The Hell of Beautiful Interfaces
January 9, 2019 10:07 AM   Subscribe

"Like many people my age and older, I miss the pre–social media internet. The new internet knows this, and it capitalizes on my nostalgia as it eats away at the old internet. It amounts to an unforeseen form of technological cannibalism." Kate Wagner, The Baffler
posted by the man of twists and turns (71 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Considering the average website is less than ten years old, that old warning from your parents that says to “be careful what you post online because it’ll be there forever” is like the story your dad told you about chocolate milk coming from brown cows, a well-meant farce.

Tell that to Michael Blount or Ghyslain Raza.

The truth is that the more embarassing or incriminating a bit of information is, the higher the likelihood is of it sticking around forever.
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:29 AM on January 9, 2019 [13 favorites]

I really enjoyed this, thank you for posting.

The mention of the One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age project makes me think of this commentary, from John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, on one of the pages it archived, which I think of often.
posted by ITheCosmos at 10:35 AM on January 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

In case anyone else is as confused as I was, the phrase "404 Page Not Found" is the title of the piece, not an error message.
posted by The Nutmeg of Consolation at 10:50 AM on January 9, 2019 [20 favorites]

Ah. Editing my "I'm getting a 404 on this page" after scrolling a bit..
posted by DreamerFi at 10:50 AM on January 9, 2019

But then again that shows how often I close a page before even reaching the fold. Mostly because of all kinds of new-fangled html nonsense
posted by DreamerFi at 10:52 AM on January 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

A little bit of sideeye at this:

It’s wholly unfortunate, moreover, that this rapid-response Geocities tactic hasn’t been applied to other impending collapses or extant internet ruins.

Um, that's what (formerly Metafilter's Own, now Internet Archive "Free Range Archivist") Jason Scott's Archive Team is all about. Preserving GeoCities was sort of how it got started, or at least its first really ambitious mission. They now have a distributed system where any user can run a client application to participate in archival efforts. It's imperfect, but steadily improving, and it is absolutely based on applying the Geocities tactic (distributed collection) to other at-risk Internet properties.

I'm not sure if Wagner was just unaware of who was responsible for the Geocities archive or what, but it seems a fairly important footnote, particularly because it was (reasonably) successful. If people are interested in preserving Internet history and culture, well... there you go. It's a big problem, but defeatism doesn't help.

I think future efforts may be focused more around preserving data in a way that can be loaded into the Internet Archive / Wayback Machine, rather than just creating a bulk torrent for random people to download. Put differently, while we now have a model for doing distributed archiving, the next step is figuring out how to make that data accessible and useful for posterity. The Internet Archive seems like the best option at the moment, and from what I can tell seems to be run by people who are interested in doing it right.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:55 AM on January 9, 2019 [15 favorites]

This article is kind of unpleasantly ageist--I don't like Facebook and quit back in 2011, but "as overcrowded and pungent with old person smell as a visiting school choir performance at the Kiwanis Club" seems unnecessarily unkind.

As for the conclusion, as far as I can tell, the old Internet is already having its revenge in the torrid love affair between 4chan and Trump and I really doubt the result will be communism.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:55 AM on January 9, 2019 [14 favorites]

"I’m a digital native, older than most. " really, from someone five years old in 1998? Harrumph.
posted by randomnity at 11:02 AM on January 9, 2019 [91 favorites]

No wonder 44 percent of people ages 18-29 have deleted the [Facebook] app this year.

What does she mean, exactly? Anyone have a citation for this?
posted by anthill at 11:04 AM on January 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

I was 31 in 1998. Jeez.
posted by thelonius at 11:04 AM on January 9, 2019 [9 favorites]

As someone who got on the Internet in 1996, at age 12, I'd like to dispel a few myths.

1. There was social media in 1996, though it wasn't "always one" the way Facebook and Twitter are. There were web forums, IRC, Newsgroups, and all sorts of early social media.
2. The GeoCities Ugly Homepage was a thing, but it was also hot garbage for accessibility and usability. You can have aesthetics and usability, but something's gotta give somewhere.
posted by SansPoint at 11:07 AM on January 9, 2019 [14 favorites]

That Facebook-app-deletion stat is from a Pew Research study. I don't have the link handy on my phone, but it should be easy enough to find.
posted by Jairus at 11:07 AM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

As I've come to slowly realize, for me, my phone is a great source of anxiety and since the election I've very slowly disconnected to a greater and greater degree. I use my phone so infrequently now that sometimes I can go 3 days without charging it, and it has a dedicated spot in my apartment that it hangs out, like it's a landline.

People seem weirded out by this, but the explanation I hit on is this: I miss when the internet was a place I made an affirmative choice to visit, not a place I continuously inhabit. People seem to get this.
posted by Automocar at 11:13 AM on January 9, 2019 [20 favorites]

I was 31 in 1998. Jeez.

I was 26, so I feel ya'. Maybe people take that "write for yourself" thing a bit too literally sometimes.
posted by DigDoug at 11:16 AM on January 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

Also, what

Myspace was not afforded the same historical courtesy extended to Geocities, with its starry backgrounds and techno-utopian charm. This was partly because of the above-mentioned race and class biases (nobody wants to save that which is low class and uncool), but it was also because Myspace’s user-base comprised tweens and teens

No. Myspace wasn't preserved because there wasn't any warning (which she kinda admits in the next paragraph, oddly), and thus no opportunity to archive it in the same way that Geocities was. Yahoo may have been a shitty steward for Geocities by refusing to pay the (probably very small) ongoing cost of running it, but they did at least give some warning of what was happening.

MySpace was bought by News Corp (aka Rupert Murdoch's personal golem) in 2009; they presumably thought they could turn it around and compete with Facebook. It was in that context—what is now euphemistically termed a "pivot", but could less politely be termed "trying desperately to figure out how to make money"—that they dumped a ton of old pages in 2013, and before that began forcing templates in place of free-form DIY pages, and started to focus more exclusively on music and bands instead of a more general 'personal page' / social network. It was shitty, and they gave very little warning to the outside world, which is why stuff didn't get archived. (They even dangled users' old content as a lure to get them to visit a special page——which was also conveniently an ad for the movie Victor Frankenstein. Classy.)

It wasn't because of some lack of interest on the part of the people who had archived Geocities. Had there been as much warning of MySpace's quasi-demise as there was of Geocities, there could—and I firmly believe, would—have been the same level of effort.

There may have been a racial, and certainly was a class-aspirational, component to why users abandoned MySpace in favor of Facebook (although I think the article underplays the natural tendency of users to want to continually reinvent themselves as they get older; for many people, going from MySpace to Facebook was a way of leaving behind their highschool selves and inventing a newer, cleaner, more polished self in college), but I think blaming that bias for the lack of archival effort isn't supported by the record.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:16 AM on January 9, 2019 [23 favorites]

Oh man, webrings. It was like a big deal if you could get in a specific one. Sending polite mails asking for link backs.
posted by Damienmce at 11:17 AM on January 9, 2019 [18 favorites]

Note to self: fire up Win 95 on a VM and redesign everything on FrontPage using frames and make don't use any CSS or js frameworks.
posted by Damienmce at 11:18 AM on January 9, 2019 [9 favorites]

Myspace and livejournal as "early social networking sites"! I met my spouse on! Get off my lawn etc etc.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:26 AM on January 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

PhoBWanKenobi: I met my partner on an unofficial message board for the Brunching Shuttlecocks.
posted by SansPoint at 11:28 AM on January 9, 2019 [15 favorites]

I was also 5 in 1998, and I know for a fact that what I experienced was far from early-web. There were several generations of "internet" that I never got to experience. I mean, jeez, how many yahoo directories did one really use in the years before elementary school? I have such strong memories of watching my mom check her email using lynx - I even remember writing some emails there myself - but the first browser I actually used independently was almost certainly Internet Explorer. I remember Web 2.0 being a big topic of discussion but I don't really remember the web that preceded it.

Does that make me an early digital native? Sure, I guess, but eh, there's a wide swath of us who (like me) remember life before ubiquitous internet while still having had tech around for our formative years. I would have loved to have been able to experience the earlier nerdier days of the web, but nobody my age truly did.
posted by mosst at 11:37 AM on January 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

The late 90's and early 2000's internet had a lot going for it, but really folks, here's the thing: everything that you experience in your teens and earlier always seems like the most seminal thing ever. The Geocities-era web was cool and all but was it really ultimately objectively better? Not really. Old dudes like me go on and on about how the C64 led them into computing as a career, but beyond nostalgia is there much to say about the C64? Not really.
posted by GuyZero at 11:39 AM on January 9, 2019 [23 favorites]

I'm imagining a mefi project where everyone customizes and posts their own versions.
Extra points for incorporating modem connect sounds.

Old meets new.

I have not even read the README, yet.
posted by bastionofsanity at 11:41 AM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I pine for Mosaic.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:44 AM on January 9, 2019 [17 favorites]

grumpybear69: Tell that to Michael Blount

We made Hello my future girlfriend go viral, by the by. The link had been knocking around the internet for a while before it got posted here, and then it went everywhere. Blount seems to have taken his strange fame reasonably well. He did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit a few years back.
posted by Kattullus at 11:51 AM on January 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’m a digital native, older than most. Because my father worked for the federal government, our household was an early adopter of the internet.

Look, you want to write an essay about your childhood, great.

You want to write an essay praising the geocities esthetic? Great.

Write an essay about you and your father? Great.

The quoted sentence is factually wrong along every axis possible.

Like many people my age and older, I miss the pre–social media internet.

You know what I miss? An internet where there wasn't anything listening on port 80 (or 443).

posted by GuyZero at 11:55 AM on January 9, 2019 [16 favorites]

I'm reminded of this article posted on the Ringer at the end of 2018, which starts off recapping the many problems Facebook caused or faced but moves into a discussion of what the author calls "the human internet." Good reading, along with the Baffler article, for those among us who feel nostalgia for the internet of decades ago (which is a phrase that feels weird typing out. Has it really been over twenty years since I first logged on, tied up my parents' phone line dialing into BBSes?).

I guess it doesn't exist anymore, but somewhere out there at one point was a terrible Geocities page that I made, black text on grey font, with a) a huge list of tips for Command and Conquer: Red Alert and b) a list of my favorite movies of 1998 (Armageddon and Saving Private Ryan were up there). As GuyZero mentioned, feeling affection for My First Webpage really is like being nostalgic for C64s, BASIC, Walkmans, Barnes and Nobles, and other relics of a bygone era. It does all seem rather useless in the end, but maybe they're nonetheless valuable for it.
posted by miltthetank at 12:00 PM on January 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

I've brought this up elsewhere, basically every thread about How Great The Old Internet Was, but it bears repeating...

A _huge_ part of why Facebook, MySpace, LiveJournal, Friendster, and so on took off is that they were significantly easier for non-technically inclined people to get started with than Geocities or AngelFire were back in the day. I was the sort of nerd that literally bought HTML for Dummies before they got an internet connection so that I could have a web page up as soon as I got online. Most people are not that deep into it, and would rather, if they want an online presence, just sign up for something rather than do the work of learning to build a web page.

And that is to say nothing of the fact that it is way harder to build a basic webpage in 2019 than it was in 1999, when you could literally learn everything you needed out of a single book like HTML for Dummies: Quick Reference. Have you tried using "View Source" on most modern web pages?
posted by SansPoint at 12:05 PM on January 9, 2019 [28 favorites]

The GeoCities Ugly Homepage was a thing, but it was also hot garbage for accessibility and usability. You can have aesthetics and usability, but something's gotta give somewhere.
This is the thing that I kinda keep circling back to. I'm five years older than the author, and I remember being into a lot of the same stuff they're describing. While I remember that era of the internet fondly, it was seriously flawed in ways that are being overridden in a haze of nostalgia. Like, when I see this: "[MySpace] also lent itself well to pieces of flair, such as song bytes and the then-ubiquitous glitter gifs.", I nodded, then I thought, "Wait, that's what everyone hated about it, that you would go to someone's profile and suddenly sound would blast out of your speakers because they had some Nickleback song set to auto-play." Those sites were nightmares if you had visual or auditory sensitivities or disabilities. The whole "I can do anything!" aesthetic resulted in a few cool/interesting sites and thousands of pages of "white text/gray background". My grandmother told me some of this back in the late '90s, when I tried to show her sites I was making/reading and she had to explain to me that she couldn't read anything on them; it's kinda wild to see this essay 20 years later that doesn't even touch on accessibility at all.
posted by protocoach at 12:06 PM on January 9, 2019 [14 favorites]

I am list administrator for an email list that's been operating since before this author was born. Back in the day, the traffic was overwhelming. It's dwindled now and I miss those days. But we still have some traffic. Today we are talking about a possible meetup. And about a list member who just died. Life goes on.
posted by elizilla at 12:07 PM on January 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

protocoach "Wait, that's what everyone hated about it, that you would go to someone's profile and suddenly sound would blast out of your speakers because they had some Nickleback song set to auto-play." Those sites were nightmares if you had visual or auditory sensitivities or disabilities.

And in 2019, we still haven't learned that lesson because I can't visit a single local news website without some god awful autoplaying video starting up.

And, for what it's worth, at one point I had autoplaying MIDI of the MST3k theme on my GeoCities site. I am not without sin here.
posted by SansPoint at 12:11 PM on January 9, 2019 [14 favorites]

Also, a lot of the stuff that makes up "the interesting web" is still around (like...MeFi), most people just don't give enough of a shit to search it out. I don't want to give FB/Amazon/Google a pass here (Apple and Netflix don't really fit here) for their roles in homogenizing the internet, but the people who chose to get on FB/Instagram/Twitter/whatever had agency and they exercised it. That they did so in a way you don't like doesn't mean that their choice was invalid, and neither do those companies' bad actions.

We're not going to go back to the old world of the internet where the only people on it were the hardcore, and I honestly wouldn't want to; for all the talk about how bad the internet is now (I really disagree with the idea that "the bad things about the contemporary internet pretty much outweigh the good"), these awful homogenizing forces of the new internet have exposed me to more interesting, funny, entertaining people than the old internet ever did. Going into the racialized dynamics of the MySpace/Facebook divide without interrogating the racialized dynamics of "I liked the internet back when everything was much harder to use and required a significantly greater initial investment of time and money" feels like a pretty big missed opportunity to interrogate the original premise. The old internet had many charms, but racial diversity was not among them.
posted by protocoach at 12:19 PM on January 9, 2019 [8 favorites]

This old, crotchety, digital native remembers being on Usenet, back in the days where if you wanted to email someone, you had to know all the hops to put in their address. So, instead of, I might get email addressed to emay!hpmtlx!hplabs!etc... [See Bang Path at this link.]

For an out lesbian isolated in the midwest US, Usenet was my lifeline to the GLBTQ+ world. Plus, since we had internal company newsgroups, I got rumors of impending policy changes (from people who overheard it at the company HQ cafeteria) long before our local HR department heard about it. That was fun.

The day domain based addressing came to Usenet was a glorious day :).
The day AOL connected to it was the start of the downfall, but the Mosaic browser had been released earlier that year and Usenet/newsgroups were on their way out anyway. It took almost two more years for Geocities to show up.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane :).
posted by elmay at 12:36 PM on January 9, 2019 [19 favorites]

posted by fluttering hellfire at 12:48 PM on January 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

I realized maybe I was being too hard on the article and the author. I do think she's onto something, although I disagree about a bunch of the conclusions, and while I think the article could have benefited by less focus on academic literature and, I dunno, ten minutes on [literally any social network] talking to people who are perhaps a few years older than her and can give some context to why the world moved away from the stuff she remembers fondly from her formative years... the feeling of nostalgia she's experiencing is very real, and shouldn't be discounted. It's certainly shared by a lot of people, and that's not insignificant.

I'm older than the author, so I have little nostalgia for MySpace; it was always, and will always be, dumb. Because it's the sort of thing my younger siblings thought was cool, mostly. But I have my own nostalgia, for stuff like dial-up BBSes and the murderous envy of knowing a friend with a rich dad has a no-shit Hayes 28.8 modem and a dedicated line while you're stuck with an off-brand 14.4 and hoping nobody else in the house picks up the phone.

And when enough people feel the same sort of nostalgia, they tend to start recreating it. Which is why you now have a bunch of people whose formative experiences were during the pre-Web days building Gopher sites, or recreating BBSes over VOIP circuits.

Most importantly, because the Internet has scaled up so much in the intervening years, the number of people on some of these hobbyist/nostalgia sites is actually comparable to the original incarnation. There were never more than a handful of people on the few multiline BBSes I could dial into (without a long distance call), but right now I can connect to a pseudo-BBS and have a richer experience than I could have in the 90s.

When there are enough people nostalgic for MySpace, we'll get something like it again. Although MySpace pages were absolute hell on the client side of a late-90s connection, on the server end they were mostly just static HTML; you could probably host thousands of them on a $5/mo virtual server somewhere. And hell, you could probably run an entire emulation environment and some sort of 90s-era WYSIWYG page editing tool (FrontPage or GoLive or whatever) all in-browser, and let people really have the full experience. Someone just needs to be motivated enough to do it, and Wagner demonstrates that there are people out there pining for that particular experience.

Then they too can discover the true horror of the Suck Fairy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:49 PM on January 9, 2019 [8 favorites]

Slashdot, Kuro5hin and Metafilter were my first internet based social media sites. And two of those are still alive!

Posted using lynx, really.
posted by jclarkin at 12:53 PM on January 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

Wagner demonstrates that there are people out there pining for that particular experience.

I have a cow-orker* here at my Silicon Valley tech job who spends much of his summer at SCA events. There's people pining for all kinds of stuff. That doesn't give those experience any inherent moral virtue.

I have little nostalgia for MySpace; it was always, and will always be, dumb.

Yeah, MySpace is not my thing. I totally get that other people are not bad for not sharing my personal tastes, but MySpace was dumb. And honestly, to be a complete asshole about it, I would have been happy if MySpace users had never touched the internet. It's eternal September, but this time in you sophomore year of high school instead of in college. And I totally admit that that's an asshole opinion. But it's pretty much the same as saying Facebook is bad and ruined the internet. You pick a day and everyone who showed up before it was cool and everyone who showed up later sucks. Punk, rock, the internet, whatever. Everyone knows the day the thing they love died. And somehow no two days are the same.

* - although I remember it as a alt.folklore.urban thing
posted by GuyZero at 1:08 PM on January 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Then they too can discover the true horror of the Suck Fairy. is objectively the best website of all time.

It's the shit. it's the bomb. It's the shitty bomb.
posted by GuyZero at 1:09 PM on January 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

As mentioned earlier, there is a certain privilege in reminiscing about the "old internet" in that active participation required a certain technical know-how and access that most people didn't have. But I think there's another dimension that explains why we really can't get much of it back, even with explicit nostalgia-driven revivals: a lot of that old internet was built by kids (literally and figuratively), and all the people who had nostalgia for that stuff have now grown up and have jobs and families. The second privilege closed off even to people who were able to experience the "old internet" is that of youth and unbounded time.

I remember learning stupid HTML and Javascript layout tricks in high school and university, including multi-column layouts in 2002 (back when that kind of magic was called dHTML). It was all rudimentary but done in the spirit of experimentation and eccentricity that is missing now. Today, my skill set is a lot more advanced, but the drive and the time to do those things now is harder to come by.

Whatever the modern-day equivalent of teenage me is doing, it's probably not building HTML experiments on their ISP-hosted blog. I'm sure it's still valuable in the way my old blog was to me, but it will necessarily take a different form.
posted by chrominance at 1:13 PM on January 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Also, while I'm here: I still miss that site.
posted by chrominance at 1:14 PM on January 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

> beyond nostalgia is there much to say about the C64?

Yes. I'm sure nostalgia is a factor, but a common concrete argument for personal computers from the C64 age is that it was not only possible for someone to have a complete model of the machine+system in their head, but something you could do in a short open period of time, like a summer vacation or two.

*I* don't have that particular piece of nostalgia because I was stuck on a TI99/4a with nothing but the default Basic to work with as a programming language (oh how I wish I'd figured out how to get my hands on an assembler or a Forth), and there are obvious limits to a piece of equipment like that, and moreoever, even in modern niches where that approach has value the microcontroller world has lots of better options to offer than the C64. But the value in a system like that remains concrete.

Similarly, I think there are some arguments in favor of the early web... but they're harder for me to pin down. William Gibson's characterizations of it (like "gloriously unsorted Global Ham Television Postcard Universes") seem close, and at least capture the giddiness of the astonishingly unmediated nature of a medium where an individual had a global-scale reach. On top of that, there was an open quality that was almost all potential and few habits. The option to have the first bit hasn't really gone away -- anyone can still get a website and send out their HTTP postcards to the world -- and there are ways in which getting a domain and blog or a bespoke web application up and running are much, much easier then in the 90s. But the last bit, mediation and routine, has changed in a big way. Audiences are constrained by habit and herded by business interests in a way that they weren't.

This isn't a technical problem, it's a social one, and it's interesting how well Gibson's description of old media civilization now applies to the web pushing 30. It has a lot in common with the critique the author offers in this essay.
posted by wildblueyonder at 1:19 PM on January 9, 2019 [6 favorites] is objectively the best website of all time

In my mind it marked the point where web sites started to have a sensibility and a voice. A brand, if you will.

And though the end-point of that has become rather horrible, it seemed fresh and exciting at the time. Suck was the shit.
posted by sjswitzer at 1:23 PM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would argue that was the shit.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:24 PM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

🐟 🛢 🔫 was the invention of the modern internet
posted by sjswitzer at 1:31 PM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

And when enough people feel the same sort of nostalgia, they tend to start recreating it.

See also: the revival of Dungeons and Dragons.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:20 PM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

See also: the revival of Dungeons and Dragons.

I would argue that this is not nostalgia, not really. The "faces" of D&D these days are 10+ years too young to have been around for D&D's initial peak. I think there's a legit demand for a face-to-face game and that the toxicity of online gaming spaces has reinforced that.

That said, the 80's are as back as they're every going to be.
posted by GuyZero at 2:35 PM on January 9, 2019

I was 31 in 1998. Jeez.

I was 49 but who's counting. I also remember reading on USENET about some guy at Cern who had created a hypertext markup language that could be navigated with something called a browser. Couldn't see the point since we already had Gopher...
posted by jim in austin at 2:54 PM on January 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yes. Suck. When they had to post a single ad at the top left of their page to help pay for their gloriousness, they also stated on the page that readers should just put a post it note over the ad on their screen. These were the better days in many ways.
posted by njohnson23 at 2:55 PM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

This person, yes, is way too young to be writing this article. Others have elaborated on this, above. I got on the internet (ECHO, an East Coast version of California's The Well) in 1991. I met my husband there (he'd started the third public ISP in, I believe, 1989). We had our KID in 1993. The idea of HIM writing this article about old-internet nostalgia? Yikes. Yeah, it all changed and will keep changing. I recommend HALT AND CATCH FIRE for a pretty good fictional account of the the history of the internet. And as for the "old people smell"? Yeah no (what young people say sometimes.)
posted by DMelanogaster at 3:07 PM on January 9, 2019

The day AOL connected to it was the start of the downfall,

AKA "The September That Never Ended"

I was thinking about this, and about 2000, a friend of mine and I setup a chat server based on the Ethereal Realms perl code, to just shoot the shit about things. Think HTML enabled IRC... Yes, frames. No JS. We had about 2 dozen regulars, who would pop in and just shoot the shit. I've never seen that kind of camaraderie since. And now it's time to re-up the unused domain name, "", even if I don't run Fedora Core 4 in a VM and resurrect it.
posted by mikelieman at 3:08 PM on January 9, 2019

In my senior year of high school, 1980, I took a computer science class offered by our high school. They had terminals connected via a dedicated phone line to our state's central department of education computer, which was something like an IBM System/360. We wrote programs in BASIC and submitted them to be run under some kind of time-sharing scheme. We had so many seconds of CPU time allotted to us and if we went over, we were screwed and couldn't run anything more for the rest of the week or month or whatever.

All the programs had some kind of JCL header that we had to copy and paste. We didn't know what it did and no one wanted to explain it to us - it was just some kind of magic incantation and we knew it had to be there without one character changed or we were screwed. Our resident computer genius bought a book on programming JCL and wowed us all by writing actual JCL scripts.

(In the year of our lord 2019 I can't imagine what those scripts could possibly have done that was even slightly interesting--probably something like renaming a file.)

The Word from Years Past in those days was that we were the fortunate few indeed, and Living In The Future because we could submit our programs instantly over the phone lines using a live terminal. They had started the computer programming class just a few years before with a punch card machine. They spent hours designing their programs and punching them onto a stack of cards. Every Friday they would bundle them up and send them down to Dept of Education headquarters to have them processed by the mainframe. They would get back a giant stack of those wide green-zebra-paper printouts from a line printer.

Most often the output would be something along the lines of "SYNTAX ERROR ON LINE 30" or whatever. They would revise the punch cards and re-submit them the next Friday only to receive "SYNTAX ERROR ON LINE 45".

And so it went.

Anyway, the new hotness was the Apple ][ where we spent untold hours re-typing game programs written in Integer Basic from various magazines, as well as figuring out how to run various copy protection cracking programs.

Our teach spent most of his time complaining about how easy we had it, and what lazy programmers we were, because we could just type "]RUN" into the console to rather instantly find "SYNTAX ERROR ON LINE 30" and such, rather than waiting until two weeks from Monday.

As we are coming up on the 40th anniversary of the event, I can now confess publicly that my buddy and I were among the first inventors of malware. We somehow programmed the Apple ][ boot-up disk of one of our fellow students so that she had to swear fealty to the Emperor of Mars, answer various esoteric questions, etc, before it would allow her to finish booting up into the DOS prompt.

This set the whole department into an uproar, let me tell you.

I won't mention our later adventures with a 300 baud modem and the BBS scene etc etc. But in 1993 at a new grad school a buddy and I went down to the computer science department and joined the Association of Computing Machinery so that we could get internet accounts. We could use lab computers or connect via dial-up modems in various ways over the years.

At that point, many people had been online for many years already. Usenet, just as a prime example, was already a gigantic roiling, stinking, caldron of garbage with the very occasional shiny gem flying by here or there.

My very first web page was a lightly edited Lynx bookmark file that (I soon heard) crashed quite a lot of people's browsers because I had inadvertently omitted the "<html></html>" tags.

So in 1993 we were BY NO MEANS early adopters of the internet. Let along 1998, when thing had progressed by many light-years in Internet Time.

It is, however, completely true that everything new is crap and get off my lawn already. Thank you.
posted by flug at 3:27 PM on January 9, 2019 [12 favorites]

I am not entirely sure that this article is not a parody of nostalgia and the MAGA crowd.

Yes Facebook is objectively terrible, but no sane and reasonable person believes going back to Myspace would be an improvement. Add in the fact that, as many have mentioned, the author is too young to accurately remember the time they are supposedly nostalgic for and it seems like it really could be a pointed comment on our current political situation.

Anyway the nostalgia we had when I was a kid was better than the crappy nostalgia you get these days.
posted by iamnotangry at 3:29 PM on January 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

(the game Monument Valley comes to mind), the need to cater to a consolidated group of developers—especially Apple or Google, the two major smartphone operating system providers—gives us little room for variety or originality

Monument Valley type games are rare because people don't want to pay for anything.

Flash, to name just one example—which was a huge player in the early explosion of entertainment on the net, from websites that aggregated embedded Flash-based, arcade-style video games like those developed by Miniclip or CoolMath4Kids to earlier web projects like Homestar Runner—was not supported by the iPhone or Android, and this led to its rapid “obsolescence.”

When they finally put Flash in the grave, I think a lot of Internet security people are going to tramp the earth down. Kill it with fire.

Put another way, these pages deliberately uglify Facebook, rendering a once sleek user interface deconstructed and amateurish, appending it with a Myspace-esque look, exposing aesthetically the control Facebook has lost both over its content and its brand image. These are the raucous, perhaps final stirrings of youth on a platform that is as overcrowded and pungent with old person smell as a visiting school choir performance at the Kiwanis Club.

Much like weird twitter, I'm already tired of the author's schtick. Offering sarcasm, but no hope. Vaguely Marxist but oh so bourgeoisie, sneering at its targets more for their aesthetics than their politics. Workers of the world, point and stare at the people of Wal-mart. Shitty memes on Facebook are the real reason to hate Mark Zuckerberg.
posted by zabuni at 3:46 PM on January 9, 2019

The author, Kate Wagner, tweets as @McMansionHell and blogs at, where she lampoons the awful houses of the uber-rich.

She gets a lot of hate mail from the older MAGA crowd whenever she does so, so I think she has some (fairly understandable) resentment toward older folks, many of whom seem to speak up online only to defend the wealthy. (Old MeFites like me are different, but we're in the minority.)

From her bio: "She recently graduated from Johns Hopkins with a Masters of Arts in Audio Science, specializing in architectural acoustics. Her thesis project examined intersections of acoustics, urbanism and Late Modern architecture."
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:51 PM on January 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

You know what I miss? An internet where there wasn't anything listening on port 80 (or 443).

Y'know what I miss, GuyZero? I miss my old bang path. Yeah, I said it. Now where's the article about my generation? And don't tell me it's on Usenet 'cause I looked there and all I found was Kibo.
posted by The Bellman at 4:04 PM on January 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Man, Kibo. That guy needs to die.die.die
posted by GuyZero at 4:16 PM on January 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

Huh, I had no idea she was the mcmansionhell person. If we haven't had an FPP on that, we should. It's good.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:43 PM on January 9, 2019

There have been 5 McMansion Hell FPPs! It's just that good!
posted by GuyZero at 5:02 PM on January 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

When all the links of this article and in this discussion thread go bad, it will mark the heat death of the Internet.
posted by filtergik at 4:22 AM on January 10, 2019

Does anyone remember Memepool?

Along with MetaFilter (which launched a year later, in 1999), it was one of the sites that opened my eyes to the potential of the internet – one of the first things that you might call a "blog", and one of the first sites you could visit on a daily basis and expect to find fresh content.

It was a curated guide to weird, obscure, and fascinating corners of the web. I often asked friends: "Did you see that x on Memepool??"

(This was, of course, long before the word "meme" acquired its present meaning.)

It was updated once a day (at best), and had no comments, "likes", or other interactive features. It wasn't "social". But it was an early precursor of today's firehose-of-novelty web, where most of us check Twitter and/or Facebook multiple times a day, and step into a different river every time.

Anyway. That's my early web. Those were simpler, more innocent times.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:31 AM on January 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Geocities-era web was cool and all but was it really ultimately objectively better? Not really. Old dudes like me go on and on about how the C64 led them into computing as a career, but beyond nostalgia is there much to say about the C64? Not really.

As precisely one of those old dudes, my first impulse is to push back on this. (After all – who said these things were objectively better? I thought we were talking about feelings and experiences, which are inherently subjective.)

But, you probably make a good point. As with anything from one's formative years, it's difficult – if not impossible – to see things without the filter of nostalgia.

I think a lot of people are simply saying that we miss the way things felt back then, and wish that today's web could recapture some of that.

It's fair to ask how much of that feeling was due to youth and naïveté, and how much was due to the different culture and technology of the time. (Or whether we're even remembering our feelings accurately – time distorts memory like a motherfucker.)

But I don't think we should totally dismiss these sentiments, either. The early web wasn't perfect, but I remember it as a far less toxic place than 2019's web. Bad actors hadn't yet figured out how to weaponize it (largely because the most weaponizable parts – e.g., social media – hadn't been invented yet).

It demonstrates that we can have an internet with many of the benefits that we appreciate today, that isn't a complete cesspool. And maybe it's worth considering what makes the difference.

People tend to blame the current dystopian state of internet culture on the internet itself, as if it's just an inherent, emergent property of a global computer network. But it's not. It's the ad networks and profit motives. It's the centralization. It's the entire economic model of "social media" as it currently exists.

It seems unlikely that the web has achieved maturity with Facebook and Twitter. As we build web 3.0, what do we want it to look like? What parts of web 2.0 do we want to keep, and which parts should be discarded or rethought? And how can we, as individual users, encourage that evolution to prgress in a healthy direction?

I dunno. Just a thought.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:54 AM on January 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

I was 33 in 1998.

Some friends of mine and I were talking about trucker songs recently and a much younger friend chimed in and said "Y'all, I don't want to make you feel old, but I have no idea what a CB radio is."

"It was sort of the first social media," we said.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:20 AM on January 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

escape from the potato planet: Part of how the modern social internet has become weaponized is that it's so poorly moderated. This is partially a function of both scale (how do you moderate a platform with 2.27 billion users, anyway), and apathy ("We are the free speech wing of the free speech party."). Back when internet communities were smaller, and could be managed by one to a handful of actual humans, it was easier to deal with malicious actors, though apathy was always a factor.
posted by SansPoint at 7:30 AM on January 10, 2019

I feel like the argument being made here isn't necessarily "we should go back to the age of GeoCities and MySpace," but more that your online identity went through a change when social media matured and platforms became The Thing that made it easier to create one but vastly more difficult to actually make it your own. GeoCities and MySpace were places where you could do dumb shit with your profile that was nevertheless expressive; it allowed you to mark a small part of the web as yours.

You don't get to have that anymore, not unless you're highly knowledgeable and willing to put in a significant amount of time to make and maintain your own website. And even then, no one will bother to look, not even your friends, because that's how platforms work: by sucking all the attention oxygen from the room. Now, most people's online personas are hosted on social media platforms that prioritize their user experience above your desire to put Blingee stickers everywhere.

And yeah, I think most people thought that shit was ugly and heinous and not worth going back to. MySpace circa 2002 would be absolutely unnavigable on a smartphone. We destroyed Flash for a reason. But at the same time, we lost something there. You can't really bedazzle or graffiti the internet anymore, and so a particular form of expression is muted.

I remember when I was in high school, our school had a network that sat somewhere between BBS and internet forum. One of the things we all gravitated towards really quickly was our profile, which was just a blank page you could write stuff in and format. And man, the stuff people put there. Classmates of mine probably spent hours updating that thing with song lyrics, pithy quotes and injokes, all lovingly formatted and coloured using the built-in WYSIWYG tools. People would do the silly thing where they'd add a ton of blank space at the bottom and then put secret messages at the bottom in tiny or off-white text, because that's the dumb thing you do when you're a teenager and you're full of secrets and friends to tell them to. It was part message board, part identity-making exercise.

THAT'S the thing you don't really get to do on the internet anymore, at least not on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, and the thing I think this article is nostalgic for.
posted by chrominance at 9:45 AM on January 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

THAT'S the thing you don't really get to do on the internet anymore, at least not on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, and the thing I think this article is nostalgic for.

There's probably a hundred places you could do this today but everyone knows no one is going to look at them.
posted by GuyZero at 9:59 AM on January 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

My social media is still all listservs and discussion forums. I never left the old web.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:55 AM on January 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

The early web wasn't perfect, but I remember it as a far less toxic place than 2019's web.

I dunno about this. There was a ton of casual racism, homophobia, and especially sexism on the early web that I feel like wouldn't fly—at least outside of 4chan—today. "No girls on the Internet" was a reasonably mainstream joke that used to pop up even on Slashdot.

I remember a lot more vicious flamewars and stuff too. By contrast, the Internet today—and this is biased by the places I hang out, but that includes such reasonably-mainstream places as parts of Reddit—seems actually more polite. You get snarky one-off comments and drive-by bullshittery, but the epic online dick-measuring contests seem to have slowed down. I mean, Linus Torvalds got taken to task last year for rants that would have been (and were) met with a shrug and "well if you can't stand the heat, get the fuck out of the kitchen" on the LKML years ago.

And some of the worst content—CP and animal cruelty—has faded from view significantly. I remember stumbling on some really heinous stuff just clicking around on the open web; it's been years since that's happened. (I'm sure it's not gone; but at least you have to use Tor or dig around on the Dark Web for it.) And it's happened largely without censorship of more mainstream adult content; there was a sort of widespread libertarianesque fatalism that you couldn't have free expression without also giving a platform to pedophiles and cat crushers, but I think we've shown that's actually not the case.

A fair number of behaviors that took a lot of effort to curtail in places like Metafilter were endemic in the Web 1.0 Internet; that's not to say there wasn't good stuff, but I'd have to be wearing some pretty thick rose-colored glasses to want to go back there today.

There's probably a hundred places you could do this today but everyone knows no one is going to look at them.

It's funny though; I suspect you'd actually get just as many hits on some niche platform today as you would have gotten to your hand-rolled-HTML homepage in 1996. There are just that many more people online. I remember having a homepage (a ~username/ from my dialup ISP) and watching obsessively for the hit counter to go up, maybe once or twice a day. My zombie blog in 2018 (updated virtually never, no comments, nothing) gets more hits in a day than that site probably got ever.

What's changed is people aren't satisfied with the traffic or number of interactions that they would have gotten on the 90s Internet, they want the high traffic of the 2018 Internet and the coziness of the 90s, and that's a mutually-exclusive combination.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:37 PM on January 10, 2019 [7 favorites]

Kadin2048: Now you can make money from it. Nobody was getting rich from their Geocities fan page. Today, any post could go viral and turn you into an influencer or something. (I'm fuzzy on the details, I just know it hasn't happened to me yet.)
posted by SansPoint at 2:22 PM on January 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Kadin2048: The early-early internet of Usenet days was more civil -- not as civil as MeFi but far more civil than other places these days. Part of the reason was that you got access through a school, organization (like ACM up-thread) or company (in my case) and typically could be traced back to a real person. There was a lot of self-moderation. I hung out in net.motss (members-of-the-same-sex, for GLBTQ+ people) and later soc.motss and it was a relatively civil space. Plus, like MeFi, you could choose whether or not to participate in a given thread/discussion. So, I found it relatively easy to ignore the BS.
posted by elmay at 2:59 PM on January 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Plus, like MeFi, you could choose whether or not to participate in a given thread/discussion.

pretty sure mefi doesn't have killfiles (for better or worse)
posted by GuyZero at 3:01 PM on January 10, 2019

Pony request!

(I kid, but I sometimes wish I could mute certain users on certain threads.)
posted by suetanvil at 9:56 AM on January 11, 2019

There have been 5 McMansion Hell FPPs! It's just that good!

Apparently McMansionHell has been selected for archiving by Library of Congress
posted by vibratory manner of working at 7:49 PM on January 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older “She came out of nowhere for us and it and it felt...   |   The Surprising History of the Fortune Cookie Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments