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Carl's Retro Web Corner

Olde Man Shouteth at Ye Cloudes

When I first began web development, CSS barely existed, HTML 1.1 was the official standard, and you couldn’t be sure a user’s browser would support tables or graphics. The early web was text-heavy. It was a collection of documents, not “experiences.” Always a bookworm, as well as a zine enthusiast, I did an increasing amount of my reading on computer screens.

People in the tech industry weren’t sure, at first, about this whole internet thing. When the owner of the tech publishing company I worked for, a long-time C programmer, found out that my wife and I paid for unlimited internet usage, he shook his head and asked why. On another occasion, when I mentioned HTML he said, “SGML interests me more.” (Standard Generalized Markup Language. SGML inspired the design of HTML, and XML was created as a subset of SGML. I understood where my boss was coming from. I, too, wanted to create my own SGML dialect. In my case, one for poetry.)

This mom-and-pop tech publishing company was acquired by a multinational corporation, and word came down that we were required to have websites for three of our four magazines. (The new owners shut down the fourth). I, a self-trained hobbyist programmer, made the leap from customer service representative to webmaster.

This was a terrific career move for me, but I saw it as a bad sign for the world wide web. I was afraid the internet would be overrun by, and run for, business interests. Enthusiasts would be pushed to the edges, if not crowded out altogether.

Every year that has passed since has confirmed my worries. Early on, it was largely Microsoft, CompuServe and AOL who shaped the web. Now, it’s Facebook and Google, with Amazon and Microsoft (still) close behind.

I’m a developer, not a designer. I can make a clean layout that’s very plain, or an ornate one that’s quite ugly, but I can’t make one that will wow you unless by accident. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a large part of the web was designed by people like me. We had passion for our subjects — whether poetry or science fiction or professional wrestling or gardening or bats — but we were graphically challenged. When you followed a link, your hope was great that it would lead to interesting content, and your dread of being subjected to visual assault and battery was also great. Both were reasonably well-founded. When it came to design, you didn’t know what to expect.

Now, you pretty much do. Websites, or more commonly “web applications,” are built with frameworks/libraries/technologies (JQuery, React, Angular, WordPress, etc.) that provide a limited set of “user experiences.” There’s the hero image. There’s the hamburger menu. There’s the carousel. There are the Material Design icons. Yawn.

Long before I worked in tech or even in customer service, I worked for a fast food chain. You’ve been to some of its locations, I’m sure. When you get a burger from ____________, you don’t expect it to taste good. What you expect is not to notice the flavor. That’s why you go there. You know it won’t be a memorable meal. The only reason it might stand out is if something is messed up.

That’s fine for a quick stop to top the calorie tank, but I want more than that from my reading. When I travel, I like to eat at locally-owned restaurants or diners. When I read for pleasure, I don’t read books churned out by a house brand like J____ P________. I'm more likely to buy small press or self-published authors. What I get might be bad, but it just might be the most awesome thing of its kind I’ve ever encountered. And I don’t care much about the plating of the food or the kerning.

I started out to write a manifesto, but I’ve been reminiscing and grousing. Here, then, are the principles I’d like to see applied to the internet.

— Carl Bettis, November 30th, 2021.
Minor edits, same date.