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90s Internet: Why We Loved that Mess

Updated: May 15, 2023

AIM, Napster, AskJeeves: we were beta testers without knowing it

90's computer

Flame Was Heaven-sent

In the beginning, the web was a place for enthusiasts and hobbyists.

It was a toll-booth and the currency was interest, time, and intelligence. People created websites for fun, to share their passions with the world, online boutiques.

This was the era of Geocities and Angelfire, when everyone seemed to have their own website, no matter how rudimentary. These quirky, idiosyncratic sites loudly boasted their sights and sounds, ranging from the charmingly amateurish to the outright bizarre.

Sites Beyond Sight

The early days of the internet were a wild, untamed frontier, with websites that seemed as likely to be informative as they were to be a fun, interactive experience. It was a new toy to play with and websites needed to pop off the screen. Each site had its own unique design, layout, and voice. We’d spend hours surfing the web, exploring new sites, discovering new ideas.

As the web evolved and became more commercial, that sense of personality has largely been stripped–replaced by a bland conformity that prioritizes #SEO over originality and creativity.

Entertainment, Finance, Shopping

Things to look at, how much they cost, and how to buy them.

As the web became more mainstream, businesses took notice. For good or ill, mass media took on a cross-platform crusade, in which anything could become a commodity–as long as you reached the right audience. They saw the potential of the internet as a new frontier for commerce, a marketing moon on which to stake their claim.

Amazon, ebay, Pay Pal planted their nylon flags and still they fly, decades later. Adaptation, production, conformity: the same principles of today ring true.

Websites became more professional and polished, supplanting the esoteric with an emphasis on branding and marketing. The era of flash animations and splash pages was upon us, and businesses invested huge amounts of money in their online presence, often with little consideration for user experience.

It was worth throwing money at but no one was sure what worked yet. The framework was being generated–fueled more vehemently as clicks converted to currency. Focus groups and demographics had become free for all, we signed our data away for access to products.

Observation and Participation

Remember how anything could be a commodity? People quickly glommed onto the fact that they were connected intimately with other folks, folks that would be willing to give a dollar or five to their favorite brand of people and content. The rise of social media and mobile devices shifted the balance of power away from businesses and back to individuals. Suddenly, anyone could create and share content online, and there was a renewed interest in the idea of the web as a place for self-expression and creativity.

But even as the web has become more democratized, it has also become more commercialized. SEO has become a major focus for businesses, and many websites are designed with search engines in mind, rather than users. This has led to a certain sameness in web design, with many sites looking almost identical in terms of layout and functionality. Ideas can be fleshed out, but the bones are identical. Stamping out websites has never been easier.

In some ways, it’s understandable. Businesses need to be visible online in order to succeed, and SEO is an important tool for achieving that visibility. Now replace “businesses” with “individuals” and you’ll see why it’s handy to have a bandwagon.

The danger in prioritizing SEO over all else is that websites designed solely for search engines tend to be dull and uninteresting, with little personality or character.

Maybe you think your business doesn’t need anything “fancy” and you’re OK with the bare minimum.

Nope. It’s simpler now to get something aesthetically pleasing and functional than ever before, so do it.

But where does that leave us? Is the web doomed to be a place of conformity and SEO-driven design?

Nah. The tension between commerce and creativity is ever present, but there are signs that the pendulum is swinging back towards a more personal and expressive web.

Time is Money; Here’s Your Change

Web design tools like Squarespace and Wix have made it easier than ever for individuals to create their own websites. Social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok have created new channels for self-expression, exposure, and creativity. What’s more, the growing interest in ethical and sustainable design has led to a renewed focus on user experience and accessibility.

It's true that the web has lost some of its early personality and charm - it's never too late to bring it back. Everything is cyclical, giants fall over time and new megaliths take their place. The advent of AI in the mainstream is allowing those that wouldn’t have had the resources or time a chance to thrive off their creativity.

By prioritizing original ideas and user experience, by being straightforward and honest, and by using SEO as a tool rather than a goal, we can create a space that is both artistically fulfilling and commercially viable. We can pay artists directly for their ability, whether it be painters, programmers, authors, or teachers. The web may never be as wild and untamed as it once was, but that doesn't mean it has to be boring.

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