I was born in 1991 so I feel like I got the tail-end of the wondrous, strange, and experimental world of the early internet. Yet even though I was a kid and even though the internet is a lot more accessible now than it used to be, I still long for the days of the nineties internet. It really felt like the wild wild west back then, with each new website I encountered like finding a unicorn while out on a stroll. I think even the inaccessibility made it feel like a more magical place. Let me explain why.
It wasn’t so simple as just turning on your computer and clicking on your browser icon. Maybe it was also because I was just a kid, but I imagined that awful dial-up tone as the sound of the data traveling thousands of miles and connecting to other computers in far-away places.
I visualized how the data would travel into the telephone and across all the poles I would see outside when my parents drove me to school, like a squirrel racing across the wires. At the time I really believed it to be a kind of magic, that if I broke apart the computer I would uncover some kind of little fairy behind the screen.
In some ways today’s internet is better, of course. The field of user experience did not even exist in the nineties, and there were no standards defining what made a site easy to use. Even worse, there were no screen reader tools or really any tools that allowed people with disabilities to use the internet.
Yet I think something was lost with the new era of user research and user experience, along with all of the CSS frameworks like Bootstrap which homogenized the web design landscape. These days most websites look very similiar, and people are afraid of straying from the popular styles. I think this is a bit tragic, because there is a lot less experimentation, almost like people have given up creating anything new on the web.
For artists I think the modern internet is especially challenging. Everyone is scrambling to share their work on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and that’s only the popular social websites. When you start factoring in blogs and portfolio sites and other creative communities the numbers become staggering. Creative types just getting started in their career have a hard time getting noticed unless they carve out a very specific niche for themselves. The problem with niches, just like the problem with the current homogenized web design of the modern web, is that it also takes away room for experimentation.
Sometimes I like to ask myself theoretical questions about where the internet might be today if things had gone differently. What would happen if Google was only one of several popular search engines? What if the internet had gone a totally different direction, or remained the domain of early adopters and academics rather than becoming a mainstream commodity? What would an internet that was not dominated by corporate entities look like? What would an internet made for digital artists look like?
Of course, all of this might seem terribly pointless to ponder. Sure, you might be thinking again, it’s interesting to consider these questions, but what can we do with this information now? We cannot turn back the clock on all of the UX research nor can we persuade corporations to stop offering their services online. Most of us rightly wouldn’t want that to happen even if it was an option, because accessibility for disabled folks and shopping online are things that we appreciate.
This is Part 1 of a two part blog series. Check out Part 2 here where I talk about artist Nathalie Lawhead and how she leverages the nineties internet aesthetic today.