The Teenage Web

November 4, 2022 • Louie Mantia

When I started using the Internet, I was a dorky kid looking to customize his computer. New wallpapers, icons, fonts, themes. I was on Windows back then, which at the time looked pretty gray by default. But you could change basically everything if you wanted.

Before I was making any kind of art with my computer, I had no real reason to “post” anything to the Internet. I was really just there to get stuff for the two games I was playing: RollerCoaster Tycoon and The Sims.

But playing those games made me think about what I could make. I loved the pastel colors of the RCT UI. Lots of little pixel icons. And in The Sims, what would it take to make a custom object or custom texture?

So I downloaded Photoshop and started making my own things. I joined some game modding forums, DeviantArt, and customization forums. I found communities full of people that were doing the same things I was trying to do.

And in 2004, I finally made my own website with my own domain name. That felt like a big step up. Now I had my own space that I controlled. I could do whatever I wanted here. I installed PHP on the server, with a CMS. At the time, I thought that’d make the teacher in the technology club at my high school proud of me. Friends I only ever knew fake names for helped me write HTML and CSS.

I started posting icons and wallpapers I made. I also occasionally vented about school and teenage life, like getting grounded and having my ethernet cable taken away. (Don’t worry, I had spares.)

I got to be my authentic self.

Off to the side, I had links to the forums I belonged to, designers I admired, and external profiles. Mind you, MySpace hadn’t taken off yet, so the external profiles were for things like DeviantArt and my local social network, STLPunk.

That’s right. The punk teens had a social network before MySpace.

It didn’t have any ads. Come to think of it, I’m not sure many sites did. Even the forums didn’t really seem to have advertisements. No one was trying to make money. We were just having fun. It didn’t cost much.

Things got centralized real fast with MySpace, Flickr, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Everyone was congregating in these spaces. But unlike STLPunk or DeviantArt, there was no common ground. None of those were communities focused around any interests. They were publishing platforms for individuals.

Lots of websites started falling off the web. Designers who I grew up with on the web got jobs and shut down their personal sites. People abandoned forums and they closed up.

These new “social networks” solved problems we already had solutions for. We could already publish our own content to our own servers and link to each other’s sites. But admittedly, it was easier to connect together. At least the only people who were on these sites were all the same nerds I already knew.

When I joined Twitter in 2006, I found all my friends. All my heroes were there, like the designers at the Iconfactory. It was like we just merged all our nerdy communities onto Twitter.

iPhone came into the picture and everyone was dying to make apps for it, including apps for these social networks. Facebook had one. The Iconfactory made Twitterrific. Other Twitter apps followed. Now we all had Twitter in our pocket to see what each other were up to. Convenient!

People were rapidly joining Twitter, people who had no interest in the things we all were interested in. The global feed became useless. (Yes, there used to be a global feed!) With all these new people, companies, celebrities, news publications, and politicians, it didn’t really feel like a community anymore. It started to feel more like everyone on the planet talking in one room.

All the while, personal websites kept dying off.

Then with a flip of a switch, just as we were all getting comfortable in our new social media homes, there were ads. Everywhere.

Welcome to the Corporate Internet.

It didn’t used to be like this. The web used to be a collection of independently-operated sites that we all individually controlled.

We used to be so punk rock about the web.

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