Who2 was born on this day 20 years ago, when the untimely death of Princess Diana made us wish for a simple online page with details about her life and death.
The day was August 31, 1997. Having just won some money on a game show, I decided to get sassy and rent a beach house in Manzanita, Oregon for a few weeks. The very first thing I did when I arrived in mid-August was to unplug the TV in the living room and lug it up to the bedroom closet where I banished it, screen facing the wall, for the rest of the visit. Televisions have always seemed rather horrid to me around the glories of the Oregon coast.
The weeks were idylllic, sunny and rainy and pleasantly media-free. But finally it was the last Saturday night, family and friends had departed, and I was tidying up the house to move out. At the last moment I remembered the banished TV, lugged it back down the stairs, and plugged it in. “Better make sure it works,” I thought. When I turned it on, every channel was full of breaking news on the Paris car crash that killed Diana.
This was actually August 30 in Oregon; Diana and her boyfriend Dodi al-Fayed were killed just after midnight, and Paris is nine hours ahead of Oregon. Four or five hours had passed since the crash when I tuned in.
At the time I was writing a daily column, The Fritz, for the internet portal Lycos. (It later morphed into The Lycos 50.) This was pre-smartphone and pre-wifi, but my first impulse was still to turn to the Internet. That meant unplugging the house phone, plugging my crummy Toshiba laptop directly into the wall jack, and dialing up at 14.4 kilobytes per second via AT&T’s newfangled toll-free modem number.
Let’s not be romantic about the early days of the internet: it was always a hassle to connect. And when I did log on… nothing. The newspapers of the day were still mostly on the old one-edition-a-day plan and they either had nothing or just the barest headlines. There was no TMZ, no Reddit or Facebook, no Wikipedia, no live-blogs of breaking news. I thought that the morning papers in the U.K. must have the news, or even an English-language paper in France, but it was hard to find them online. I was even having a hard time finding out how old she was.
“What I need,” I thought, “Is a site that has a short basic bio of Diana with a few good links to where I can learn a lot more right away.” (Insert lightning bolt here.)
When I got back to Portland I discussed the idea with my friend and fellow web writer Paul Hehn and we fleshed out the idea and agreed to be co-creators and editors. Not long after that we began writing thumbnail biographies of famous people. I can’t recall now who the first subject was; it might have been George Washington or then-president Bill Clinton, I suppose.
For reasons I can’t recall, actor John Banner (Sgt. Schultz of “I know noooothing!” fame on Hogan’s Heroes) was definitely one of the first dozen. From the start, our idea was to feature every kind of famous person, serious and frivolous — a radical notion in those days when Encyclopedia Britannica was the gold standard of research. For a long time, Who2 was the #1 Google search result for Paris Hilton, and if we helped blur the line between silly celebrities and seriously productive people, then that’s minus-one for us.
On the other hand, we’re still the #1 Google search result for Black History Month biographies, and we’re truly proud to have helped a generation of kids learn about all the smart, talented figures to be found in our world’s history.
But back to 1997. We asked Hawkins Dale (who had visited at the beach house) to code the site, and my former Claymation colleague Bill Fiesterman to do the layout and graphics. We thought about calling the site “Find ‘Em,” but discovered that findem.com was already taken by a private investigator in Phoenix, Arizona. So we settled on Who2.com, the idea being that instead of “where to?” we would answer the question “who to?”
Who2.com officially launched in January of 1998. Here’s the original layout as it looked later that year. As you can see, some of our most popular loops (including the immortal Celebs Missing Fingers) were already in place. Here’s how our first biography of Princess Diana looked then:
Pretty simple, yes. But the “Four Good Links” that I needed that first night of Diana’s death are still part of our biographies today. In fact, though the format has changed over time, the basics of our fast, useful biographies haven’t changed. As of today we’re at 4,439 biographies and counting.
So while it would be insensitive to thank the late Princess Diana for the creation of Who2, she did play a key role in its birth. It is actually quite easy to believe that it’s been 20 years; that was a long time ago.
In those years we have had absolutely essential help and lots of laughs with Mike Duffy along with Adam Duvander, Doug Beeferman, Hans Holznagel, Joel Abrams and many others. Thanks to you all. And to our many users and fans, we hope you’ll continue to enjoy Who2.