Whatever happened to the webring? And what was the point?

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When it came to designing websites back in the 90's, there were some non-negotiables if you wanted to be taken seriously.

  • Obnoxious patterned wallpaper?
  • Visitor counter and guest book?
  • Cheesy graphics from a "10001 free images" CD?
  • Midi file set to autoplay?
  • Scrolling marquee to mark your site under construction?
Welcome to the 90's, when everything was always under construction.

The 90s was full of personal and professional sites just like that, their lovely quaintness only matched by their horrible awful festering eyesore.. ness. Everyone was trying their hand at web design, and it did not go well. Still, the main question was how people would even find your personal brand of atrocity. Google wasn't a thing yet. Yahoo! was king of the day, but search engines weren't even close to the all-powerful, privacy-offending nightmare they are now.

So people got creative.

They thought, "Why wait for a slow search engine to index our sites? Why depend on corporations to find and rank us? Quick! Let us finish our homemade granola and join our hands together, in a roughly ring-shaped display of solidarity and oneness, peace and love!" They called these rings of websites.. well.. webrings.

thanks kris

Some believed these webrings would be a viable alternative to search engines, and that major webring sites (more on that later) would return more relevant results. Kinda short-sighted as it turns out, but.. 20/20 hindsight and all.

The "hands" were websites, and the "joining" was adding a link to the site behind you and in front of you. Every site behind and in front of you did the same, and a visitor who happened across one site could keep clicking to find similar content on more sites. In theory, clicking far enough would take them from the last site back to the first. And so the webring was born.

Europa

Before the washer and dryer, there was the washing board and clothesline. Before the car and gasoline engine, there were mules and mulestrian care. How can you properly appreciate automation without looking at what it automated?

EUROPA (Expanding Unidirectional Ring of Pages) was the first attempt at a webring. Started by Denis Howe of Imperial College in Dec 1994 (check out his 35 year old online dictionary too), it was a very manual process, requiring you to create a landing page on your own site by copying one from someone else's site. The person you copied from would change their "next" link to point to you, and send you the URL that used to be their "next" link to make your "next" link. That inserted you into the ring. You can see some archived pages here, here, and here.

That first webring was basically just a webring enthusiasts webring.. how meta.

Sage Weil and Webring.org

The following summer, Sage Weil wrote a CGI app in Perl to automate the process of managing webrings. Jerry Heirro suggested centralizing it, and Webring was born. I was hoping to find some trace of the original script, but it was sold several times over the years. Eventually Yahoo! purchased it, branded it, alienated its core users, ran it into the ground, and sold it off to Tim Killeen, who continued to run it for years.

There were other webring management sites too, but most of them are gone now. Webring.org recently went down, and the the company has been administratively dissolved. WebRingo is one of the few that's still up. You can even check out the first ring from 25 years ago - the ESLoop.

Sign me up!

So, let's say you just stepped off the time machine and want to be part of the fun. You just had to follow the instructions on a ring's homepage, like the European Westernhorse, SoarWest, or City of the Silent webrings. The web is big and there are some creepy damned corners.

Typically, you filled out a form with your website and contact info, received a site id in return, and copied the ring code to your own site. You weren't limited to just one either - the more the merrier apparently. Then the ringmaster or mistress reviewed your site and made it official. And that's it. Being a ringmasterormistress was probably a largely thankless and time-consuming job, like anything administrative tends to be. And ultimately, the concept fell apart, as modern search engines have perfected (and perfectly monetized) the art of indexing billions of websites.

Reinventing the wheel

One final thought exercise. Let's say you wanted to create your own. There's were some scripts out there to create webring sites, but most of them are defunct. Gunnar Hjalmarsson's Ringlink no longer exists, but the CGI Perl code lives on at SourceForge. Brian Huisman's Ringmaker hasn't been touched in over a decade, but the PHP code is still on his site. GitHub has a number of webring repos to check out, quite a few of which are still maintained.

But you can't be kept in a box. You need to create your own, better wheels. What kins of things would you want to think about?

Roles

Ringmasters would need to approve sites, remove them.. suspend them? They could change member details, and view their contact info or otherwise ping them.

Ring members would need to submit their site and update details about it. Maybe your service could even poll member sites periodically to grab the site title, description, favicon, etc. For nuance, members could be assigned different roles to assign different capabilities.

If you were building a system that could support multiple webrings, you'd need a unique ring_id to identify them. Within each webring, you'd need a unique site_id to identify each website (technically, landing page, but whatever) within a particular ring.

Armed with those two pieces of info, you could construct previous and next links that, when the server received the request, could use whatever algorithm it wanted to choose the next or previous site. Part of that process should probably involve doing a HEAD request to weed out broken sites. Or maybe that'd be a separate job that ran periodically.

Webrings had previous, next, and random buttons to navigate the webring. Not sure why though, since some algorithm could just determine what to show next. There doesn't have to be a permanent order to a ring, and clicking any of those buttons could've taken you to any other location. So one "random" button would do.

You might also want the ability to show a list of x number of sites from the ring. Maybe something to list all the sites, especially on the home page for the webring. Oh, and you'll want a button that leads to a homepage that explains the what a particular webring is all about.

UI

Aside from the aforementioned ring controls and administration pages, you'll want a homepage that's separate from the webring itself, which describes the ring, requirements to join, lists member sites, some contact info.. whatever you want. Kinda like those pages I linked to in the "Jump in" section.

Maybe some kind of search function that returns results based on ring members' titles and descriptions, assuming that stuff isn't listed on the homepage.

Oh, and the admin area would probably need a button the member could click on after injecting the site id into the header of their site or something, to verify they own it. Kinda like sites do with analytics codes.

Or not

Better yet, forget all that. Submit your site to a search engine and be done with it.

Author

Grant Winney

I write when I've got something to share - a personal project, a solution to a difficult problem, or just an idea. We learn by doing and sharing. We've all got something to contribute.


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