The Web Revival And The Folk Life Of Virtual Worlds

This is a transcript version of my talk for the 1st Symposium on Digital Art in Ireland in University College Cork, presented June 2nd 2022.

Abstract - March

Time within technology moves at a different rate to our reality; the root of my work is this temporal dissonance, that leaves 3D design from 30 years ago looking like the work of an ancient civilisation; as we surf the web we become the ghosts that haunt those ancient places, and as those places go on to define the virtual worlds of the future, we become the mythos of tomorrow.

Web design is the gateway to all digital art; it is the folk art of the internet; it is the point at which the internet becomes art, art becomes technology, and no clear boundary can or should exist between the two.

In 2016, while repeating my final year in computer science, I created the Lil Melon Kingdom and GifyPet; two old styled websites that were reactions against the modern web, with its sterile flat design and exhausting obsession with brands and monetisation. In doing so I had found myself at the epicentre of a new web revival happening in a community called Neocities, a reincarnation of the early web pioneer community of Geocities; filled with artists, writers, furries, programers, witches, geeks and all sorts of other misfits fleeing the doomed ship of social media. Web design for all its limitations, was the medium that opened my eyes to the possibilities of digital art.

Today I consider myself a digital artist, a computer scientist and a game designer. My work exists within the interplay and inseparability of these disciplines; I use 2D and 3D worlds as a means of exploring the mythos of technology; a mythos that is created from our memories, but mostly from the timeless memories of the world around us. This talk will be a brief outline of my new work and current thinking, along with some context surrounding the wider web revival scene.

Talk - June

The last transcontinental flight I was on was in 2019, I was flying from Tokyo to London, a rout that in total it covers around ten thousand kilometres, almost half of the globe.

In front of you a small screen draws a line across a map; every centimetre of that line is a thousand miles of places you’ll never know, and yet in that instant you are a part of those places.

This raises the question of what a person really is; do we end at the limits of our skin. OR was I that airplane ; was I the carbon footprint it was leaving and was I its shadow on the ground.

Travel is a form of play; it’s about finding new places and inventing possibilities. Perhaps that gives some weight to the journeys we take, and the world that becomes those journeys.

In recent years an internet based movement has evolved called The Web Revival, the name is inspired by the civilised anarchy of the American Folk Revival, that took place during the first half of the 20th century. The folk revival focused on celebrating humanity at a time of rapid industrialisation; a parallel to the rapid digitisation we see today.

The web revival is a reaction against ongoing trends on the internet today; such as the negative impact of social media on society, the over emphasis of monetisation on creativity, and the impersonal flat design language that is often made for the benefit of engineers more than the webs citizens.

The core idea of The Web Revival is simple; make your own website and make it chaotically. The web revival is about web design as play, and I mean play in the deepest sense of the term; where play is not about passing time but about creating other realities, so that we can become those realities.

The Web Revival attracts a diverse following, but typically its held together by five key ideals that most people agree on:

  1. A sense that technology and the web today is lacking in true creativity.
  2. The idea that the web can be a place of warm genuine interactions.
  3. A rejection of social-media and its often toxic cultural impact.
  4. The idea that we should understand and master the technologies in our lives.
  5. A rejection of the so called Web3 and the pointlessness of crypto-currencies and NFTs.

These ideas are expressed as nostalgic websites and homepages, created in a fever-dream-reimagining of Tim Burners Lee’s vision of the web as a free information exchange, mixed with the design chaos of Geocities, an early web host that was many peoples first experience of a digital home.

There is strong nostalgia surrounding technology; it's a language that crosses boundaries, perhaps because when we see technologies from the past we often see ourselves and the journeys we took to become what we are today.

At its heart, I think the Web Revival expresses a desire to reclaim ourselves; the Web Revival is an attempt to re-create the web in our own image and by proxy to recreate ourselves in our own image. It tries to strip away the conformity of technology and envision something unexpected.

I though Id take a moment to take you on a tour of my own digital home; As of writing this site has around 38 million hits; and has been mentioned on a number of technology news sites and academic papers. It was started back in 2016, while I was still studying here in UCC and living in one of the ticky-tacky housing estates outside of Cobh.

“I grew up on an island with a train, and the world revolved around that island. Into this world the train would carry lost souls; time often forgot that island and I’d dream of houses half caught in the past. It was a sad place, a pointless stupid beautiful mirage.

Although I have not stayed true to it, this site was built as a house, with rooms and walls and windows. Thin HTML walls; but strong and timeless like that island I was on. Outside the storm of the web would rage, but within those walls it was always dusty and safe.” Thats a quote from the site introduction.

Melonking.Net as seen in 2022

What you’re seeing here is called a landing page; they are a lost art on the modern web. The purpose of a landing page is to celebrate the arrival of a visitor and to give them a hint of what it to come.

The clouds float past and the eyes of Horus peek at you sneakily from the distance. “You are exiting the information superhighway”, thats an ill fated nineties buzzword for the internet. You click the enter button surrounded by a halo. Maybe you’re a little intimidated if this is your first time here, you’re worried this place might be dangerous, but you’re brave so you continue.

You arrive on the homepage; the wall is covered in star goo; and there are objects everywhere. The nav-bar on the side is glittering and animating, like gems or candy. You can hear the rain outside; pleasant music is playing; it’s peaceful and homely.

Peace is something we create, its a manmade construction; deliberate peace is one of the arts of the Web Revival; we don’t force feed you data, we let you find it.

You click the window and find yourself outside:

The music is sinister now; peace is replaced by worry and home is behind you; a message asks if you want to continue and you do.

You’re in a forrest now, the music is calm again; maybe its not so bad out here! You’re feeling good again when you meet some glowing lights, they ask if you want to be friends and you say yes.

Oh no a crow has come to inspect you! He’s definitely invading your personal space, but then again you’re invading his forrest right? You better do as he says; he asks you if you want a crown of Yew Berries or Nettles. Nettles sting and that would hurt so you pick the Yew Berries.

Oh that was a mistake! Yew Trees are a graveyard tree and the berries are poison; you should have known better; you’re dead but maybe its not over? You crawl from your grave to a nearby house and go inside.

You’re back on the homepage again! Welcome home kiddo; how many times have you done this before? Have you ever left this house; maybe it was always your home and the time you spent away was just a dream. You’re dusty and safe again.

That was just one path in a labyrinth of webs within a webs. This particular story was written back in 2016. It is one the the oldest parts of the site; and it remains one of the most popular parts to this day. As time went on this project evolved in a few different directions. 

TextureTown is an archive containing around three-thousand abstract ‘90s textures; they were rescued from abandoned compact-disc archives and listed here freely for anyone to use; this was launched in 2022.

Ozwomp Online is a complex 3D world started in 2020; it's a vast explorable space in which visitors can see each other and travel together, while meeting mysterious creatures from another lost galaxy.

MOMG Website in 2022

In 2021 the site started exploring more data driven spaces; this is the Museum of Modern Gifs; a virtual gallery that contains one-hundred thousand obsolete gif images sourced from the web; Gif images are a digital folk art created by unknown individuals often decades ago; they embody ideals, fears and personalities; they are memories of the past and hopes for the future. Here the gifs are displayed in randomly generated rooms. Each time you visit a room it is created and destroyed and will probably never be seen again.

Finally this evolved into a fully 3D game world. Here we can watch as Ozwomp; an archetypal video game character; flys through a virtual hall of gifs; they seem infinite, yet the moment they are out of sight they disintegrate.

The aim was to capture the never ending loop of loss and letting go, of searching for something that can never be found; and ultimately the isolation of identity, and the ephemerality of the self; in the context of a final endless white cube gallery.

This is just one window onto a much larger journey. It was the web that started this journey, and the web revival that brought me here today. The web revival is a revolving spectrum, a folk medium full of dead ends and broken links; but as we play in that noise, we are filling the void that becomes the future.

Categories philosophy, websites