And then there was light
Do you remember the first time you went on a website? I certainly don’t. But what I do remember is a feeling of total awe and admiration, I felt as if a new world had suddenly opened before my eyes. That may come across as an exaggerated statement, but it’s true nonetheless.
I am not that old, and so I have only vague memories of the web that once was but one thing is clear, it was wonderful. That era between the simple but still useful first iteration, as dreamt up by Tim Burners-Lee, and the ad-infested hellscape of today was a place of creativity and wonder, and would remain as such for a decade to come.
Personal pages dominated cyberspace, each with their own unique style, offering a glimpse into the lives of many netizens just like you.
The de-de-centralization of content
In 2004 and 2006 two nifty little startups called Facebook and YouTube saw this untapped source of content and managed to create a way to centralize it. Now, instead of a labyrinth of links, everything could be accessed through the same feed and, most importantly for them, whilst remaining on the same website.
Like MySpace before them, customization of personal pages was a key component of these platforms, especially YouTube. Each user was not defined by just a username and a profile picture, but a whole plethora of details.
On MySpace personal pages were more like entire separate websites, each with their own sub-pages, themes, decorations, music, and much… much more.
The closest thing we have to that now is none other than WordPress itself or even Tumblr, with its new social features, each website can be followed by others, whilst remaining totally distinct form other ones.
It was all well and good. But in the distance… a storm was approaching.
They have arrived
The web, just like its users, was relatively young and naive, monetizable content was just a distant dream… and look at it now… how many ads have you seen today? Probably lost the count, haven’t you?
It’s them… the advertisers.
I know, getting all these amazing services for free is a really good deal, however, we all know what they take in return: mountains of data, really accurate models of us users to then use to serve the perfect advertisements to us. Let’s put the ethical stuff aside, just for this article, and let’s focus on the creative freedom this new system leaves to its users.
Advertisers are very stingy with their money, and so they are not interested in financing content that can damage their reputation, and all this freedom of expression stuff just made things riskier: what if someone put a space for ads in a website about non-ad-friendly content?
We have been feeling the effects of this since The Ad-Pocalypse back in 2017-18: that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and, since then, advertising on most of the major platforms was changed forever.
Who was the culprit? Well, the people. The everyday person did not understand that the ads were not based on the content ON the website but, instead, with their personal preferences. The websites were, and still are, the vehicle with which the ads are served, but everything is entirely based on the user and not on the website in question.
And so it was, the tech companies (who by this point basically control the majority of the traffic on the internet, like a twisted game of agar.io) in control of the websites we visit most decided to sterilize the content even more, leaving a white void occasionally broken up by some images or text… or ads.
In the midst of this storm, a shining light rose. Turns out that, all along, there was a group of people carefully constructing a complex network of quirky little websites… each one leading to the next… not an ad in sight… only weird links.
The resistance has its very own manifesto, or rather, manifestos. Even if the sentiment is shared everyone has their own version of it: that is very in line with the philosophy of decentralization and freedom of creativity they express passionately.
Below are the ones I prefer.
The Rabbit Hole
In the past month, I’ve been exploring these never-ending websites, like tunnels in a complex cave system, finding forgotten, mysterious and wonderful treasures. That long-forgotten sense of discovery was starting to come back.
This is what the World Wild Web is supposed to be like. Whatever happened to it? Apparently, it’s still alive and kicking.
Right now I want to bring you with me on a little journey.
Let’s play a game.
I’m going to link a couple of websites and I want you to choose one and click a link, then another, and then another… I promise you’ll end up somewhere unknown.
And finally, the final boss, a love letter to the old internet: Cameron’s World.
Someone actually made a game about this
It’s called Hypnospace Outlaw and it has you navigating the mysterious world of a fictional 90’s inspired web universe, with the intent of finding and reporting cybercriminals. Check it out!
If you’re interested in exploring the internet we have an entire page dedicated to it. See you there!