Hello citizens, Paul here 👋 Very excited to share our next installment of our “Stan” theme with you today.
I can’t think of a bigger Internet “stan” than this week’s contributor, Deb Schultz. I’m always enthralled by the fervor and passion in her stories and essays about her experiences among the throng of early Web pioneers.
I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I do. Happy reading! —PM
Hey Bay Area folks: want to meet up in person? We’d like to host some casual SF happy hours this year 🍻 If you’re based in NorCal and you’d like some face time with fellow New_ Public readers, opt in here:
Technology changes. Humans don’t.
I’ve spent my entire career as a “practical utopian,” working on and around the web to advance what I like to call “participatory technologies.”
I joined Six Apart at the dawn of Web 2.0, launched an Innovation Lab for Procter & Gamble, advised global organizations on social design, and built numerous online and offline community ecosystems, including my personal baby, Yes and Yes Yes.
And it all started over 20 years ago when I clicked on my first HTML page as a graphic design temp in a cubicle at Citibank in the mid-’90s. It led me to launching their first website at the dawn of Web 1.0.
Our current moment feels oddly familiar.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been living in a constant state of deja vu. Comments like “blogging on the web is hot again” or “the vibe on Mastodon reminds me of the early days” reminded me of conversations I had way back in the day.
I was on a Zoom call with my good friend Kevin, and he reminded me that there’s an entire generation that does not know life before Facebook, Twitter, and Google.
The early Web that we lovingly built and championed together was a glorious mess: fractured, open, confusing, and wonderfully creative.
It got me thinking: What was the promise and passion of us early Web 2.0 techno-utopians? And what can we learn from the uncanny resemblance of the past to our present?
To answer this, I dug into my own personal wayback machine of old blog posts, Flickr photostreams, and podcasts over the holiday break.
I also reached out to a few friends to check in on how they were feeling about this new energy around online spaces, and to reminisce and reflect on our history.
How we geeked, and how we gathered.
You may be surprised to know that the early web crew were humanities and liberal arts majors, for the most part. We prided ourselves on being quirky and independent outsiders.
We did not think of ourselves as techies or engineers, but as artists. The space was more diverse than you might imagine, as nascent industries reward talent before roles are codified.
Computer networks empowered us to unleash our creativity and get online to find other geeks like ourselves. We were tinkerers and problem solvers who taught each other to code, to get our websites up and running, to make zines, and to share art and ideas.
We gathered online in IRC and on BBS servers like ECHONYC or the WELL or on distributed USENET servers, similar to the Reddit or Discord or Mastodon of today.
And as Kevin reminded me, we lived on the WEB. We weren’t carrying around a phone with a single screen; when we gathered online, we leaned into the innate friction of having multiple tabs and windows open at once.
We also gathered IRL more than you might think, through groups like WWWAC in New York [World Wide Web Artists Consortium] and BMUG in the Bay Area. No matter where we were, we reused AOL CD-ROMs for trashcan basketball, we played video games at actual arcades, and we watched MTV when it was all videos.
Capitalism ruins everything, part one.
As the world tried to figure out what this internet/web thing was, websites slowly moved from static online marketing brochure content to commerce. We found ourselves in very high demand, and by the late ‘90s venture capital showed up.
It was pretty fun to be in your 20s then. Not everyone was living the high life, but the parties and salaries and valuations were all a bit nuts.
I remember one time when Elvis Costello played at an AskJeeves soiree, and another time when angel investor Jason Calacanis gave a martial arts demo and MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte mounted a performance art piece at the Silicon Alley Talent Show at Webster Hall. It was a weird time!
It couldn't last, though. And it didn’t. The dot-com bubble burst in March of 2000, when companies worth millions vanished almost overnight. Other companies saw 75% of their value dry up in just a few months. The parties and job offers gave way to liquidation sales of Aeron chairs.
It was not uncommon to go from having a high-six-figure office job on Monday to nothing on Tuesday. My friend Clive Thompson told me a story about a friend who went on vacation and returned to an empty corner office. A few weeks later, he was a club bouncer.
The animating impulses were that it was not that hard to put things online, and we wanted it to be about people and creativity, not business. There was a yearning for creating an ecosystem that no one controlled, counter to the gatekeeping of mainstream media and Web 1.0.”
Rebirth through really simple syndication.
We licked our wounds for the next few years, cobbling work together in related spaces. I worked with a friend on a solar powered mesh wifi network concept and consulted on the side before moving from New York to San Francisco in 2003.
But most importantly for me and for many of my friends, we started blogging. We saw blogging as a way to avoid the rapid commercialization of Web 1.0 by publishing our quirky passions and reading fun musings from other random people. (Sounds a bit like Substack, doesn’t it?)
These early blogs had the loveliest and weirdest names: Boing Boing, Laughing Squid, Kottke, MightyGirl, Waxy.org Dooce, N Judah Love Song, Metafilter, Slashdot and Scripting. (As for me, I kept my blog name simple!)
And before Instagram, Flickr was where we captured our visual memories. Cultural norms included social pressure for using Creative Commons for attribution and it was not uncommon to ask someone if it was ok before you posted a photo of them online.
There were also open standards movements like OpenID and OpenSocial, along with lots of discussions on how sites could better share data with each other and provide better social connection. RSS and Activity Streams enabled these decentralized approaches.
It may seem quaint now, but the very idea of sharing publicly and commenting on each other's stuff was new and empowering, especially in real time. Blogging and photo sharing demonstrated our love for the Web 1.0’s potential as a humanizing force for good.
“I vividly remember the moment our team in Vancouver got an update from our engineer in New York. It was a photo of his kids playing on the beach, from that moment. That first live update was incredibly charming and compelling.”
“At Flickr, we were users too. It was exciting and intimate to be able to deploy code live and see reaction to it just moments later.”
Getting it together for Web 2.0.
A new wave of the Internet meant a new wave of gatherings. San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood was a ghost town after the dot-com crash and space was cheap, so hackerspaces formed there.
The gatherings were smaller and more low-key than the late-’90s extravaganzas. At SixApart we hosted a weekly FooBar where we drank, swapped stories, and discussed various web standards such as OpenID, oAuth, RSS, and the social graph.
We responded to traditional conferences with our own “un-conferences:” Foo Camp, Social Graph Foo, Bar Camp, Maker Faire, Ignite, Bloggercon, Blogher, Personal Democracy Forum, and Supernova.
But perhaps the most seminal gathering was South by Southwest in Austin, TX. In the early 2000s, SXSW Interactive was a couple hundred or maybe a thousand web geeks in a room chatting with each other about what it felt like to share our ideas publicly or put our avatars online.
We attended as ourselves, not our companies, and our social interaction was a hybrid of knowing each other both online and in real life. We handed out our skinny MOO blogger cards to keep tabs on each other, all while fitting into the lobby of Driscoll Hotel and singing karaoke in th RVIP Lounge till dawn.
Capitalism ruins everything, part two.
“The day we started counting and displaying views was the day everything changed. Social circles were now judged by views and size—not actual engagement.”
Remember earlier when I said the early web crew were mostly humanities and liberal arts majors? We didn’t think much about business models back then for early social websites. For us, these online spaces were simply free for connecting through shared original content.
When the money showed up—as it always does—brands now wanted “communities.” But what they really meant was a place where they can talk at (and sell to) their customers.
This demand for scale and engagement over connection decoupled people from actual community and context. Companies and developers skipped the messy work of humanizing and nurturing in favor of neat and tidy tools for moderation, management, and filtering.
But it wasn’t just the business model and scale that led to the later unhealthiness of Web 2.0. There was also a lot of engineering hubris—if we can just quantity, filter and calculate this, we can fix it. Techies and algorithms were viewed as saviors.
Keeping things open, small, and a little messy.
“I have a sense of excitement I haven’t felt since the early web days. People are discovering online social problems and thinking about them for the first time.”
In 2009, I started a weekly podcast with Heather Gold and Kevin Marks called Tummelvision. It’s pretty fun to re-listen to those episodes. Looking back at the archive list, almost every episode is relevant to conversations we are now having on the Fediverse, Decentralized Web and Mastodon.
Fourteen years later, it feels like we are at a pivotal new moment again. We are regaining a decentralized weblike view of the world. People are excited about blogging again, starting up their own Mastodon servers, joining the Indieweb movement, and exploring technologies like Web Assembly.
To improve upon our past Webs, we need to think hard and fast and strategically about the ramifications of how we will build and monetize this era and its impact.
Let’s take the time to slow down, forego scale, and make room for the art of small good things that will let bigger things grow.
That way, we can embrace our fabulous, messy inefficiency and lean into the decentralized plurality of our online presences.
At first, I grappled with an uncomfortable “get off my internet lawn” feeling I got from all this early Web deja vu. But now, I am energized by all the renewed interest in online spaces that are sorely in need of a refresh.
So here’s my advice: start up a convo with a Gen X-er on Mastodon or IRL or dig into some of the earlier thoughts from Web 2.0 folks who lived it. Together, we can make the Internet more healthy and more human with a little help from history. 🌳
I wrote this as a social observer who lived through early iterations of both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. This is by no means a definitive history or survey.
In writing this piece, I recognize the need to raise up early voices from the web that may not be the usual obvious names.
I hope to connect with more old friends and new ones on building a healthy decentralized web and from developers pushing the boundaries of new tools and code from a socio-technical vantage point.
So I’m calling out all my Web 1.0/2.0 geeks out there! What memories and wisdom can you share with us?
Have you forgotten something?
Lots of memories in this post (I was at that Beck concert at Yahoo HackDay and at / helped with many of the various unconferences etc (even ran my own small conference in 2005/2006) but missed out on the Web 1.0 stuff (I was in Chicago then) - some of us, however, go even further back to USENET before WWW was even a thing - I keep seeing parallels (though with ever greater scale) between how USENET evolved when AOL joined the Internet (and with the rise of the very very early pre-commercial "web" from gopher as new alternative. Scale keeps going up, but the same social issues keep cropping up - with a few folks (often using automation) trying to ruin various social spaces for everyone else (see the first trolls on USENET, when if you mentioned Armenia anywhere on USENET you would get flooded with trolling). But my first real deep online community was Alt.Callahans (and then the MuCK I ran from my college dorm room - some of the other folks from that MuCK remain close friends (and even in one case a literal - like across the street from my, can see their house from my house, neighbor)