1994 was an important year in the history of the World Wide Web. It saw the launch of Netscape, the first fully-featured browser, and the establishment of the first international WWW Conference, held at Cern, Switzerland. Later that year, Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Also in 1994, I and my colleagues at Nottingham Trent University, England, launched the MA in Creative Writing – one of only a very few creative writing postgraduate courses in the UK at the time. Simon Mills was in our first cohort of students, and I was his tutor for Fiction Writing. We soon discovered that we shared an enthusiasm for the then little-known World Wide Web, and we could both see the potential of the web for writers to connect with each other and develop new kinds of texts. But whilst the possibilities seemed likely to be endless, there were very few people working in the field, and they were scattered across the world, with the largest concentration in the USA, Canada, Australia, and the UK. In pre-internet days, connecting with them would have been a slow and ponderous task, but with email and a web browser, all kinds of communities of interest were rapidly forming.
In May 1995, I secured funding from the university’s English Department to employ Simon as my research assistant for a few months. His job was to search the Web for websites featuring new kinds of writing. He spent his summer vacation online trawling the net for links. He surfed through hundreds of sites, sorted the best of them into categories, and wrote a short review of each. In October 1995, he collated his results and produced a word-processed list of links with short descriptions, presented in a black and white photocopied A4 booklet for internal distribution to writing students and faculty. It was called CyberWriting and described websites like ‘Voice of the Shuttle’, ‘Alt-X’, and the Australian Network of Art and Technology, plus many more. So trAce's first-ever publication was not digital, but paper!
As soon as the CyberWriting pamphlet had been produced, it was evident that, of course, it needed to be online. Simon set about teaching himself HTML, and within a few months he had coded, designed and built the first trAce website. It consisted mainly of an updated and enlarged version of the CyberWriting list, and was launched at the Virtual Futures Conference, at Warwick University, England, in May 1996.
In August 1997, the Literature Department of the Arts Council of England awarded trAce £365,000 over three years to build on its work so far and establish an international online writing community. By that time, Simon had graduated and gained employment as a web designer. He joined the team on a freelance basis, still building and designing the bulk of the site. But he had a vision for a personal project very close to his heart, and in 1999 he launched The frAme Journal of Culture and Technology.
During the development period of frAme there were many discussions about the form it should take. It was clear from the start that there would be no hard-copy version, but should it be an online gallery, or magazine, or journal, or something else? Although the trAce Online Writing Community was based in the English Department of a university, its Arts Council funding allowed it to operate below the scholarly radar and outside of the usual academic constraints. Indeed there was very little scholarly interest in new media writing at this time anyway, but that was fortuitous since it meant the project could mix practice, technical issues and critical discussion in ways which were not usually acceptable in English Literature publications. This, in turn, meant that frAme had a lot of freedom. Simon was keen to take on all of the technical and design production himself, as well as the work of commissioning editor, and there was to be no peer review process. trAce web editor, Helen Whitehead, and I would advise and help where needed. In other words, he had the support to be as wide-ranging and idiosyncratic as he wished.
The result was a beautifully-designed online artefact featuring writers and artists from many parts of the world. Some were invited to contribute, others pitched their ideas for consideration. It was an important part of the trAce ethos that they each received a contributor’s fee, albeit small, a benefit that was highly unusual at a time when there was little funding available for a new art form which nobody understood. In later years, there were occasional guest editors, but the concept and striking visuals remain a testament to Simon Mills’ technical and artistic prowess. frAme ceased production in 2004.