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The Web Renaissance

By Diana Shehu, September 19 2023—

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web’s entry into the public domain, and by extension, its entry into our everyday lives. It is impossible now to not read the news (presumably on a website) without seeing headlines about the multibillion-dollar companies that have made the Web their bread and butter. The news is rarely positive; big tech companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter are now infamous for their breaches of privacy, lack of moderation and negative effects on their users’ physical and mental health.

The mainstream web has become a cesspool of trolls and grifters. But it wasn’t always like this. A movement has sprung up in the past few years extolling the virtues of the internet of yore, known variously as the Web Revival, the Indie Web and the Yesterweb. It aims to create an alternative to the modern web, one where individual expression is uncluttered by ads, trackers, or algorithms: where the only limit to what you post is you, not a character limit, brigaders, or a content policy.

To understand the basis behind this movement, some background information is needed. The Internet has existed since the 1960s, as a protocol used to connect military, scientific, and governmental institutions in the United States. It wasn’t until 1993, however, that accessing the Internet became more accessible to the average user. That was the year when Tim-Berners Lee introduced to the world his new protocol that allowed for the linking of text, images, video, and other multimedia. Originally built for CERN, the Web quickly spread beyond its original use case and was soon adopted by those eager to share and communicate with others without the need to go through traditional publishers. The aim was nothing short of utopic; the free flow of information across the world, unhindered by any one central authority.

This era, retrospectively referred to as Web 1.0, was a golden age of independent websites created for no other reason than the enjoyment its makers got from sharing their passions with the world. This was the era of meticulously crafted fan sites, of home pages for one’s pets, of pixelated GIFs and MIDI files adorning hand-crafted websites on every topic imaginable. GeoCities, a now-defunct but still fondly remembered icon of the 90s web, allowed its users to create their own websites for free. Anyone with a basic understanding of HTML and CSS, the coding languages that make up websites, could make their own homepage.

As the web became more mainstream, businesses attempted to capitalize on the new phenomenon. Users began to abandon websites made by one or two people for sleek social media platforms where almost no technical knowledge was needed to create and share content online. While this made the web more accessible, it also resulted in the loss of something more intangible than just obsessive fan sites and questionable design choices. Hosting your content on a for-profit site means that that content is under the whims of the company that operates the site your content is hosted on. Your posts can get buried under an algorithm, removed by a bot for no discernible reason, and sold to advertisers or AI companies without your consent. Add to this the lack of human moderation inherent to massive corporate websites, and a more hostile, isolating online culture was created. Online content is made to satisfy an algorithm, not the creator. Brigading and harassment are now commonplace, with finding a human moderator next to impossible. A monoculture has developed, with our time spent online divided between five or six major websites.

The Web Revival aims to change that. Sites like NeoCities (neocities.org) attempt to revive the spirit of the old web by providing free site hosting and tutorials in HTML and CSS. Browsing NeoCities pages feels like surfing the web in the old sense; every link is something new and unexpected. There’s a sense of exploration that has been lost with the predictable nature of social media, where every profile and post looks the same. The Web Revival shows us that there is an alternative, that the original vision of what the web could be is still alive.

One of the most popular pages in the Web Revival movement is melonking.net, a website created by a tech worker as pushback against the increasingly minimalistic, corporate look of the modern web. The site itself contains, among other things, a guestbook, a pet rock guide, and a hacker name generator. Nestled within this seeming mishmash of topics is a manifesto, which sums up the idea behind the Web Revival better than I ever could: “Most social media is about self-gratification; how many likes you get or how many views you have. The community on neocities and the wider web revival movement is about creative feedback. Here, it doesn’t matter if you have five or five million views, your work is valid, interesting and usually has something to offer even the most veteran netizen.” 

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