Spectres of What Came Before (re: "Reverberations of What Came Before" by winter)

Published on 2024-02-09

Just a Little Sad and Jealous That The World I Came From Was Gone: Nikkiana's vintage throwback secret internet journal, and the Reverberations of What Came Before

You should go read this article. It's pretty good, and it inspired me to write this, which kind of seeks to contrast the author's experience with the smallnet to my own. You probably don't need to read it to understand this but you should anyway.

I'm not super big on talking about my age on the internet. Not entirely sure why. Maybe I'm insecure about it, or maybe I fear it'll shatter some illusion about my story I've crafted. Nonetheless, I'm young enough that a major event in my journey towards being an "online" person was registering for Instagram in middle school.

This was after the time of MySpace; by this point MySpace was a joke about obsolescence. I hear MySpace users used to be able to stylize their profiles using custom CSS. Things like that were starting to go out of fashion. Had my path been even a little bit different I could have joined Tumblr, where I understand those features stuck around for much longer, but most of my youth online was characterized by a decline in individuality. I didn't even really notice it because I never lived in a time where I felt like we were owed individuality by the platforms we used.

I was a blogger from a pretty young age, strangely enough. I had a Blogger page. Many Blogger pages over the years, in fact.

Before it felt like we were tending homes and gardens on the frontier of the possible. The web was huge, but it was still personal. At the end we were drowned out by SEO experts, garbage-pushers who'd never made anything interesting or durable in their lives.

It's strange reading about how people who grew up on the internet before my time experienced this transition. For me, the garbage-pushers were my gateway into a slightly more independent side of the web. They taught me how to get started. They gave me my insecurities around how my "content" is viewed by others. Nobody ever read my writing, of course, besides my parents and whoever's face I shoved it in front of. But that was indeed where it all started.

I've spoken a little before about the awkward and painful transition from "njms.ca" as a professional portfolio to "njms.ca" to the digital garden it is today.

Identity is a network

I share a name with a real person

SEO became a bit of a special interest for me back then. I still have a lot of obsolete trivia about how to get your "content" on the front page of search results in my head. I internalized the importance of having a personal brand at a dangerously young age. Like, at an age I should have been running around outside and playing with sticks.

And so that's what my first websites were: professional portfolios. The kind of thing 95% of all front-end developers host on GitHub Pages. Websites like warehouses, selling self-labelled labour commodities, rather than a place to tell our stories.

If you scroll all the way to the bottom of my blog you'll see two articles I wrote on the tail-end of this period of my life, where I describe new (at the time lmao) features of JavaScript. I keep them up as a reminder.

Part of the problem was certainly that this was a very solo exercise for me. Making personal websites was not exactly a "cool" thing while I was in high school. I wasn't aware of a single other person who did it in my life. Even the more technical people I hung out with mostly stuck to social media. I didn't have people to bounce ideas off of, really, and so I just kept doing what I always did. It certainly didn't feel very fulfilling. I didn't maintain a website because I loved website craftsmanship; I did it because I thought I needed to.

I also got into the Fediverse back in high school. From there, I started slowly working backwards in time, unravelling all of the nonsense that informed my relationship to the internet. And here we are today. Every once in a while I get to talk to a cool person online. I'd never really done that before in my life.

This "smallnet" thing. Like, the generalization of the smallweb. It is deeply rooted in the traditions of the early internet--things that probably never truly went away. Laid dormant? Went out of fashion before later seeing a renaissance? I feel like the smallnet is growing, but maybe that's just because I'd never really seen it before, and am only now starting to realize how big it always was.

BBS, IRC and even web forums all feel kind of mysterious to me. Most of the people in my life probably wouldn't even really know what a BBS is. I only know vaguely. This thing you log into every once in a while. But like, you have to call it? With the landline? My parents got rid of their landline around the time I reached high school. I tried reading Cyberville by Stacy Horn a while back about an online community called Echo which I understood as being a BBS, but the author kind of just assumes you know exactly what that means.

There are people my age and younger who've independently gotten into website creation. Lots of them seem to be coming at it from a very similar place as me, that is, in pursuit of a neat looking web portfolio. Something to slap on their resume. Others, like the folks winter mentioned, come more from the tradition of:

pixie-puke Win95-ish sites covered with fifty buttons and webrings and little else

What we might call the weirdcore side of the smallweb. Many of these websites seem to want to tell a story, but I rarely find that they do. They exist primarily as an aesthetic. Like a painting. I suppose a painting can tell a story, but it's a very different kind of story than, say, a novel. Not the kind of story I go looking for when I'm seeking out cool new places on the internet.

The internet of the 1990s doesn't exist anymore, except as a ghost that continues to haunt us to this day. The 1990s don't exist anymore. 1990 was 34 years ago. A lot has happened since. People have grown. I hold this image in my head of the internet that I want to be a part of, and the problem I keep running into is that time has turned this story from history to myth. People don't call Echo anymore, they just relive old memories.

We do have Gemini, though. I like to think of Gemini as a fusion of the old ways with the modern internet. Not only does it learn from Gopher, but it's designed to meet a specific need of today--to create a safe space where people don't need to worry about everything that's made the web such an undesirable place to be. I like that a lot about it.

The fact that the project seems to be lead by people who grew up on the old ways of the internet gives me some hope. There's a lot of ancestral knowledge they share.

I'm usually very skeptical of any kind of project that offers a return to former glory. They tend to be very fascist. I'm not sure why exactly I let my guard down around the smallnet. I suppose that on a fundamental level the way we've organized the modern world is not sustainable, and our knowledge of the past is the one story we have of a world, however problematic, that might hold some insight on how things could get a little better.

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