Is the modern internet a hellhole? Yes. Is a return to the old internet the solution? ...let us discuss.
If you're reading this you probably use Neocities (which currently hosts this website) or are at least aware it exists. If not, Neocities is a free personal web hosting service. The site aims to provide a platform for free self-expression and creativity, the supposed antithesis of the modern web. The prospect of a space online that's entirely yours is understandably very attractive to many people, and as such Neocities attracts users in droves.
Oftentimes on other platforms I'll see a post urging readers to join Neocities immediately. Maybe they'll even link to some helpful developer resources like sadgrl.online's webmastery resources or W3Schools. I really do hate to make assumptions (much less incorrect assumptions) but I can't help but assume that these posts are more often than not written by people in the "honeymoon" phase of their Neocities journey. By that, I mean the first few days or weeks after creating a Neocities account where you're like "Woah! I can make a website! And other people can see it!" and you're more amazed and less focused on what you're going to populate your website with.
To be honest, it does upset me a little to see a site on Neocities that clearly had a lot of effort and care put into it but hasn't been updated in a year or possibly longer. The webmaster most likely retreated to social media. But, I do wonder sometimes: if your website really meant that much to you, why did you abandon it?
I don't mean to be unrealistic. I know that very often life gets in the way and prevents people from tending to personal projects (my site updates relatively frequently due to a lack of the aforementioned). But it is quite frequently that I spot someone who manages to update frequently on social media and yet their website on Neocities is stale and failing to meet recent OSHA guidelines. What causes this? Did they try Neocities and realise it wasn't for them? Did they like the idea but have a hard time learning HTML and CSS? Did they sign up just out of peer pressure?
It's actually pretty much always just the first thing. HTML is quite easy unless you really give a shit about semantic code or you're doing something ungodly with your page's layout. So why would someone not vibe with The Neocities Style™? Well, there's a number of reasons. Maybe it's "I actually just realised I have no idea what I would want to put on a website". Maybe it's "Updating a website long-term is actually a pretty big commitment and I don't have the resources for that". Maybe it's "The community isn't my style and I don't see any point being here if I'm not going to interact with the community". Those are all actually perfectly valid reasons to give up on Neocities. I would rather see nothing at all than a website consisting of an "about me" section and 5 pages with a work-in-progress GIF on them. But, there's still a part of me that becomes unreasonably upset at this.
I feel as though I can't talk about the old web and nostalgia without mentioning the Yesterweb movement. The Yesterweb movement is (was? apparently it's currently embroiled in some drama I do not want to get involved in) an online community aiming to bring back the spirit of the "old web" or "web 1.0". In my honest opinion, I don't expect this to go anywhere meaningful. I think it's an exacerbation of the same thing that causes people to become enamoured with Neocities but later realise this isn't for them at all. To elaborate, many of those (obviously not all) who subscribe to the Yesterweb movement or similar ideas are fueled by nostalgia-tinted glasses and misconceptions about how the internet used to be. It's not uncommon for some Neocities websites to contain a little manifesto about how the old internet used to be a wonderful place (the most negative description you'll read is "a Wild West") where everyone was free to be themselves with no restrictions or limitations on how they expressed themselves and also no one argued about anything ever and there was free cotton candy. This most likely stems from entirely justified criticisms of the current state of the internet: it is becoming less a means for people to connect and more a vessel for products to be sold and money to be made from scraped user information. Social media platforms are toxic and encourage negative interactions.
Was the old web any better? Not really. People just hadn't yet figured out you could make sell private information for money. The old web was just as toxic (if not more so, because over-sanitisation meant there was no compulsion to at least pretend you were having a good time). There are countless untold stories about forum drama that today's social media Main Character Of The Week couldn't hold a candle to.
I am aware that the Yesterweb movement is more than aesthetics. In fact, the Yesterweb movement aligns with my own opinion on the impact of nostalgia. My point of contention is that sometimes the kind of people who subscribe to the Yesterweb movement or other such ideas can come across as performative and uncommitted to the ideals it presents (I am an outsider, and I know this means I don't have as deep an understanding of what the community is like. But drama and schisms don't look good to an outsider.)
So what's the solution? If the Yesterweb movement is flawed and Neocities isn't for everyone then how do we fix the internet? Well, the best solution would be to end capitalism. But that'll take a while, so I'll present you with this instead:
- Use social media less. I don't mean not at all, I mean less. You probably hear this all the time but taking frequent breaks from Twitter genuinely does wonders for your state of mind. Try to focus on parts of the web that improve the lives of you and other people, like checking in on your friends (really! you improve the lives of your friends just by asking how they're doing!)
- Consider whether a personal website is really what you need. By this post I don't mean to say you should never sign up for Neocities unless you're 200% sure you can update it for at least 5 years going forward. I just mean you should consider whether it's something you're interested in and prepared for. You wouldn't sign up for a new social media platform or a new magazine or a new streaming service unless you were actually interested in what it had to offer, right? Neocities is the same.
- Reconsider how nostalgia affects your views. This is where I circle back to the post's title. Nostalgia is almost never helpful. It's difficult, but you have to accept that things will never be exactly the same as they used to. That's just how life works. Instead of trying to rewind time, think of new ways we can improve the web and have the best of both the old days and current times. This isn't to throw shade at anyone who likes the 2000s web aesthetic — if that's what you like, more power to you — just be aware of the potential negative ramifications of nostalgia.
In conclusion, this post is not really what I thought it would be. I won't be changing the title though. This post is just my thoughts on nostalgia and its place in modern web culture; None of this is a call to action against the Yesterweb movement, those who subscribe to it, or general nostalgia for the early 2000s. Everyone has differing opinions and interests, and that's okay. What I ask of you is to consider whether your views on the internet are logical and reasoned or clouded by nostalgia. Maybe then we'll do a little bit better at fixing the web together.