a / s / l ??? was a social website where users could post their age, sex, and location, and view the age, sex, and location of other people. It was conceived and designed by me, and built by my friend, Sheldon Lessard.
The website had two main pages: input and output. On the input page, a user could select her age and sex from selectors, and then enter her location in a text field. The age selector ranged from 1 to 122 (which, if I recall correctly, I settled on because it was what a cursory web search told me was the oldest anyone had lived to be). The sex selector initially included F(emale), M(ale), and I(ntersex) options, but was later adjusted to only included F and M, after I learned more about intersex biology. Though we changed the options, we retained the input history, so any entries featuring the 'I' sex option remained intact. The location field had a 500-character limit and accepted the entire unicode character library (including emoji). I designed the field with such a large allowance in hopes that it would encourage people to use it in experimental or interpretive ways, allowing a user's "location" to as easily be her state of mind as her state of residence. After selecting options from both dropdowns and entering at least one character in the location field, the user could submit her entry.
Upon submission of her entry, the user was taken to the output page, where she would see the website's entire entry history in one long reverse-chronological stack, with hers at the top. Users were not able to see the output page until they had submitted their own entry. Every entry was stamped with its submission date and time.
I wanted to be able to review the activity on the site without making submissions myself, but I didn't want to employ any tracking technology, so I asked Sheldon to create a "God mode" that could be accessed by entering a special a/s/l combination of "77/F/God". Upon submission, the user would be taken to a differently styled output page, and her entry would not be logged. I might have told a friend or two about this to show it off, but I have no idea if anyone inadvertently discovered it, because, again, no tracking system. I think I posted a screenshot of the God mode output page on Dribbble one time, but I don't remember sharing the code to access it. One time Sheldon entered "77/F/God " (note the space) by accident and we thought, for a fleeting moment, that perhaps God was dead.
I started thinking about making a site like a / s / l ??? while living in London in 2014. I didn't know anyone in the city--other than my roommates, who had their own busy lives and little time for a third-wheel Yank on sabbatical--and had trouble keeping in touch with my friends in America due to the time difference. It seemed stupid to me to be feeling so socially isolated by distance ten years deeper into the internet than when I'd managed to make and maintain meaningful friendships all over the world via MySpace, LiveJournal, and, before those, personal website guestbooks. I hadn't been on Instagram in almost three years, hadn't been on Facebook in almost five, and though I tried to be pretty active on Twitter, I had few followers and even less engagement. I also hated virtually everything about the direction online social networking had taken. (To this day I harbor daydreamy ambitions of creating a new, cool social network to do things right, but that's obviously an enormous undertaking and well beyond my capabilities. I also have this half-baked idea that it's better to be a compelling contributor to a platform than to be the creator (or, god forbid, the administrator) of a compelling platform. Would you rather write the great American novel or publish it?)
For those of us who have been active netizens for at least a couple decades, the eponymous question of the website is an obvious, familiar, and nostalgic throwback to the heyday of chatrooms and instant messaging with strangers. After (or often in lieu of) a quick hello, the standard first exchange of a conversation with your potential new best friend, worst enemy, or sultry cybersex partner (or, if you were really lucky, all three in one) was to ask for each other's age, sex, and location, abbreviated as "a/s/l?" or later "asl?", and answered in the same format ("32/M/NYC" or "32 sure (lol) nyc"). It was direct, simple, informative, potentially suggestive or implicative, and respectful of the looser, more anonymized notions of identity and self-determination which characterized the earlier social web and internet as a whole. My impression of a/s/l when I was younger and still to this day is that it was never particularly demanding nor expectant of truth, fact, or objectivity, but rather embraced--or perhaps succinctly embodied--the minefield cocktail conceit of trust, distrust, curiosity, excitement, boredom, indifference, and horniness that watered the sapling of a better internet which we eventually chopped down to clear the view to a billboard. My optimism waxes and wanes, but it's the memory of and hope of finding new symbolic devices like a/s/l that keeps me surfing. I conceived a / s / l ??? in tribute to all this.
After a couple unproductive years of mounting social network angst, I finally pushed through a complete design and talked Sheldon into building it. I had no illusions about it becoming some hot thing, but knew the itch wouldn't go away until I scratched it. We launched the site on November 10th, 2017, and I made the first entry.
I've asked Sheldon to write a bit about the build and function of a / s / l ???, as I was almost entirely uninvolved in its coding:
(Sheldon hasn't provided me with a writeup yet.)
Over the next three years, the site saw modest periods of heightened activity--usually when I would submit it to curated website galleries I thought might have a likeminded audience, like brutalistwebsites.com--followed by prolonged periods of relative inactivity, receiving only one or two posts per month. I've always been shit at promoting myself and my work, and have few friends and no social media presence to speak of, so getting the link out was difficult, when I even tried. During these years, I was working as a freelance designer, and so was constantly sending my portfolio around to prospective clients or colleagues and sharing it on various professional networking sites. I suspect most visitors of the site came in through these channels and submitted the majority of relatively uninteresting entries out of confusion rather than interest or genuine curiosity. But perhaps that's ungenerous.
We originally published a / s / l ??? as a subdirectory of my personal site at desaturate.net/asl. But in its final year, I restructured my personal website and professional portfolio and decided to detach it from my domain in the process, moving it to the fun new URL of asl.fyi. This felt like nice and easy way to revive and legitimize the site without much work while granting it the potential for better discovery and memorability. In retrospect, I think this was probably what led to its demise.
We kept a / s / l ??? as simple and rudimentary as possible because that's how I wanted it and it was the easiest and fastest way to get it up and done. With the exceptions of the aforementioned removal of the intersex option and the address change, the code went virtually untouched for three years. This means we put no effort into safeguarding against exploitation of the input system. No tracky CAPTCHA bullshit, no email signup, no cookies, no validation of any sort. And until around the time I set the site up at asl.fyi, that was just fine. We had no problems. But when it got its own domain, for reasons I am too emotionally volatile to undertake understanding, the site got swarmed by all varieties of unsavory, from copy-and-paste alt-right conspiracy theories to herbal supplement link bots to, hah, SEO marketing spam. The same things countless web administrators grapple with all day every day with which I've never had much direct contact because I'd never before created a void for that trash to fill. And I'll be honest: at first it was a little bit exciting. I texted Sheldon and made a joke about how our baby had finally grown up and become a real social website, legitimized by the corruption of its technology and degradation of its intent. But as the posting continued and eventually completely drowned out our infrequent human users, what was funny just became depressing, and what was my silly little special experiment became the landfill for some fuckass SEO bot named Eric.
There are, of course, many ways to deal with this kind of abuse, and maybe, just maybe, some of them don't completely suck, and would heal these pussing wounds with minimal technological overhead and maintenance. But any such modification to the site would compromise its fawn-eyed innocence from the inside and would represent an acceptance of the current web's ugly terms of engagement by returning fire. There's an (easy) argument to be made that putting up a pitiful fight against an evil aggressor and getting absolutely obliterated on the battlefield is the noble thing to do, but I'm a lover, not a fighter, baby, and these days more closely align with the conscientious objector than the Zapatista. It better suits my poetic and dramatic sensibilities, which admittedly tend depressing, to watch something pure and beautiful and innocent be killed without ever lifting a combative finger than to accept even a modicum of the taint beyond the glade that would inspire an indignant, vainglorious, and futile attempt at survival. Plus it's costing me like eight bucks a month to host this shit and even at today's ludicrous prices I could buy a week's worth of ramen with that. So it is with a not light but not terribly heavy heart that I eulogize and hereby sunset a / s / l ???.