Over the years, I've bounced back and forth on what I want out of a personal website. I also have no idea how to set the tone properly, but this is probably the place to do it.
I recently saw an interesting post by Jean Yang where she goes through a week snapshotted at different points in time, from undergrad to PhD to starting a company. I figured I'd give it a try on my online presence, which spans 2007-2020, where I'm currently writing my first blog post on my shiny new website! That is, my ninth (!) shiny new website.
2007: anon internet contributor, part 1
In 2007, I started a blog about current events and the juiciest tips and secrets for an online Flash hangout called Club Penguin. This started out as a fun experiment with friends at school, with whom I would hang out physically and virtually, but it quickly became more than that. Aside from my becoming unusually obsessed with Club Penguin, I was still amazed my audience could grow so much just from organic search traffic -- 23,000 hits in ten weeks.
I did burn out after just those ten weeks, but not before building out a series of articles totaling several thousand words and making three to five posts a week. Keeping up with trends is hard even if you may have a lead in the market.
Fun fact: I accidentally deleted the entire blog at some point during those ten weeks. I was able to undelete it within a day or so with an email to WordPress support though, with as much professionalism as a panicked tween could muster (read: I write in full sentences but end each of them with "!!!"). I, for one, am forever indebted to soft-delete.
2012-2013: anon internet contributor, part 2
In 2011, I got a request from one of my friends to put my absolute pitch to good use and make sheet music out of Ray Mak's cover of Rebecca Black's song Friday.
I did, along with a few more transcriptions of YouTube piano covers on sheet music paper. About a year later, I saw a rising trend of covers on YouTube in general. (Although I was at least five years late.) Even though my technical skill on the piano wasn't at the point where I could learn to physically play my transcriptions at the rate I was producing them, I jumped on the bandwagon. I converted my sheet music into digital form using Noteflight, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get musical notation editor that also supports playback. I recorded screen captures with audio and posted them to YouTube, where I gathered a tiny following and some thankful comments.
At the same time, I maintained an accompanying blog where I took requests and produced around forty instrumental renditions of pop music and soundtracks, both original arrangements and transcriptions. The whole endeavor lasted about a year and a half before schoolwork took priority. I also felt similar pressures trying to keep up with the latest new songs as I did with my last project.
Fun fact: sometime in 2018, Ray Mak finally saw my tributes. I wonder if it was like seeing an X-ray of yourself for the first time.
2013-2015: a confusing hodgepodge of tidbits becoming less and less anon
In 2013-2014, I was deep into my high school's local region/state competitions with the high school math honor society Mu Alpha Theta. I was also preparing hard for the national annual tests called the AMC, AIME, and beyond, which culminate in the IMO. I never got beyond, though.
What did come out of it was a small collection of problems I thought were cool, especially ones that the Florida Student Association of Mathematics specifically created for their ARML/PUMaC/HMMT qualifiers, and some techniques I learned along the way. Writing up the solutions helped me internalize them better.
On the side, I had written down things I "discovered" (meaning I couldn't find the answer on Google elsewhere) or at least ways to make my life easier doing math. I figured since they weren't competition problems, I would use a separate blog:
When I started university in late 2014, I tried to merge the two. I think this was the first time I used my real name on the internet, too. At this point, it didn't really cohere anymore, being the grab-bag of high school and university things that it was. I recognized this by cheesily naming the merged blog "incomplete graph" after the fact that I enjoy making connections between things, but there's still so much to be discovered.
All of these projects differed from 2007 and 2012 in that I didn't explicitly market myself. I got a few keyword hits from Google to my "discoveries" blog, but I was very much disconnected from other communities like AoPS where the conversation was really happening.
2015-2018: an online resume
Backtrack slightly to March 2014: I had built a simple static stopwatch web app for my high school's math team on Github Pages after seeing 2048's success and ripping off all the visuals for my own very different purposes. Thanks, Gabriele Cirulli!
In 2015, armed with the knowledge of how simple it is to create a static website, I decided I needed a full-on, bona fide website for myself. No more of this juvenile blog business; personal homepages were what all the "legit" people were doing, right? Mostly, though, I wanted to connect up all my side projects, like the web app I built in 2014. It was a single page I threw together in an afternoon.
I was very proud of "Drag me," which modulated the hue of the background.
In 2016, my website started to cross over into portfolio territory as I saw the Projects section turn into a wall of text. Most of my projects were also in front-end web development at that point because of the low barrier to entry, so it made sense to have my site visually in line with my purported skill. I drew design inspiration primarily from one portfolio that I can't find anymore.
I don't know whether this helped get anyone's attention, but I doubt it. During peak student job-hunt season, one internship interviewer told me at the start of our interview that the entire homepage was broken though, which I traced to a commit I had made two weeks prior. Good to know someone visits the links in my resume!
2018-2020: a curated timeline
During my last semester of university, Fall 2017, I started investing more in things I really wanted to do. For example, I pulled my first all-nighter on a drawing class, and probably exhausted almost all of my late days so I could spend time doing not-schoolwork. At this point, I realized my breadth of experiences was what I enjoyed most, so I had the bright idea of a curated timeline. Totally not ripped off of Facebook's Timeline idea dating back to 2012, which I only realized while I was building it.
For this redesign in 2018, I drew heavily from the trend toward dark, bold, slab or heavy-set serif headings along with (usually) sans-serif body text, which looks vaguely like something out of a magazine. I also tightly integrated emoji into the design, which I probably picked up as another trend somewhere. My bet is Medium, where I also got this magazine vibe.
I thought hard about the timeline contents. My initial heuristic was part ~flex~, part shoutout column: add every Cool Thing™ I ever did and every formative experience I could remember, including all the people who contributed along the way. While Cool Things™ were harder to come by, formative experiences quickly grew cumbersome and unbounded. If I thought hard enough, couldn't literally anything could contribute to who I was at the time? Case in point: everything described in this post. So after the first iteration, I would start retroactively adding things from the past as I realized later on that yes, actually, this event did shape me in some significant way.
In 2019, I started to lean more toward, "What's a good conversation starter? What makes a good story?" Most people, myself included, answer "tell me about yourself" for the average audience with generic facts: age, location (+history), occupation (+history), family. Beyond those are oddly specific facts that may seem "quirky" but are still relatively common: "I like cloudy weather over sunny weather", "I can solve a Rubik's cube" -- both of which I've used in the past. (Also, I hadn't lived in California yet at the time...) The best oddly specific facts are the ones that lead into interesting stories, as writers, film directors, and Humans of New York have known for ages. If I had to tell my story, I always prefer to slice deep to find those kinds of facts.
2020-: a blog
Why a full circle to a blog only now? I don't think I understood the staying power of a simple content-first blog without a specific higher purpose. Like a new car that loses thousands of dollars in value as soon as you drive it out of the lot, every time I reworked my website, it would inevitably lose relevance after my next big life milestone. While those external milestones are fewer and farther between now that I've graduated college, I've realized I need to create my own milestones. This is how I keep track of them.