Derek's Big Website of Wal-Mart Receipts
Derek's Big Website of Wal-Mart Receipts was a webstite I created in late 1999 as an exercise in absurd online art and online community construction. To my surprise, it struck a chord with the internet public at the time, and grew to an ungainly large size in a very short amount of time.
The site often refers to the 'toaster box.' I had always had an obsession over storing receipts for indefinite amounts of time. As a single college student, it was an insignificant amount of paper, but it began to grow exponentially with marriage and parenthood. I used the box from a new toaster to store my receipts in. The receipt collection eventually spilled over into other boxes, but the 'toaster box' was used as the general name for my receipt collection.
I'm not sure if it was my ex-wife or a post-divorce girlfriend, but I distinctly remember a conversation in which my overflowing collection of receipts was pointed out, and I was asked why I'm planning on doing with them. "Scan them all and put them up on the internet for everyone to see," was my response, which didn't result in jumping up and down nor positive reinforcement, so the idea had to wait until I was single and had more free time.
In the mid-1990s, I had been a sysop of a traditional dial-up BBS system, so I had some understanding of how electronic store-and-recover discussion groups operated. I was interested in seeing how these interactions worked in the internet setting of the late 1990s, after the BBS communities had died off. I had attempted to migrate my then-defunct BBS to an online 'discussion board' format, but was unsuccessful. I had seen the discussion areas of the time, which emulated Usenet, as ungainly and overkill, with their threadedness and complicated user creation and administration features. The online-BBSes of the world followed the Usenet structure, creating the Slashdot-like structure of many websites. Proto-blogs and other simple websites had basic commenting abilities, designed to respond to specific content rather than formless conversations. I'll talk more about the appeal of the latter over the former.
I actually started by scanning about fifty receipts from every purchase I made as a test to see how well they show up, and to experiment with site construction; I abandoned that quickly, because it had no direction or center. I decided upon the criteria:
- The receipts have to be very common, no more than a few weeks between purchases, so that there would be regular updates;
- The receipts have to show something about my life, as opposed to gas station receipts;
- The purchases have to be familiar to the public, to create 'understanding' in the readers.
Hornbacher's, a local grocery store in the Fargo-Moorhead area, was my first choice because everybody eats, but the receipts they gave at that time faded quickly and were generally poor quality for scanning. Also, Hornbacher's wasn't a familiar name to anyone outside of the local region. Runner-Up: Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart, as a national icon, would be familiar to everyone. I shopped there several times a month. There were enough everyday common purchases on my receipts to make the shopping experience I had one that the readers could identify with. And, unlike Hornbacher's, their receipts were dark enough to be scanned, although the earlier 'dot-matrix' receipts were often on the light side. I set out to pull all of the Wal-Mart receipts out of the box and organize them by date.
Simplicity was my main objective; threaded, user-centric Usenet-like discussions were far from what I was looking for. The 'atom' of the site's content would be the receipt and its associated comments. There would be no user registration; each comment would be accompanied by a username and an email address from the poster, but those were filled in at the time of posting and were not verified or validated at any time. The post would be HTML-free, to avoid contamination, but also to encourage 'speech' rather than 'look at me'. Later I added other limitations, such as 250 words and the ability to block single or ranges of IP addresses.
As an opposite reaction to the threaded discussions, I decided that there should be no dates on any comments. In the threaded, BBS-world, discussions would die simply because the last comment was made 'too long ago.' By removing all reference to the date of the last post, everything would always look current, no matter how old the last comment was. This proved to be a very subtle way of encouraging the discussions without having to directly address lack of conversation (the 'bump' used today in cronological discussions). It also encouraged readers to go through every receipt discussion, because without the ability to determine new from old readers were required to address the discussion on the discussion's relevance rather than when it was said. This "too old" abandonment still unconsciously happens today in blogs, due to their rigid calendar-conformity.
Each receipt would have its own page, with 'slideshow' navigation to move from one receipt to another, and an 'up' to get to a date-organized list of receipts. The actual text of each receipt appeared nowhere on the website; it wasn't necessary.
What people fail to realize is that the Receipt Site was not a site about receipts, but a site about topic-based community structure. I'm trying not to toot my own horn too much, but the Receipt Site was a very early successful example of the website that YouTube, Fark, and Flikr intended to become, and the kind of site many blogs have tried to cultivate to improve their traffic. Metafilter, a site I did not know about until they linked the Receipt Site, launched in the fall of 1999 with a similar unthreaded-comment-on-single-subject style. Most early blogs did not have comment ability (my limited search ability found none), and many of the rest were hosted in threaded message-boards or based on Slash, the threaded discussion software behind the site Slashdot. While it may seem I'm harping on a minor detail, I believe it very significant, and a point of major difference in how websites work today versus the usenet-emulating structure of the past. Threaded discussions allow users to 'fork' the discussion into their own limited topic, allowing the rest of the discussion to move on -- the inability to fork an unthreaded discussion keeps discussions more on topic.
The public's attraction to the receipt site was not the receipts, but the simplicity of sharing responses to a piece of content and interacting in a site-wide way. The Receipt Site was methodically and strategically designed to direct users to free-form conversation, but with a very specific point of discussion. If you were on the internet in the mid-90s, you should be able to recognize how the Receipt Site was a departure from the former structure, and a step in the same direction as the early bloggers were moving.
I took large chunks of the software from an online-journalling program I found online, but eventually rewrote the entire site from scratch as I added various filtering and cleaning processes to the site. Content was loaded and brought in as 'includes', which affected site overhead and complicated administration, but the basic file structure was retained throughout the site's history. The basic page was a template, in which I changed the date in three places. Comments were saved in a separate text flat-file for each receipt, which was loaded at the time of viewing. While this created a lot of extra files, it allowed easy backups and better ability to clean up unpleasant comments. The use of SHTML includes was dropped late in the site's life and I eventually moved the site to the dynamically-created CGI site that the archive is today.
The site was launched in November, 1999, shortly before Thanksgiving, with receipts dating back to 1996. The only Derek-written text was the about page and the main page; there was no other content besides the images. Over the next month, I submitted the site to numerous 'best of the web' websites that had sprung up in the mid-90s. From my parents' house at Christmas, I saw the first big spike in website traffic, and the receipt comments began to grow.
Early Site Life
In 2005, in around 10 minutes, I went through the various scripts and removed the ability to create new comments. After a few content edits to reflect the site's new status, I uploaded Derek's Big Archive of Wal-Mart Receipts to its current home. The only website to link to it was Fark, who was a big supporter in the early days, but the inability to comment removed the site's purpose. This reflects how the site's purpose was discussion, as I originally intended, as opposed to slideshow gawking. Were the site about receipts, it would have developed new traffic, but it hasn't. Most traffic today comes from strange search-engine queries.
I'm not sure if Jeff, one of the main admins at Fark, was being sarcastic or not, but he pointed out in a Fark thread that the Receipt Site was their inspiration for adding user comments to the Fark websiteFark had linked to the Receipt Site once in their early days (and several times later), when their home page was simply a list of links in their now-famous format, sans comments. The addition of comments came as their popularity was growing, and helped spur the public's interest. The powers-that-be at Fark, hopefully, recognized that the content-directed discussions, without threads and with the barest of commenter information, was a simple and viable way to create an interactive site, without a lot of administrative overhead to keep discussions alive.
If you read the Receipt Site, you'll see how it experienced many of today's 'blog' standards: the "First Post" comment, running in-jokes and 'memes' only understood by the Regular users, snarky comments loaded with sexual innuendo, and the dominance of some users without them having any way to enforce their dominance. These are also tag-alongs from the BBS days as well, and demonstrates some of the human nature that exists on the internet regardless of the site structure.
- (FARK.com: (280538) Derek's Wal-Mart Receipts (Oldie). In the very first post, Jeff (a Fark admin) writes: We liked the idea of commenting on Derek's purchases so much that we added comments to our articles shortly after linking to this site. The first Fark link was January 25, 2000; Comments were added to Fark on June 14, 2000. The second Fark link was October 12, 2000.