Anyone chronically online knows about the “old internet”, both the literal old internet and the nostalgia bait, nouveau “old internet” that is populated by contrarian hipsters (such as myself) who desire nothing more than to make front end shit again. Both are enigmas in their own right, with the actual old internet being a time capsule from when millennials were zoomers, 9/11 defined the era, and Moore’s law was actually believed to be true.
I personally do not know the true old internet, merely it’s aesthetic and some knowledge of how things worked during the time. I am a zoomer. I grew up in the 2010s when the biggest things were YouTube, Minecraft, and the ever-unholy Smartphone. To jaded, low-life millennials, I am cancerous mockery of what the old internet used to be; to many younger zoomers I am an anachronistic Luddite stuck in the past for not using software that causes horrible addictions and suicides. Because of my lack of knowledge of the old internet, but knowledge of how bad the new internet is, I find myself in a strange middle ground that most young neocities users, Luke Smith followers, and small web supporters do: We’re suffering from a form of internet anemoia.
Internet anemoia, in the modern era, is a return to the past internet by those who have never lived in it. This site is a product of Internet anemoia, and so are many others ran by the youth on neocities. Hell, there’s even an entire game you can play that simulates this time period in all of its stank, 90s glory. However, a big question must be asked when assessing this phenomenon: Are the products of internet anemoia merely recapturing an aesthetic of the time, or is there something more?
Now, I should mention that the above statement linguistically implies a form of mutual exclusion, however, there is none present. There is a lot more to why I design my site in the way I do than just capturing the aesthetic (but don’t be fooled, the aesthetic is a big reason why I design my site in the way I do). In fact, the reason I have a website at all (rather than a substack or twitter) is crux to understanding what the more sophisticated form of internet anemoia is:
The more sophisticated form of internet anemoia is a desire to return to a time when websites were run and operated by independent people or groups for the goal of personal expression, or at the very minimum, unique branding. This was a time when web pages were actually documents of text and images that you could read rather than “interact” with. The most interaction you could do on the web would be in the form of an HTML form sending POST request. Email and IRC was the most “social” media could be and things just weren’t that serious.
At its core, the internet of the past was a much more human affair. It was personal, raw, and, frankly, shitty, but in a good way. Everyone had a dinky little site dressed up to how they liked it with what they liked. It’s a digital form of one of those run-down, but cozy towns. Remember, what I’m describing isn’t nostalgia, because if it was just nostalgia, then I, someone who never saw the era, would not feel as I do. No, instead, the internet of that era was just more human.
Now, this time period of the web might not even have existed (we’ll get to that). Even if it did, it was obviously not sustainable long term. If it was sustainable it would have never gone away. The modern nouveau “old internet” effectively is just a nerd’s wet dream of a better time wrapped in a nostalgia-bait aesthetic. Yet still, the old internet was good, the nerds mock it for a reason, so, perhaps, there is something of value in there.
The old Internet as just a Noble Lie
It’s possible that the “old web” isn’t real. The old web, instead, is just the things that sticks out between the new web and the old web that people pick up on. Obviously, things are more corporate these days than they used to be, similarly, things were blockier and less polished back in the day. However, there’s likely a mountain of garbage that we are just unaware of lurking in the old web, waiting to be discovered. Anyone I’ve met who supports “the old web” has never really gone on a comprehensive deep dive of the time period using objective measurements and uncovered all the things that were craptastic from the past (including myself). Currently, we don’t have “early web historians” documenting what geocities was actually like given the context of the era. No one I know of knows what web hosting was like at the time, or what PHP from that era was like. We just have people telling tales of what they remember from the time, especially when comparing them to the new state of the world, but the true state of the old web only lives as a patchwork of anecdotes and memories that mesh together to form a vague picture.
Given that there is no reason not to believe that the old web is real, we have to grapple with a strange question: Is the old web a noble lie? That is, is the old web actually a myth in its conception? If it is a myth, is it a good myth that makes us strive for something better? While the jury is out on the question of the old web’s true nature, there is something to be said about the story of the old web and its values: They’re something desirable once you boil out all the particulars.
A desire for something more
The old web, once you boil away all the nostalgia, antique looks, and (possible) misremembering of the time, you get a very simple vision that, most, would probably see as desirable. That vision is for a web that focuses on self-expression, decentralization, and transacting between individuals and small groups in a person-to-person way.
Now, this concept instinctively evokes ideas of “old web”-esque websites that promote strange things like “Linux”, “Matrix”, and “Mastodon”, however, once you push those thoughts aside and tackle the core of the topic, you may see that some aspects of this have survived to the modern era, and it’s just a matter of putting these pieces back together. Similarly, there are things that are things on the web that, necessarily, go against this ethos and must be destroyed to pursue the core of the old web.
An Archeofuturist Web
Archeofuturism, coined by Guillaume Faye in his book of the same title, posits that there must be a reconciliation of technoscience with the values of the old. This description accurately describes the mentality people must adopt if they’d like to bring back what matters of the old web rather than just creating a new aesthetic to consume. If people want to bring back what matters from the old internet, they need to find a way to merge new internet technologies with older ones, preserve what is good and works, and kill bad technologies whenever possible. Only then can we put some humanity back into the internet.
What has stuck around and works
There are many things that have stood the test of time on the internet. You shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken, especially if what you might be fixing has survived 30 years in a quickly changing environment. These things, in some form or fashion, have done something right and should stick around for everyone’s sake.
- HTML - HTML, these days, doesn’t look like HTML of the past, however, the core concepts that made it work are great. Due to being XML-like, it’s very easy to bend HTML to any situation. It may be bloated, but it’s a good kind of bloat that’s necessary for being the lingua franca of the modern web. Similar arguments can be made for CSS too.
- Email (Conceptually) - Email is a good way to have non-instant communication. This type of communication creates different social expectations for people communicating to each other. Instead of having a stream of casual conversation, you split conversation up based on subject-matter and addressee. This both keeps conversations topically organized and makes contact less awkward by putting a title on each conversation. These facts make email ideal for contact with unfamiliar people due to the organization and lack of need for posting history to contact someone.
- Software Freedom - As of writing, we’re 30 years strong! Emboldening software freedom is necessary to securing a more human web as, unsurprisingly, not being able to own the software you run restricts both expression and gives incentives to bad people to do bad things. The new web must embrace this totally, putting and end to Services as a Software Substitute.
- Webrings - Webrings are a classic way of discovering websites without the use of a search engine. Similar sites group themselves together in a webring to advertise each other and build a collective identity. Search engines are completely fine, but if the internet is to be filled with individuals, then individuals will have to band together to support each other.
- I2P - Anonymization networks such as I2P are necessary for protecting the identity of those who public. Identity is a good thing, however, linking digital identities to real identities is how you get situations where controversial statements can lead to normal people becoming unemployed. Having a system of some type to maintain a different between IRL identity and fake internet identity is necessary. I2P offers that.
- PGP - PGP is not only useful for encrypting data contents, but also providing digital signatures, and therefore a proof of identity. Having a proof of identity is necessary for proving who you say you are.
- BitTorrent - A classic in p2p systems. Absolutely necessary for transferring large amounts of data without one single point of failure. Only issue with this is that the data must be known upon distribution, not making it good for content that updates.
What has stuck around and must die
Some old things are just bad and need to die. These things have been carried over and sustained for quite some time, but, for one reason or another, need to be replaced now that we have better systems.
- DNS and ICANN - Blockchain does domains better, trusting ICANN with domains is too much power in one spot. Only a trustless system can be trusted when it comes to domain names. If we trust a centralized party, then that is one point of failure for enabling censorship.
- Public Internet Forums - Jannies ruin everything and are complete control freaks when it comes to letting other people see things. Most forums are also not person-to-person focused and fall into unfortunate traps of group think (i.e Reddit) or hostile contrarianism (i.e 4chan).
- Internet Service Providers - Improbable, but if we can figure out how to get mesh-networks to a good state, then ISPs should die too. This is because they are a massive point of failure that can censor, restrict, or enable bad internet practices.
What is new and should stick around
- Blockchain - Blockchain technology has myriads of uses, many of which we probably haven’t even realized yet. Already, we have successfully implemented domain names through it and, of course, actual currency.
- Cryptocurrency - Cryptocurrency is decentralized money for use in digital payments. Its existence alone undermines the existence of much of the modern banking system and most digital payment systems. Paywalling communities as a method of keeping undesirables out could be a use for this tool. Obviously, paying for goods and services is also a use.
- Zeronet (Conceptually) - Zeronet is a p2p network for web-publishing. It uses public keys instead of ip addresses for identifying users. If a user has a private key, they can modify a site with the companion public key. So long as someone is hosting the page, the page will be available. This systems removes single point of failures for site. Although, the system is weak and doesn’t have any systems for back-end work.
- Urbit (Conceptually) - Urbit is conceptually a good idea. It attempts to bring back the decentralized internet by acting as a node for sending and receiving data. It also wishes to standardize communication into one user and developer experience. Conceptually a great idea, but is presented in an incredibly unintuitive way.
- All-in-one chatware - I’ll be killed by the suckless crowd for this, but consolidating chatting into one system based around one identity is a great improvement to user experience. Think of element.io or, if you must, Discord’s user experience, but add an email client to it. This sort of system, if it could be created, would combine voice, instant messaging, and slow messaging together so that you, as an identity, can manage human communication easily. This is much better than jumping between services and systems.
What is new and must die
Of course, a lot has gone wrong in the modern internet. That much is obvious, so, I will only tackle the things people don’t talk about too often.
- Algorithmic content delivery - Having content be variable on who you are is a bad way of constructing the internet. It both makes you emotional and boring at the same time. This is because your worldview and reactions can be manipulated for other people’s gain. Instead, self-curating content feeds (such as RSS feeds) would be better as introduction to content would be left to personal discovery or suggestion (unlike our current system, where new content is suggested based off who you are).
- “Software as a service” - Just read this.