Nostalgia for a purer, simpler time has already brought back the flip phone and the cassette. So it was only a matter of time, really, until someone attempted to revive the ’90s era Internet.
You’ll find their communes clustered on the edges of the modern Web, just outside the glow of Twitter and Facebook: static homepages built entirely in HTML, or social networks running off a single Unix computer.
They’re not sentimental, the old-timers argue; they’re not pining for some dial-up past. Rather, they’re pretty sure the modern Internet is screwed — and they’re reverting to its last, truly viable version.
“The Internet has become a conspiracy to get people to consume,” said the computer programmer Kyle Drake, who — with anthropologist Amber Case — just wrapped a sold-out two-day conference on the glories of the early Web. “There’s a shift from creation to consumption … Frankly, it’s become oppressive.”
Drake likely wouldn’t put it this way, himself — he’s pretty grandiose in conversation — but when he says “oppressive,” he actually means big. Big tech, big data, big business: Where Web 1.0 was niche and intimate, the domain of certain tech-savvy nerds, Web 2.0 is a massive capitalist endeavor with no less an ambition than to monetize every last person on Earth.
Few people saw this coming in the early aughts, when blog platforms and social network began popping up and the Web 1.0 era drew to a close. (This is admittedly an inexact term, but most people agree that period spanned from the early ’90s to roughly ’03 or ’04.) Web 1.0, as we think of it now, consisted of an endless maze of linked, static Web sites: garish, goofy things, often, limited by the slowness of pre-broadband Internet and the primitiveness of Web browser tech.
As a lay user, all you could do with your browser (Netscape!) was navigate straight to a site you knew or meander, through links, from one site to another. (This, the pre-search era, was the height of the webring: Internet alliances that funneled people to sites they wouldn’t otherwise see.)
Because publishing pages on Web 1.0 required some degree of Internet savvy — not to mention a pretty expensive machine — the only people with profiles or pages were early adopters and corporations. Normals had forums and newsgroups, of course, but those weren’t exactly the same thing. They definitely weren’t as zany or expressive as the sites the nerds were making: starry fan pages with side-scrolling “welcome” messages; tiled backgrounds competing with neon text; a virtual tsunami of “under construction” GIFs.
These sites were weird, in part, because their makers were still feeling out the Web. But it also helped that there were no search engines and the audience was limited: That made the old Web feel both really small and a little bit elitist.
“Web 1.0 wasn’t particularly cool, honestly,” wrote Paul Ford, a writer, programmer and the overseer of the retro social network Tilde.club, by email. “But it was also small, weird, accepting, and intimate, and it wasn’t as filled with rules as the modern Internet is.”
Those rules — of etiquette and presentation, sure, but also of design and commerce — have arguably betrayed the grand, utopian Web 2.0 promise. Developments like wikis and Facebook walls and comments sections were supposed to open the Internet to everyone, “using the Web the way it’s meant to be used.” Ten years in, and it sometimes seems those technologies only opened us up: to quantification, to monetization, to tracking, to abuse.
Given these rather disappointing developments, it’s little surprise that some look back at Web 1.0 with longing. Michael Stevenson, a digital historian and media scholar at the University of Groningen, has noted a proliferation of early Web nostalgia, even well outside the usual circles. Today’s nostalgics are motivated by a range of things, he says, from “hipster irony” to “sentimental attachment” to motives slightly more political.
The past two years has seen a sudden resurgence of anonymous social networks and so-called “small social” platforms, those chat rooms and group apps — like Facebook Rooms, GroupMe and Slack — that try to reclaim the intimacy of an earlier, more personal Web. Experiments like Ello, an ad-free Facebook alternative, and Ford’s Tilde.club (which spawned a wave of copycats) have likewise tried to subvert a business model that many have come to see as exploitative.
“Clearly, some of the appeal of [sites like Ello] is that they purport to recreate the conditions of the early web,” Stevenson said. “More anonymous, more creative, less quantified and less driven by advertising.”
While neither of those projects did much damage to Facebook (Ello was not, counter predictions, a “Facebook killer”) the Web 2.0 icon has seen its market share decrease markedly — among young people, in particular. Per one survey, Facebook use among teenagers plummeted from 72 percent to 45 percent from spring 2013 to spring 2014. These are, incidentally, the very same kids gleefully adopting retro Tumblr backgrounds and trading old-school GIFs.
Even Drake, predictably, has gotten in on the action: He runs a donation-only hosting site called Neocities, so named for the long-defunct mid-90s favorite. Its relative popularity, he argues, shows how many people have begun to question “the whole concept of technological progress.”
“A lot of people miss the creativity and expression they used to have,” he said. “We want to bring back the good parts of the early Web.”
Some of this is a bit romantic, of course, a version of the early Web airbrushed after the fact; even before Google and Facebook, the Web was far from a non-profit. And the early Web was small, in large part, because it was so incredibly expensive and difficult to use: “While people seem to pine for it,” Ford said, they seem to forget the time and money that went into a good early computer.
Then again, Drake’s revolution isn’t for everyone. (That would kinda defeat the purpose.) Neocities currently has about 57,000 sites, and that’s enough for him to count it a success.
He and Case, his conference co-organizer, were pleasantly surprised to see the turnout in Portland; there have already been calls to take the conference on the road to San Francisco and Boston. There, as at the inaugural event, programmers will hack away at lo-fi Web pages and gab about the benefits of distributed systems. Some will tweet their takeaways on a conference hashtag. But more will eschew Twitter: too corporate, too open.
“When anything gets saturated, people rail against it,” said Case, who launched a glorious Bob Ross fan site at the conference. “People are getting overwhelmed.”
Liked that? Try these!