Party Like It’s 1989

a Web 0 Manifesto

Thu, 28 Apr 2022

TL;DR: CERN got the World Wide Web mostly right in 1989, and we’ve been fouling it up ever since.

Two thousand twenty-twenty
COVID-19? Oops! Outta time
So online I’m gonna
Party like it’s 1989

~ with apologies to Prince…

I’m gonna level with you here. I like the 1990s Geocities homepage aesthetic. People like sadgrl and tyoma do it well and make it work for mobile devices as well as the desktops in which the Geocities aesthetic was originally rooted. I bet they have fun doing it, too. However, I’m not going to do that for my own website for a few reasons.

You know what the Geocities aesthetic looks like, but let me tell you about the CERN aesthetic. You know, CERN, home of the weasel hadron collider? That’s where the World Wide Web was invented, where the first website was uploaded.

That first website still exists, incidentally. If your experience of the internet is defined by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc, you should visit the first website in history right now. You won’t believe how bare-bones it is. It’s nothing but text with hyperlinks. If you’re using a graphical browser, right-click that shit and select “view source”. That motherfucking website doesn’t even have a doctype identifying it as some kind of HTML, let alone a stylesheet. It’s so brain-dead simple that you might only use Lynx to read it in your terminal because writing your own script to download and render pre-W3C HTML isn’t worth your time.

terminal app screenshot
the first website, rendered with lynx in the macOS terminal app

Never mind the Space Jam website from 1996. This website has been up since 1989. I was only 11 years old at the time. I didn’t know any of this was happening. I didn’t have a PC. I had maybe five NES games of of my own, and if I wanted to play something different I had to ride my bike down the video store, rent it on Friday, and hope I was able to beat it before I had to take it back on Sunday because otherwise somebody else would probably rent it and overwrite my saved game with a saved game with their own (unless it used passwords instead of battery-backed SRAM, which was its own kind of hell).

That’s how badly I missed out. That’s how out of touch I was. Never mind that the DOS/Commodore 64/Amiga/Atari BBS scene would have been a more natural fit for me given that I grew up in New York rather than Zurich. Never mind that I was wasn’t even in junior high school, let alone a university student or postgraduate who might actually have access to the sort of hardware for which the WWW was originally designed, like a workstation manufactured by Sun Microsystems or NeXT Computer.

None of that matters to me. What matters is what I feel when I look at this primitive motherfucking website that’s just black text on a white background. It’s just a list with a bunch of links to other pages that would be more of the same except for the text. Despite my appreciation for the Geocities look, this is what grabs me.

I don’t get it, to be honest. I’m not going to try to explain it, but whenever I look at a website that is nothing but text — with maybe a few lines of CSS as a treat — I have this feeling of rightness, like this is how the web ought to be. It’s like Tim Berners-Lee and his crew got this mostly right back in 1989 and we’ve been fucking it up ever since.

I’m not the only one who feels like this. For example, Bradley Taunt has a site called xhtml.club, the “Extreme HyperText Movement for Luddites”. Despite being a web designer by trade, he’s suggested that CSS and JavaScript might have been a mistake. I think he might be right, but that’s a subject discussed in a different post. Nevertheless, I think that around 1989 we had the social internet mostly built. I honestly think all of the basic protocols were in place.

Everything we needed was there. All we had to do was refine it, make it more accessible to more people, and keep iterating until we had perfected this technology by making it possible for anybody to run this shit on personal computers out of their own home if they wanted to. We could have made cyberspace an actual virtual utopia, a globe-spanning array of “third places” that offered intellectual liberation and participatory direct democracy, where you didn’t have to be what people thought you were in real life, where you didn’t even have to use the name on your birth certificate unless you wanted to for whatever reason.

You know what we got instead. We got one attempt to reinvent CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online after another. We got surveillance capitalism. Streaming video is cable TV with more surveillance. Streaming music is broadcast radio with more surveillance. Amazon and its imitators are just QVC with a comments section. Some of us used to worry about government censorship, but most of us didn’t expect the government to outsource that shit to the private sector — though we damned well should have seen the privatization of tyranny coming since that’s what Republicans have been pushing in the US since 1980.

We never needed Mark Zuckerberg to build the metaverse. It’s already here, and worse than anything William Gibson or Neal Stephenson could have imagined in the early 1980s or 1990s. We got the dullest possible cyberpunk dystopia: the most heavily-frequented sections of the internet are strip malls piled atop each other where you never know when you’re about to walk into a talking penis, you can’t even whip out a sword to cut your way free of the bullshit, and no manic pixie dream razorgirl is ever gonna come to your rescue.

Seriously, though: Web 1.0 was OK. Web 2.0 turned out to be an exploitative crock of shit. Web3 is going to make a lot of people nostalgic for Web 2.0’s worst excesses if people keep drinking the crypto Kool-Aid. Blockchain is snake oil, always has been, and always will be. NFTs and Web3 are just snake oil with an arsenic chaser. I want no part of any of that shit. I’d rather work for Palantir than deal with that shit at my day job, so I think I’ll stick with Web 0, the CERN-style web. I know Aral Balkan has his own definition for Web 0, but here’s mine:

Incidentally, you don’t have to do minimalism just because I prefer it. If you aren’t into the CERN aesthetic and prefer the Geocities look, go for it. Hell, if you want to reinvent Medium then more power to you. Your personal website is your canvas, your medium for self-assertion. As long as you have your own website and speak your mind on a platform you own and operate first before syndicating to other people’s platforms, I’m happy for you.

Listen: the Web might be fucked, but isn’t going to get better unless we get off our asses and make it better. The only way we’re gonna make it better is one personal website at a time, and one hyperlink at a time. I’m doing my part over here. If you want to join in, there are people willing to help you. I’m one of them, and I’m gonna party like it’s 1989.