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.
“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 WordPress.org. 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 Mashable.com 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.
- 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) [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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.” [↩]
- I’m thinking here of her mention of Hassan H. Malik’s page. [↩]