The Mystery of


The Gallery of the Unknown

The Strange! The Beautiful! The Ordinary!


From time to time, as I slogged the Wrrrld Wide Web, I would encounter a photograph. I thought it was interesting that people would present pictures of themselves that way to a global audience. After a while I started collecting the URLs of the pictures. Soon I had accumulated a pretty good assortment, and I decided that I should create a webpage about them. After all, second-order information is what the WWW is all about.

I had neglected to collect any identifying information, so I didn't have any idea who the people were. There wasn't any particular theme or pattern. It wasn't a "babe" collection or anything like that. It was just a cross section of pictures of people I had found on the web, and the only thing that they had in common was that I didn't know who they were.

I put a bunch of URLs on a page and called it The Gallery of the Unknown.

There were no HTML tricks in the Gallery page, just a list of <img> tags. But because the images existed on multiple computers, the browsers tended to choke, sometimes crash. They were optimized to suck data out of one server at a time. They didn't cope very well with multiple servers. Also, there was a high likelihood that at least one of those servers was down or ailing or overloaded. There was also a high likelihood that one or more of the pictures had been removed or relocated or renamed. The WWW is an extremely brittle medium, and the Gallery of the Unknown demanded more than the WWW could deliver.

I broke the Gallery into pages, each page having pointers to four images and a link to the next page. The collection continued to grow until I had 32 pages of people I didn't know. A page for every day of the month...and more!

Twice I received mail from guys who had pictures in the gallery. Gosh, it sure was good to hear from them, but then I knew who they were, so I removed their pictures from the Gallery of the Unknown and created a new gallery, the Gallery of the Known.

Then things got weird.

I went to Japan for a couple weeks. I was meeting with famous Japanese companies, introducing them to our designs for the socialization and commercialization of cyberspace. I encouraged people to visit the Electric Communities website to learn more about us, which many of them did.

They also visited my home page and many of them also checked out the Gallery of the Unknown. After a few days, I began to hear reports that the Gallery contained pictures that were "impolite". I was curious about what that meant, but there was nothing I could do about it until I got home.

It turned out that a crazy woman had discovered that her picture was in the Gallery of the Unknown. She was upset about what she supposed was a copyright violation. I think she was further upset because I did not respond immediately to her email, which I could not do because I was in Japan.

So she replaced her picture with what some might consider a pornographic picture, an extreme close up. I don't know if it was a picture of herself, or of someone else I don't know.

By linking to a resource not under my explicit control, I had become a pornographer. I might also have been in violation of the Communications Decency Act. In any case, I was concerned about the image I was presenting.

When I got back to the States, I removed the impolite link from the Gallery, and I removed the link to the Gallery from my home page. Sadly, The Gallery no longer exists. Curse the ephemeral nature of the Web! It is the Universal Orwell Machine!

This story does have a happy ending. Recently I was going through some backups, and I found some of the original files from The Gallery. Nearly all of the links were broken, but surprisingly, many of them still point to images. You can see them now.

Douglas Crockford's Wrrrld Wide Web