20 years ago today, I published my first website. But the real epiphany came afterwards.

Logo for my 1994 website, EdWeb, circa 1997.

It’s incredible how time flies.

Twenty years ago today, I announced the publication of my first website. We didn’t have Facebook or Twitter back then, so I used the most common form of social media at the time — email lists — to spread the word.

I still have a copy of that email:

Hi everyone. For the last several months I’ve been making posts concerning an on-line education resource guide I’m writing. We’ll, the prototype is finally on-line. It’s called EdWeb and it can be reached at:
http://198.187.60.80
This is a temporary site, so I’ll repost in a week or so when it’s permanent.
I’d like as many people as possible to look around and send me feedback. EdWeb is an on-line tutorial on education reform and the Information Highway. It also has a large k12 online resource guide (a hypertext version of the one I’ve posted). EdWeb is meant to be an evolving hyperbook, so all comments will be taken seriously. I’m especially interested in n comments on the reform sections – I want to include as much info as possible (without taking any sides, of course), so any additional info would be great.

Back in the summer of 1994, I was on a post-graduate fellowship from Northwestern University’s Annenberg-Washington Program, working at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. My fellowship didn’t have a specific mandate, so I decided to research two different topics that interested me — education and telecommunications policy. As I worked on both subjects, I began to think about how schools and teachers would have to change once they were connected to the Internet, as well as the potential balkanization of the Internet into a smaller civic space and a more dominant commercial space.

By the time I was done, I had a bunch of essays of varying lengths, with no real outlet to publish them. So I decided to learn HTML and commandeer the desktop computer I used at CPB and set it up as a server. Posting a collection of essays didn’t feel like a great use of bandwidth, so I decided to riff on Engines for Education, an early online project created by Roger Shank and Chip Cleary. The site was created like a Choose Your Own Adventure — you’d create your own personalized reading experience based on what questions you wanted to explore.

So rather than publishing half a dozen long-form essays, I decided to cut them up into scores of concepts — maybe just a paragraph or two long. I then tried to map out what questions might arise from them, and link them to other concepts discussed in the essays. Before long, I had a collection of 150 or so concepts linked together in all sorts of different ways. And for lack of a better name, I called it Education Web — or EdWeb for short.

On October 14, 1994, I felt EdWeb was ready-ish for prime time. So I posted a note to a number of education-related email lists inviting people to check it out. I didn’t get a huge number of responses, but the ones I did were both supportive and intimidating. Supportive in the sense that they appreciated my efforts and were curious to see how it would develop. And intimidating in the sense that the people wanting to talk to me knew a hell of a lot more than I did on the topic. Here I was, a glorified intern who slapped together some persona ramblings about education and technology — and now I was getting questions from actual educators and technologists. The cold hard reality was that their questions were often so advanced, I had no idea what to say to them.

So then I had an idea — why not admit the fact that I don’t fully know what I’m talking about, then encourage everyone to join a conversation so they could help answer each others’ questions? Within six weeks, I had my first online community going: an email list called WWWEDU. It was one of the very first forums anywhere dedicated to the role of the Web in education. Despite my relative inexperience on the topic, the community thrived. I ended up working full-time at CPB, launching some of the first grant programs dedicated to user-generated content and civic uses of the Internet.

As my career developed, I continued to embrace that simple idea: that it’s okay to be transparent about what you don’t know, especially if you’re in a position to mobilize others to help you and each other. I went on to create successful online communities on bridging the digital divide and mobilizing online volunteers during natural disasters. In 2006, I went to NPR to embrace the public in public radio, creating an army of people who wanted to help us be better journalists. And it led directly to mobilizing countless volunteers to help me cover the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012.

Some things haven’t changed much since I rolled out EdWeb 20 years ago. My HTML isn’t much better than it was back then, and I’m completely lost when it comes to more advanced website design. But that simple website I created 20 years ago — and the email list that followed it — led to something much more important. It showed me how a little openness, a little humility and a willingness to listen to other people’s ideas made me a more-informed person, while informing the rest of the community in the process. So to everyone who’s ever answered a question of mine via email, an @ reply, a bulletin board, a subreddit— I thank you. I literally couldn’t have done any of this without you.

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