By the mid nineties, hooked onto the cyberspace by the clunky dial up internet that has come to shape my youth, I fell wayside from the conventional track I was hitherto following as the relevance of making it into school prefect or the next LEO club board of directors diminished in significance as I take up personal home computing on hot afternoons. Consequently I became a rather pudgy boy.
In the earliest years where one’s conventional window into the cyberworld was through netscape or internet explorer, I would make home pages with the print outs with black binding my mother, who is a bigger computer geek than I will ever be, have compiled that taught you basic html and the tricks you find on the most primitive incarnation of photoshop.
Back then you make embossed 3D titles, text shadows, gilded fonts, waving titles with gradient hues, animated .gifs. They scramble and scream as you code them on a blank page, sometimes spliced into knotty ‘frames’, a device that have fallen out of fashion today. You then host it on geocities/Xoom/Angelfire/tripod. You always include an under construction banner on your personal homepage. It was after all frontier town. The internet, like the developing world, was virtually under construction everywhere.
This was a time before professional designers step in and pontificated to the amateurs how web design should be. It was also a time where the social media platform had not yet emerged to provide user-friendly templatse that created a kind of uniformity on how information should be stored, presented and conveyed. Everything had to be built from scratch for the amateur web designer. Personal idiosyncrasies reigned but there was also politeness, excitement and generosity. Visitors used to be greeted with ‘Welcome To My Homepage!’
I didn’t come from the generation of zine-ster, but I can see how personal homepages in the early days took on a very similar aesthetic. It was crass, kitschy, and DIY. On geocities, you had neighbourhoods – you live in a virtual house organised into little communities across the labyrinthine web – links hop you from one house to another and there’s always the pleasantness of connecting with someone across the globe that is taken for granted today.
Rushing for a recent set of notes comparing creative engagements with the internet to early internet art, a parallel observation started to emerge, igniting a formative experience that I have almost forgotten about how I grew up with the internet. It shaped the way I read, the way I write and my curiosity about the world.
Not that you don’t get these today, but the kind of explosion you experience living a good decade without the internet and then suddenly BAM! was of a different quality. Let’s not forget that the internet back then was very primitive, so there’s a kind of collective optimism – the hope that things will get better during an uncharted age came with a force that wasn’t gradual, it was revelatory.
So when I look back at an earlier time, from the vantage point that I need to hire someone today to design ARTERI instead of taking a hands on cangkul ke tanah approach, I look back wistfully at the kind of energy and enthusiasm that have been replaced as tumblr succeeds geocities and that animated email me .gif that blinks and flashes at me begins to seem dated and abhorrent.
That’s where net artist Olia Lialina’s excellent article, The Vernacular Web, on the disappearing early amateur internet aesthetic (which is apparently making a come back for progressive designers) come in. As a typological survey, it analyses some of the structural features that are commonly found in personal homepages of in the early days of the internet- the welcome message, the background, the MIDI files, the frame, the animated buttons, the counter, and the email me button. Some of these resonate on a philosophical level and has implications on the sort of culture that defined web community in its early stages. It’s a fascinating document on how web culture was just a decade ago and goes to show that this technology that is so commonplace today actually had a history – went through changes, lost some values and gained others.
The tone of the article is a little nostalgic but the best of nostalgia is a kind of melancholia, an inability to mourn and reject a past and to retrieve some of its values back into usage and circulation. This article highlighted to me how homepages are really little universes – star and glittery backgrounds abound, Olia was right, I used it quite a few times- of signal towers, shouting out to other pioneers in what was still a nascent technology. Imagine heading out to the hinterland by yourself and seeking out others to make meaning of this space together.
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