Is the Web Still Modular?

by Will Brand on May 13, 2011 · 6 comments Opinion

Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied’s talk on “Digital Folklore”, at the New Museum a month ago, was a great trip back. Like Lialina’s “Vernacular Web” essay series, the talk was “I Love The ’80s” with a lot more guilt: Every minute or so you’d get a laugh out of seeing a Felix GIF again, and then a few seconds later realize your laughter was what killed the Felix GIF in the first place. Somehow, on the web, we all became modernists, and Lialina and Espenchied’s quest to retell the story of web design with a more suspicious eye towards “progress” is a useful one. That said, somewhere in the translation from essay to lecture the pair seem to have acquired a kind of missionary zeal about the aesthetics of the early web that I don’t agree with. The early web had a distinctive look – a look that hasn’t yet recurred as a dominant style – but that look had little effect on the way people interacted with (or on) the Web. It’s the crossing of this boundary – from design following use to design dictating use – that weakens their argument considerably.

Lialina and Espenschied repeatedly talk about the early web as being “modular” – if, while browsing, you saw an image or a layout that you liked, you were free to take it and use it on your own site1. It seems to operate, for them, as a sort of shorthand for the time when web users were equal parts user and creator; “modular” indicates not only the freedom of acquisition which is necessarily true of HTML, JavaScript, or CSS2, but also a freedom of use, and the easy ability to put snippets of HTML code found in the wider web to work on a personal site free from any sort of imposed structure. Being able to reuse bits of code from sites you like is fine, but the early web for Lialina and Espenschied was about having a space to place it all, a space that could contend on equal footing with “professional” web sites. A YouTube channel or Facebook profile, with its creative design potential tied into multiple-choice forms, lacks the cachet and visual freedom of a personal site. So, while there are now undoubtedly greater and more varied outlets online for the mass user base, each acts in some way to subjugate the user as something between a non-participant and a serf; the old class of user-creators is unwelcome on, say, Facebook. This idea is put across pretty clearly when Espenschied says:

“We still feel that [users] had more freedom at this point [the early web] than today, because what users are allowed to do is to upload something, and to fill out forms that will be put into templates. This is not the popular web culture, and [during the early web] it was quite different…”

And I say: sure. Geocities is gone, and remaining personal spaces like Facebook profiles and Youtube channels are either unskinnable or too specialized to accommodate the fullness of the average user’s expression. Further, these spaces are poorly equipped to compete for search engine ranking, and so whatever can be placed on them goes largely unnoticed. But what’s wrong with blogs?

Blogger's going to be twelve years old this August — it's now been around for nearly two-thirds of the history of the Web — and Nielsen reports there are 162 million blogs today. Lialina and Espenschied are, admittedly, only concerned with the Early Web, but it's unreasonable to ignore such a dominant form of communication when talking about the power of users online. AFC runs on a blog-oriented content management system called WordPress. WordPress itself is open-source, and there are roughly 1500 CSS themes and 15000 PHP plugins available – for free – to use with it. Some questions:

  • Production of these plugins and themes today is at least as decentralized as production of MIDIs, animated GIFs, and “button sets” was in the time of the early web. They’re made by professional designers and developers looking to promote their business, but also by regular techy types building tools for their own use and Comp Sci students producing work for classes — the same groups producing layouts, images, and other web components fifteen years ago. The principal difference is in distribution: where in the Early Web free “modules” existed in a decentralized network of thousands of “FREE ANIMATIONS” pages, today they're hosted in a directory on Does that matter? The outward face of free amateur production has been corporatized, but I don't think the nature of sharing has changed for the worse.
  • One of the greatest forces pushing against functional modularity in the past ten years has been the dominance of PHP and other server-side programming languages: because “server-side” means they're processed before ever reaching the browser, what the user can see is output rather than reusable code. While lots of PHP code is available online — programmers love sharing, after all — not many users would know how to implement any of it. Blogging software like WordPress brings that into reach for the average user-creator; when we wanted AFC pages to load faster for readers, we were able to find and use the same caching plugin as without needing any particular coding ability to implement the change. This is more functionally modular than the web of ten or fifteen years ago.
  • Blogs are essentially search engine-friendly. They’re text- and link-heavy, which search engines like, and their goals — connecting with other blogs and keeping users on single pages for as long as possible — have been enshrined in search algorithms as good things. Simply put, being an active, outgoing, and talkative web citizen is one of the best ways to build visibility today, just as it was fifteen years ago; in fact, creating networks of blogs is one of the most widely-used professional techniques for increasing search ranking today. Lialina's essays imply that the user-made network of the Web has been buried by search engines3, but what we know of Google's search algorithm indicates the old system of user-created web rings and links pages has always been its foundation. When Lialina struggles to find “Prof. Dr. Style” academic homepages in search results, the problem isn't that their popularity has been hidden; it's that they were never popular in the broad sense of web search – keep in mind, we're talking about CVs, here. Beyond that, search engines, for perfectly good reasons, privilege pages with fresh content over older pages. If we’re looking for pages from the mid-90s, it should hardly be surprising that they’re buried – and buried, it should be noted, by the pages of other individuals, rather than, say,  the Prof. Dr. Corporation.

None of this is to say that WordPress is the end-all and be-all of a democratic web; it's just one example of the many venues still available to users who want to produce web content outside the strictures and profit centers of the corporate web. The point is, the basic activity of finding an interesting image on the Web and cribbing it for your own site has not become any more difficult. Rather, that modularity has expanded to include a wider range of components, and has become significantly easier to implement. The reuse of layouts that Lialina points to in Prof. Dr. Style4 is not only still possible, but through CSS is now separable from issues of content. Personal sites can today enjoy far wider visibility than ever before, through entirely free content management systems and search algorithms that’re created to be friendly to the user-created web. Frankly, given all this, I have a hard time swallowing the idea that users are any less free to create a personal space on the Web today than they were fifteen years ago.

What’s left, then, is style. Lialina and Espenshied discuss the fall of the “Vernacular Web” style, and all the vitriol and mockery that came with it, as a class issue; Lialina says “there was power” in users creating HTML pages, that was lost in the shift to users inserting information into pre-formed templates. The fall of the “Vernacular Web” is always tied to the growing professionalism of the web at the end of the ’90s, and the fall of the user-creator. Design professionalism certainly played a role, but it should be kept in mind that this shift was concurrent with a more general shift towards high modernist aesthetics. Clean whites and sharp edges didn’t just take over the internet, they took over furniture and TV and graphic design, too. The look of the “Vernacular Web” came and went because it was a style and that’s what styles do, not because of any direct opposition, and it wasn’t any more free or just than any other style. Everything that was possible in the time of the “Vernacular Web” is possible today, because star backgrounds and animated GIFs were a reflection of the frontier spirit of the early web and not a necessary component of it. This is my real problem with the ideas behind the “Vernacular Web”: too often nostalgia pushes an essentially historical project into the realm of moral discussion, and conflates the practices of the early web with their design. Lialina and Espenschied's work is legitimate and worthwhile, but it’s better without the tone of oppression and loss.

  1. Lev Manovich put this more directly as one of his Principles of New Media: “Yet another example of modularity is the structure of a HTML document: with the exemption of text, it consists from a number of separate objects — GIF and JPEG images, media clips, VRML scenes, Schockwave and Flash movies — which are all stored independently locally and/or on a network. … since a HTML document consists from a number of separate objects each represented by a line of HTML code, it is very easy to delete, substitute or add new objects.” (Language of New Media, pp. 51-52) []
  2. Since these languages are only processed from code to display after arriving in the user's browser, the user always has absolute access to their source code, and the corresponding ability to save and modify it. []
  3. One example being the section of “Prof. Dr. Style” that reads: “Some semesters ago it was possible to make a life performance with this search. Pages of academics in style were top results. As of June 2010, the magic seems to be gone. To collect enough examples for this article I had to go till result page 110.” []
  4. I’m thinking here of her mention of Hassan H. Malik’s page. []


olia lialina May 14, 2011 at 8:47 pm

 Dear Will

you are right that vernacular web research would be not complete if it would be only about the 90es. But it is not. And you could write an essay on let’s say “User Expression in Word Press” without accusing us of not doing it. 

Your point — “The look of the “Vernacular Web” came and went because it was a style and that’s what styles do, not because of any direct opposition, and it wasn’t any more free or just than any other style,” — is a delusion, or even several delusions.

First of all, styles don’t JUST come and go. Second, your facebook profile is white not because white is the color of the season, but because the “white screen” in digital culture historically stays for  “electronic office”, reality, not cyberspace, and you as a user of that social network are suggested to behave properly.

Third, the vernacular web or amateur web visual style was free from the influence of professional graphic design or designed products. So it was not just more free, it stood for ultimate freedom and the spirit to go through limitations instead of accepting them as benefits.

Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I didn’t read Will’s discussion about wordpress as a complaint that you and Dragon hadn’t discussed it, but rather as an example of early web software that is free and allows users to do what they want with it. 
Anyway, I wonder if the white on my facebook profile has also to do with readability. Surely functionality informs corporate design as much early web vernacular. 

To me, this part of the conversation — the one that asks why aesthetics look the way they do — is the most interesting. I was talking to Ryder Ripps (artist, founder)  a couple weeks ago, as he had been wondering why the early aesthetic brought to has remained so consistent when the user base was much larger than it was initially. The aesthetic of dump is determined by its users, so it should be completely mutable. In theory, that could have been the case for geocities too, but it too retained a common aesthetic. I’d guess that’s because non-professionals aren’t necessarily concerned about things like readability first, but I would assume you have more answers to this. 

One final note: I tried to make a geocities account back in the day, but after the third time and I gave up, deflated. I didn’t know anyone who knew anything about computers, and I was too shy to ask. At the time, I believed the defeat was one more sign that I was not smart enough to participate in this community. Obviously, that changed for me later on and I became a more active participant in the web, but that was largely the result of free software that made the net easier for me to use. So, for me and surely others, the narrative that geocities users saw the website as a sign of ultimate freedom is only a half truth. I was only a lustful window shopper, who would experience her “ultimate freedom” many years on the crest of a false media story: blogging democratizes publishing! It’s a good thing I actually believed it. 

Will Brand May 16, 2011 at 8:22 pm


Thanks for responding! I didn’t mean to say you failed in any way by not discussing Wordpress; just that your tone generally has a lot of doom and gloom to it when I think there’s actually a lot to be optimistic about – I just chose one example of that.

Where did the idea of white implying the office come from? I don’t necessarily disagree with you, I just have trouble seeing where that meaning came from. Computers up until 1990 or so mostly defaulted to black and that ethereal terminal green (where’d that color go?), and then Macintosh/Windows 3.1 machines generally had blue/grey backgrounds, respectively. It seems to me that one of those ought to be the digital color of office-ness, no? Or is this white as the digital equivalent of paper, the better to appease graphic designers? How far are you saying this goes back?

Also: if you erased all my knowledge of the internet (there wouldn’t be much left in there) and asked me what design style I would expect to see in a late-20th-Century culture that values democracy, openness, anonymity, commerce, and internationalism, I think I would come up with something very similar to the web aesthetic of the moment. This is (roughly) the same style Modernist architects used to embody those values in the 60s, and (roughly) the same style the Bauhaus used to embody those values in the 20s. Lots of white, lots of clean lines, lots of focus on usability (not always successful). What if the web style of 2011 is ninety years old? Do we necessarily need new ways of expressing old ideals? I don’t think corporations had much to do with developing the virtues or ideals of web culture; if those ideals are ‘real’ and unadulterated, and the expression of those ideals is an expression we liked before, what’s the problem?

olia lialina May 17, 2011 at 7:36 am

“Electronic office” vision and term comes from Xerox, the very beginning of the 70es. Around 1981 Xerox Star personal computers was ready to meet the needs of “real users”. It was the first system where you’d type black on white, to create WYSIWYG documents for printing.

“Also: if you erased all my knowledge of the internet…”
Will!!!1 All the point of Digital Folklore research is prevent you from erasing the knowledge of the internet or digital culture. One can be optimistic about a lot of things about the contemporary web. To be gloomy about the deletion of Geocities and many other amateur sites should be allowed though.

You describe today’s web appearance as “Lots of white, lots of clean lines, lots of focus on usability”. It is a phenomenon to research, but I cannot agree to make a simple link to modernism in architecture or furniture, without paying attention to paperdigm in interface design as well as the earliest web design style of 1993-1994, which we refer to as Prof.Dr. style. 

concernedcitizen May 15, 2011 at 4:14 pm

What “freedom” is might be helpful here. I believe it’s an issue of behaving optimally within restrictions (or limitations), however abstract these may be like finding harmony in words fitted to a haiku structure. This is why I believe any kind of freedom comes with a set of restrictions which are then read as the style of a particular image of freedom.

In forms of art as in forms of writing, style is a varnish that conceals discontinuity and because of this, it tends (instead of toward disarray) toward continuity. I think this is a partial philosophical explanation for dump’s consistency. On top of this, any time there is a paradigm (like dump) that people submit themselves to participate in, they are also submitting their participation to whatever has been established in the paradigm which coincide with the restrictions necessary to freedom and its apparent style. Otherwise users don’t find a place in the community and are rejected from it (on 4chan users who cannot reproduce the stylistic norms of its form of freedom are derisively called “newfags”).
This is why something like 4chan’s /b/ is messy, but very consistently so: the established idea of 4chan influences what happens there in the same way that the established idea of geocities influenced what happened there and the idea of dump makes it what it is.

Web Design Outsource September 20, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Wow! The article is really interesting but what caught my attention was the response. I’ve never read such response that’s almost a paragraph but it is very smart.

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