed on the iPhone). If in doubt, turn the picture black and white – a trick I learned in design school to make it look like you made an effort.

Check out what other people in your discipline are doing, but be bold. Express yourself! If you’re keen to make your own, home-brew, artisanal homepage, there’s some tools that make it much easier. Squarespace is a service where you can pay to craft and host extremely professional looking sites. My friend Narelle Lemon uses this for her Explore and Create Co project, which looks very fancy. When I questioned the cost (it’s not inexpensive) she wisely pointed out that it was the same amount of money as a nice new pair of jeans – and at least as useful. My sister Anitra Nottingham uses Wix, which is a similar product to Squarespace – no doubt there are more. If you’re looking for something cheaper, a few people pointed me at Carrd seems to be a good option, or you can use a free service like WordPress, my preferred blogging platform.

I’m inspired to go back and fix my old home page now! I’d love to hear your experience of making your own home page – and see some examples in the comments 🙂

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10 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the good old fashioned academic home page?

  1. Sean Forster says:

    Hi, Thesis Whisperer. Interesting reading, as usual. But your readers need to be careful with their value-judgements. I’m talking specifically about dollar values. Obviously, there are still people who buy new clothes – including high-priced jeans. But many of us haven’t bought a thing in decades. We can’t afford to! And we see a world awash in clothing which mostly goes to landfill after a couple of wears. Probably some more appropriate measure of value could have been selected to make the point at issue in the article. Best wishes: Sean

  2. Martin Davies says:

    I paid for mine ages ago – I think I paid $100 to someone starting out in web publishing (I’ve since taught myself to put together a WordPress page). It was good enough for me at the time and serves a purpose of being stable when I move institutions. I keep PhilPeople, Researchgate and Academia.edu pages as well but am never really sure of whether I am breaching copyright by putting my papers there. I use Linkedin too but that is more for corporate profiles I think. I feel that a personal webpage is the CV of the 21st century really, and no academic can afford to be without one.

  3. Tom Worthington says:

    Webpage aesthetics have come full circle, since the [first one I did](http://www.tomw.net.au/hitech.html) in 1994. Back then it was hard to have more than one column with inline images, and a text menu. Then all sorts of image and formatting options were added to the web. But smart phones came into fashion, and we are back to one column with inline images and a simple menu being best.

    I suggest a self owned, self managed webpage is a good idea for any self employed professional. This includes academics, as there are no secure university jobs now.

    As for content, you need to have text about who you are, what you do, and how to contact you. One photo is enough. Links to and from trusted sources helps with credibility. That is all you need.

    Some years ago I produced a very simple website for my brother, [Dr John Worthington](http://www.jweducation.com/), an educational physiologist. The austere style reassures parents, and referring GPs.

  4. Frank Carver says:

    I have a personal web page. In fact I have several, and therein lies the problem.

    All the examples you provide are from people with a single primary focus. Sure, they may have varied research interests or an interest in the saxophone, but they only have one job, and thus one way to present themselves. In my experience this is becoming less common.

    For example: I am (in no particular order) A part-time lecturer at a UK university, a part-time PhD student jointly at two UK universities, a director and senior consultant at a 20-year-old software development company, and a novelist. That’s without considering all the voluntary and “third sector” work.

    To put all this on a single page would be needlessly confusing to read. To put this on multiple different pages would be confusing to search for and dilute my “btand”. I have attempted a multi-page website to solve this problem ( http://www.frankcarver.me ), but it is still clumsy and unsatisfying.

    I would love to read suggestions for how to deal with this kind of overlapping online identity in the old idea of “job for life” fades away in favour of the 21st century world of the “side hustle”

    • Laura Servage says:

      Dang. I’ve really struggled with the question of multiple web presences too. No answers — keep waffling between merging and separating my academic work and my less formal writing.

      For those interested, it really is monkey simple to set up and author an attractive page using WordPress. You don’t have to keep an active blog to have and make good use of a WordPress site.

      https://loveormoney.ca/

    • Tom Worthington says:

      Frank, I am also connected with various higher education institutions, and professional bodies. So I have a blog, which I use to post about what I am working on. These posts can point to the official project pages at the intuitions. Also I use this as a scratchpad to develop new projects, which might then gradate to one of the institutions to make the official. This also provides a level of deniability for the institutions, and for me to take credit for successful projects. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/

  5. digiriki says:

    I am in the same boat, and as a person born one year after you, I nostalgically read your history of the webpage.

    It’s been on the my list to create a solid new space by revising one of my WordPress blogs and delete the dreamweaver built site that I haven’t updated in 6 years. (Though I am still at the same institution, I am no longer an assistant prof).

    Thanks for the reminder about making sure it can be found through search engines.

    Happy web designing!

  6. Martine Mussies says:

    Thank you for this blog post! 🙂 It is really informative for me on different levels.

    First I should tell you that it was so nice to see the examples of early web design. As a teenager, I build my first html pages in Angelfire, just a picture, a quick text and some links. With today’s endless possibilities I am often stuck in decision-making and feel nostalgic to that time! 😉

    But I came across this post because I struggled with the same question as Blair. I am in the process of finishing my PhD as well, so I feel I need to look beyond (so scary!). Now, my aim is to maintain a blog that also showcases my academic and musical work and that turns out to be quite difficult. But your examples are inspiring!

    Right now, I am thinking that it might be wise for me to have a “launch”-page, just like Ben Swift, instead of directly showing the latest blog posts. Do you think that this would be more professional? I also really like the “map”-idea that Andrew Glassner presents on his home page. And Candace Lapan’s design, that has the headline of an article/blog above her bio as the starting page.

    Time to experiment some more with my homepage… 😉 thanks again! I have bookmarked your blog for future reference.

    Best wishes from the Netherlands, Martine

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Thanks for sharing Martine! I think seeing examples is helpful. Sort of like choosing a haircut, you have to know the options and be comfortable they fit your personal style. Good luck with your work

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