Marvin the Martian & The Awkward (Wonderful) World Wide Web of 1999
I have a confession. Sometimes late at night, when I’m all alone, I go to a dark corner of the web and… inspect the source. Then, with a swift keystroke, I delete any CSS file references I can see. Go ahead, try it with this blog. I’ll wait. Observe how the landscape is transformed. Welcome to the web of 25 years ago. We’ve removed the digital veil, and here, in all its glory, is a site reduced to its skivvies. Times New Roman, everywhere. Naked unordered lists of links, images akimbo, awkward piles of confused html elements (human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria). And yet, there’s something beautiful about it. A well-designed site might not even look so bad like this.
It was in this context that I built my first website: a shrine to my hero, Marvin the Martian. I was a strange kid. The site was hosted on Angelfire, one of the manifold services presaging the arrival of the personal blog that popped up at the time offering several megabytes (!!!) of disk space and a personalized subdomain for free. All I had to do was lie by checking the “I’m over 13” box and I was on my way (this, in retrospect, was probably my first taste of the intoxicating anonymity of the internet). By hook or by crook I gathered up tons of images, sounds clips, and videos, and mashed together a site using Microsoft Frontpage. The site was beautifully trashy. I think glitter or floating letters (or both) followed your mouse everywhere. I abused the <blink> tag, hard. I’m almost certain that the visual and aural barrage induced seizures. I may have killed someone, and that’s something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.
Now, the web is social and cool. It’s got clear skin and straight teeth, and is friends with all of the people in the know, and hardly remembers its humble beginnings. Of course, we as a technology and design company love all of the latest and greatest techniques that let us use the web to its fullest extent. But taking time to remember a more modest web is a good exercise, because it reminds us that when you strip away some of the glitter and shine, content is king. Without content, the web is a glorified series of tubes. Content-makers are what make the web the vibrant, living, breathing resource that it is. When we help a company use data to effectively market their brand, or build a website to showcase the life’s work of an artist, we help contribute to the tapestry of content that makes the web so useful and beautiful, and are being true to the spirit of the web as a communication tool fueled by good content.
Like nature, human technology builds on previous successes to make evolutionary leaps, mimicking biological evolution. In some ways, that means making tools do things they were never meant to do. A whale’s fins were once the paws of a land-dwelling wolf-like creature. The internet was once a plain text document-sharing network for government agencies and universities, and was never meant to deliver the kind of rich media experiences we’ve become accustomed to. The internet that once delivered my 12-year-old self’s awful, gif-addled web site devoted to Marvin the Martian now delivers elegant and immersive experiences and is beginning to fulfil its promise of transforming and extending the capabilities of human communication and organization.
But beneath the complexities of the modern internet is a simple desire to communicate, and to use the tools it provides to make things happen in the “real” world. If we can provide the technical underpinnings to support our clients in the pursuit of more direct communication, I believe we are fulfilling our role as technical guide.
What I’m really trying to say is that underneath all of our fancy style and responsive design, aren’t we all just an awkward Angelfire site from 1999 about a megalomaniacal cartoon character
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