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Why the ‘Weird Internet’ of the GeoCities Era Had to Die
Simple and boring rules the day — for a pretty good reason. But there are still tools out there for the experimenters.
Ask any web developer how they first got interested in coding, and they’ll probably tell you something about hacking HTML and CSS together to build an Angelfire page, a GeoCities website, or a killer Myspace profile.
Not so long ago, websites would commonly allow users to add their own stylesheets (CSS) to make their pages look and behave exactly how they wanted. They felt way more personal than, say, your Facebook profile, which looks exactly the same as everyone else’s.
My own story in tech starts here: My earliest memories of web development were trying to get a custom font and an animated mouse cursor to show up when you visited my profile on Myspace.
I remember how thrilling it was when it worked — not just for me, but anyone that visited. CSS let me express myself fully in, well, Myspace. For many developers, figuring out how to do something cool on their Myspace page or building a GeoCities site full of animated “under construction” GIFs was the genesis of their tech careers.
The internet was weirder back then — full of quirky ideas, personal pages, custom blogs, and far more viable platforms to build on than we have on the streamlined web of today. I still run a personal blog on a custom website I built, but every year it feels a bit stranger, and a little rarer. Many people default to Facebook Pages or cookie-cutter Squarespace designs, if they have their own website at all.
In the last two decades, custom stylesheets have become a dying breed. There’s a trend away from customization toward the mega-platforms where most people cluster, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The largest, most popular websites are a one-size-fits-all experience, and the idea of allowing people to add custom code would be considered both risky and too complex.
Sure, you can still build your own website, but why bother when you can just write up a post in the iPhone’s Notes app, take a screenshot, and share it on Instagram?
But when we lose the weird internet, we don’t just lose a space where people could tinker and make things for themselves. We seem to have lost the curiosity that inspired that weirdness in the first place.
The internet became boring, because it was the only way to make it work for everyone.
Make it simple, stupid
The internet was so weird and wonderful in the early 2000s because it was easy to remix. You could take a peek under the hood of a site to see what its code looks like — how the creators wired it up — then build on it for yourself.
Technically, this is still true today. Right-click this page, choose “View Page Source,” and you’ll see the code your browser uses to create what you’re reading right now. But there’s no need for most people to do so: Again, social networks have rendered this obsolete for most people. We don’t really live on a web that encourages us to explore; we live on platforms that support us.
As millions of people rapidly came online in the 2000s, websites suddenly needed to serve far more people than ever before, across multiple types of devices. Customization makes it difficult to fill that need: You might make the perfect site for desktop browsers, only to have it look like nonsense on a mobile phone.
Facebook arrived in 2004, well before Myspace officially died, and I remember that it was ridiculed for having no custom CSS, let alone user-customizable themes of any kind. The social network was just that big, blue navigation bar, your profile picture, and… that was it.
Many of those who had lovingly handcrafted their Myspace with custom HTML to change their fonts, and add animated GIFs and custom cursors, balked at the idea of everyone’s profile looking the same. What’s amazing, however, is that this wasn’t originally intentional, as Julia Angwin describes in her book Stealing Myspace. Myspace coder Toan Nguyen “forgot to block Web markup language in user submissions. His mistake allowed users to build colorful backgrounds and load them onto their Myspaces.”
In the marketplace, it didn’t matter: Facebook won and Myspace slid into irrelevance.
The debut of the iPhone and arrival of other smartphones is another key factor in all of this. Native apps don’t allow customization with style sheets, nor do they allow people to see the code underneath and figure it out for themselves. It just works — no need to fuss with anything approaching individual personality.
Sure, the App Store spurred a new wave of ideas, beautiful interfaces, and services that hadn’t been possible before, but apps are defined by one commonality: Users are generally stuck with whatever the app developer designed for them.
Meanwhile, almost every website that still has customization features is gradually removing them. Reddit, for example, still allows customization in its communities, but the company announced two years ago that it would deprecate CSS support. “Giving users a blank canvas has led to many wonderful developments on Reddit,” CEO Steve Huffman wrote to the site’s moderators in 2017, but “CSS causes us to move slow.” He cited mobile support as a key factor in the decision.
Indeed, customization is a huge pain in the ass to maintain. If you run a site like Facebook and allow custom CSS, it’s impossible to plan for all the ways that shipping a new update might break people’s custom code.
If you simplify a user interface down to a series of blocks, however, and make them as focused on a single task as possible, it becomes much easier to maintain, update, and scale them. The fewer options or variations from that single style, the better, which is the playbook modern designers tend to follow. Simplicity also means these sites are more accessible, particularly to people with disabilities who might rely on a screen reader or other assistive devices online.
Security practices have come a long way, too. Allowing users to upload random code and execute it on your server seems outright insane today because it would pose deep security risks. Websites today generally run a series of “sanitizing” scripts over the text you type into simple forms to make sure you’re not trying to inject code that could exploit the site to steal data or break it entirely.
One other problem with the old, weird internet? It was often just plain broken for people, or the barrier to entry was too high — customization is great for the select few who care about coding, but tricky Angelfire and GeoCities interfaces might also have limited the number of people who could actually make websites. As technology companies became giants and it became necessary to serve millions of people, homogenous design became a crucial part of allowing more people to use and develop online services.
That’s why it sometimes feels like every app and website looks the same, no matter where you go. There are plenty of memes about how basic and boring the internet has become, after initially feeling like an infinite, wonderful canvas anyone could play with. But the internet became boring because it was the only way to make it work for everyone.
Can we get it back?
The only real option in 2019 of customizing anything is to build a website of your own. But the barrier to entry can feel impossibly high, or pointless, when you can make an Instagram profile in just a few seconds.
The age of poking at a piece of code, figuring it out, and hacking a working site together in Frontpage or Dreamweaver feels distant, but there’s some hope for a weird, creative internet today. One example of this is Glitch, a tool that touts itself as the “friendly community where everyone builds the web.”
The platform is designed to help people experiment again, and dramatically lower the barrier to entry. Want to build a page that emulates a magic eight ball? Go nuts! How about a tool that lets you start a drawing and have an A.I. finish it off? Yup.
By making it easy to get inspired by others, remix the code, and build something yourself — without having to fuss with overly complicated script — Glitch has carved out a space for itself where that old internet feeling is thriving.
If websites aren’t going to allow us to customize them, perhaps spaces like Glitch become the playgrounds that encourage internet creativity instead. Other tools like Webflow make the process of building a website a drag-and-drop experience, and the emergence of markup languages like MDX are encouraging developers to mash up code and prose like it’s 1999.
The weird internet thrived because an entire generation of developers and designers learned to remix things, look under the hood, and experiment for themselves. Without that culture, will the future developers growing up today ever feel empowered to experiment?
The internet made it possible to build something out of thin air without millions of dollars in funding. It’s important we don’t forget that, because it’s the best way to learn and evolve.
Tools like Glitch are a chance to change the trend away from monolithic platforms, back to a simpler time, where if you wanted a button that spewed out confetti on your blog, you could have it — if you just figured out to build it.