Early Web Design Helped a Generation Express Themselves Online. How Do We Capture That Feeling Again? – Eye on Design

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Early Web Design Helped a Generation Express Themselves Online. How Do We Capture That Feeling Again? – Eye on Design


Redwood High School, 2003. Courtesy Dave Goldsmith.

I don’t remember where my locker was or why I found it funny to pick a radio jingle for The Shane Company as my senior quote. I don’t remember any of the Latin I studied for three years or even what we did for lunch before we could drive off campus. What I do remember is the way the internet spilled into the hallways, the way imagined archetypes moved from our MySpace pages right into Advanced Algebra, foreshadowing the fully blurred lines of online and off. This was 2005 and it was a moment that straddled two internets. 

Our high school’s website was a document of this change, a time capsule of the early internet before big corporations and templatized content management systems took over the web. When I was a student, the page title read “Redwood High School’s AWESOME Website!!!!!” It had a textured paper background, blurry live cameras that highlighted 100 pixel snapshots of campus, and a randomized student of the day. “This site is updated daily,” read one of the site’s GIFs. There were eleven different font styles and it didn’t use a  grid. It looked active and iterative, a site that reflected the lively nature of a suburban high school experience: not too precious and a little campy, routine but exciting, like your first time driving to the mall. 

For 26 years, Dave Goldsmith was the computer teacher, website documentarian, and Minecraft megalord at Redwood High, the high school I attended in Larkspur, California from 2005 to 2009. When he first assumed the position in 1996, the high school didn’t have a web presence. His computer lab was the only lab that had internet access, and after creating a new class that introduced students to emerging technologies, he began learning HTML on his own. After setting up the domain, he introduced coding in the classroom and invited students to create pages on Redwood.org. On a Zoom call in December, Mr. Goldsmith shared that at the time, he felt a school website should be something produced by the students. “I wasn’t thinking about, you know, the district wanting to convey a message or advertising or stuff like that,” he said. Instead, the emphasis was on collaboration in the classroom, and giving the students a publication outlet. 

The classroom dynamic was lowkey and democratic. Students would pitch ideas for pages they’d like to see—like quizzes that tested you on Redwood High trivia and a log of the history of the computer lab—and Mr. Goldsmith would research how to create them, and then share what he learned. He always insisted on students learning to code, experimenting in the browser with form and programming in tandem, instead of using web design software and experimenting in the browser with form and programming in tandem. A middleman, whether it was a design program or third-party platform, was never part of the process.

The site was a continual work in progress, always being added to and updated, leaving a trail of the last move out in the open. It included several custom pages that reflected student life, like the page for Nibbles, the student-created game inspired by Snake. It became something of a subculture, with annual Nibbles competitions occurring in the computer lab during lunch. Pixelated printouts of the game’s logo ornamented some of the windows around campus, and it became a recognizable marker, even if you didn’t play. While it was only a facet of the student body, the Nibbles-playing community brought the school’s website off the screen. Like the website, the community had perspective and a visual language supporting it. It was full of attitude and amateurity. And it felt honest.

When I was a freshman, Myspace.com was blowing up. By 2006, the social networking site temporarily surpassed Google as the most visited website in the United States. Unlike today’s social platforms that have rigid, uneditable layouts, MySpace encouraged expression through the customization of its own interface. With only a few lines of HTML and CSS, users could completely overhaul the look of their profile, As a result pre-made templates became easily accessible on all corners of the internet. Pimp-my-profile.com, a surviving relic of the time period, offers a glimpse of typical aesthetics—glitter text GIFs, bright colored borders, tiled images in jarring color combinations set as backgrounds—celebration of web 2.0’s do-it-yourself ethos, and a culmination of online web trends of the time, stylistically similar to Redwood’s own website. It was on MySpace that I first became aware that a website’s design could be punk rock.

While most profiles fit into the exaggerated aesthetic of early 2000s maximalism, some did not. I remember two junior boys who on most days wore skin-tight jeans and nondescript zip-up hoodies. Their hair was black with feathery, angular layers. They looked like twin embodiments of early 2000s emo kings, and provocatively contrasted the suburban backdrop of a California public school. Their MySpace profiles looked like them. Unlike the visually busy profiles of most high schoolers, their profiles were streamlined. They used MySpace’s default layout and simply omitted some of the modules, leaving only a song (Bright Eyes, perhaps?) and a list of curated musical artists and movies. There was no top-8 friend grid or overly revealing details. It was perfectly nonchalant and gave the impression of being cool without a lot of effort (even though it was brimming with conscious design decisions that confidently performed this sensation). Soon after, Facebook would emerge and people would abandon their MySpace pages to a platform that removes any kind of customization at all. On Facebook, default was the only option. On MySpace, it was a choice.

In her 2011 piece “White Flight in Networked Publics,” researcher danah boyd described how teenagers’ move from Facebook to MySpace highlighted socio-economic and racial biases in each. With the migration from MySpace to Facebook, participants in boyd’s study described MySpace as “ghetto” and viewed the college-oriented Facebook as an elite platform. Through her observations boyd described, “subculturally identified teens appeared more frequently drawn to MySpace while mainstream teens tended towards Facebook.” At my suburban high school, the same was true. I remember a student in English class saying, “Facebook is classy” as she proudly stated that her MySpace page was no longer being updated. Facebook was aspirational – Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard connection and minimal visual language gave the impression of trust and prestige, while MySpace became a visual dump of countercultural aesthetics and the changing expectations around online design. This time period was the beginning of the end of the early web aesthetic. 

As Facebook’s popularity rose, the web was undergoing a similar transformation. As more content management systems emerged, academic websites became more standardized. Our school district wanted to take Redwood’s website down. Teachers and students would complain that the Redwood High School site looked embarrassingly unprofessional, but I loved that it didn’t. The website persevered in its own spirit. Artist Olia Lialina refers to this style as Prof Dr. Style. In her piece, Lialina outlines some of the visual patterns that unify old academic websites and their relevance historically. These websites, she writes, tell the story of the web. “They are actual and timeless. I mean you can open them in Mosaic 1.0 and it will not crash,” she wrote. While each site has unifying factors, the site owners were constantly reimagining what the web should look like, for themselves. As Paul Ford recently quipped on Twitter:

“When a professor’s URL is like, http://foxkeller.philosophy.saintnormanscollege.edu/~larry/index.HTM, that’s how you know it’s going to be good.

 

You’re going to see a CV, a dithered photo of someone hiking, an unpublished book with unusual pagination, a list of PhD students that concludes in 2002, and a section called “Ramblings” abandoned in 1999 and picked up for six weeks in November 2016.”

These DIY professor websites he’s referring to have stayed up in similar permutations for the past 20 years. The fact that the websites maintain an inherit style is evidence of the aesthetic’s future-proofness, and their sporadic updates highlight the personal nature of the site designs. 

After I graduated in 2009, I’d check back occasionally to see if Redwood’s website was still awesome. By the next year, it wasn’t. Mr. Goldsmith recalls one of the meetings where the website was being discussed. There was a presentation from SchoolWires, a company that standardizes K-12 sites, and he could tell that he’d be losing “massive control.” He was offered the opportunity to still be the webmaster but he refused. People would serve him content to upload online, rather than publishing independently with the students, which was what he enjoyed most about his role. “I wasn’t angry. I knew that day would come. I knew I wasn’t going to be the webmaster and be in control forever.”

Today Redwood’s site is replaced with a generic template crowded with third-party widgets and embedded content. All six schools in the district are contained on the parent site, and offer mirror images of one another, reskinned with different color schemes. Perhaps the sites are meant to be quick link dumps of relevant information, but I can’t help but miss the consistently inconsistent mess of the old website that reminds me of my own high school experience. The current site uses an overarching design system that looks rooted in expectations on what a school’s site should be. There is a background image of a red Redwood tree the school’s color and mascot. Everything else feels lifted from an out-of-the-box set of typographic choices and button styles that someone might consider “professional.” The change in the website design echoes the capitalization of websites at large. While some of these updates make the web more accessible, others are needlessly stylized in a familiar way. Today, most newly created academic websites follow a similar pattern. There is an expectation around how they should look and the content that they should highlight, and there is little room for experimentation, personality, and nonsense.

Limited by the technology of the time, the early internet was vibrant and iterative. Academic sites highlighted both individual and communal experiences in a shared and public digital landscape.

Limited by the technology of the time, the early internet was vibrant and iterative. Academic sites, like Redwood High School’s Awesome Website!!!! highlighted both individual and communal experiences in a shared and public digital landscape. These sites are no longer the norm, but their energy pervades in tiny cracks in the infrastructure: broken links that redirect to them, or on deeper pages of search results. To counter big tech’s conglomerate hold on web design, internet rebels are creating their own alternate solutions. Decentralized platforms like Scuttlebutt encourage local communities to connect with one another through lo-fi blogging and distribution through personal connections.

On the other end of the spectrum, SpaceHey, a MySpace clone, launched in November of 2020. While the site’s disclaimer reads: “This is a fan-based project and is not affiliated with MySpace® in any way,” previous MySpace users will instantly recognize the familiar page layout. In an interview with Vice, 19-year-old founder, Anton Röhm said that they never used MySpace and felt it was hard to find something as creative online today. Young internet users today grew up with large platforms as the predominant way of being online. In a web design class that I teach, I often ask students’ about their first memories of being online. The most common answers are being on their parents’ Facebooks, viewing YouTube links, and playing Club Penguin. In the near recent past, witnessing a more playful and expressive landscape first hand is a distant memory, leaving young and old users lustful for something more.

When Redwood’s website changed to a template model in 2010, Mr. Goldsmith continued maintaining his do-it-yourself visual language on the RHS Computer Programming site and anything related to his courses. While he retired last Spring, he reveals that he still owns the redwood.org domain name. “To this day, I own it, the district doesn’t,” he said. The archive of the computer lab, and these disparate moments of early academic web design become historical monuments reminding us of how things were, and how we felt when they looked a certain way. While internet users can try to recreate this experience, it will always fall flat because the times and tools have changed. There is no longer a practical need for energetic, messy community sites, but what is life without desire? The need to be seen and to participate digitally and otherwise endures.



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