olia lialina on Thu, 24 Feb 2005 07:46:59 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> A Vernacular Web

A Vernacular Web

An extended and illustrated version of my talk at the Decade of Web
Design Conference in Amsterdam, January 2005


When I started to work on the World Wide Web I made a few nice things
that were special, different and fresh. They were very different from
what was on the web in the mid 90's.

I'll start with a statement like this, not to show off my contribution,
but in order to stress that -- although I consider myself to be an early
adopter -- I came late enough to enjoy and prosper from the "benefits of 
civilization". There was a pre-existing environment; a structural,
visual and acoustic culture you could play around with, a culture you
could break. There was a world of options and one of the options was to
be different.

So what was this culture? What do we mean by the web of the mid 90's and 
when did it end?

To be blunt it was bright, rich, personal, slow and under construction.
It was a web of sudden connections and personal links. Pages were built
on the edge of tomorrow, full of hope for a faster connection and a more
powerful computer. One could say it was the web of the indigenous...or
the barbarians. In any case, it was a web of amateurs soon to be washed
away by dot.com ambitions, professional authoring tools and guidelines
designed by usability experts.

I wrote that change was coming "soon" instead of putting an end date at
1998, for example, because there was no sickness, death or burial. The
amateur web didn't die and it has not disappeared but it is hidden.
Search engine rating mechanisms rank the old amateur pages so low
they're almost invisible and institutions don't collect or promote them
with the same passion as they pursue net art or web design.

Over the past ten year the number of amateur pages have dropped. It's
now a developed and highly regulated space. You wouldn't get on the web
just to tell the world, "Welcome to my home page." The web has
diversified, the conditions have changed and there's no need for this
sort of old fashioned behavior. Your CV is posted on the company
website. Your diary will be organized on a blog and your vacation photos
are published on photos.com. There's a community for every hobby and

This is why I refer to the amateur web as a thing of the past;
aesthetically a very powerful past. Even people who weren't online in
the last century, people who look no further than the first 10 search
engine results can see the signs and symbols of the early web thanks to
the numerous parodies and collections organized by usability experts who 
use the early elements and styles as negative examples.

Just as clothing styles come back into fashion so do web designs. On a
visual level things reappear. Last year I noticed that progressive web
designers returned to an eclectic style reincorporating wallpapers and
3D lettering in their work. In the near future frames and construction
signs will show up as retro and the beautiful old elements will be
stripped of their meaning and contexts.

In the past few years I've also been making work that foregrounds this 
disappearing aesthetic of the past. With these works I want to apologize 
for my arrogance in the early years and to preserve the beauty of the
vernacular web by integrating them within contemporary art pieces. But
this is only half of the job.

Creating collections and archives of all the midi files and animated
gifs will preserve them for the future but it is no less important to
ask questions. What did these visual, acoustic and navigation elements
stand for? For which cultures and media did these serve as a bridge to
the web? What ambitions were they serving? What problems did they solve
and what problems did they create? Let me talk about the difficult
destiny of some of these elements.


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