My sister and I drove to see our old stomping grounds in the town we grew up in. Old houses, the orb weaver nests by the road we used to toss tiny sticks into to watch them weave, the river I almost drowned in, the park we reenacted scenes from Star Wars in, the gas station we always walked to- never-ending summers.
The memories washed over me with pleasant warmth. I hadn’t stayed in contact with my friends over these twenty-or-so years. They’ve moved on. I can’t go back to those days and ride bikes until sunset. I can’t go back to playing Goldeneye with Zach and Brandon while we tried to be quiet because we weren’t supposed to be up.
Walking those dirty streets there’s a sense of loss- even though the town has grown. New buildings intermingle with the patchwork of buildings I remember. There's a beauty in that loss- My childhood has gone away, but there’s a band of friends hiking down to the riverside on a balmy summer day- making plans for the future. Someday they’ll come back to reminisce of their youthful summers passed as well.
All my life, Nostalgia was a bitter rind surrounding a sour fruit. I was so certain that nostalgia was a wicked liar only full of bitterness. But then that Summer came back to me and I embraced nostalgia. I indulged in everything I had left behind- my days of making personal websites, learning how to fix (read: break) computers.
At first it stung because I could never go back to those days- but then something amazing happened. I found You. There were others just like me. Others that remembered the Old Web as a distant memory and wanted so badly to be back again.
I sifted through personal websites; every site created by an alternate-reality-me; we are all so similar but so different. No one in my life was an internet geek like me- and now there were thousands of us? Everyone in my life had all moved on- but we couldn’t move on. Why couldn’t we move on? Why couldn’t I move on? I was nostalgic.
Let’s begin by identifying what nostalgia is. Nostalgia is the longing for things in the past. How could I miss the internet? It was right here- it hadn’t gone away! It’s all still right here- isn’t it?
No- something isn’t right. We all feel it. It’s not just nostalgia for the times before. Folks that didn’t experience the Old Web miss it too. What they miss is the humanity of it all- so what happened to the internet?
Jessa Lingel wrote an essay about The Gentrification of the Internet. She describes the way in which corporations co-opted the handmade communities we helped to build and develop.
I must clarify what gentrification is as it relates to the internet. It isn’t a 1:1 ratio to the gentrification that happens in urban centers- but it does have some shocking similarities to what has happened to the internet over the last twenty years.
I highly recommend reading her essay, but she highlights the fact that gentrification in urban centers benefits corporate interests, disproportionately hurts poor folks by increasing costs, increased commercialization, and isolation.
She writes, “Rather than being exposed to diverse people and content, people are increasingly segregated. What’s particularly troubling about online isolation is that offline, most people are already filter-bubbled in terms of their social networks, meaning we tend to have friends from the same racial and class background. The promise of early online communities was getting ourselves outside those bubbles, a possibility that mainstream social media platforms increasingly deprioritize.”
Lingel calls for internet activists to advocate for more regulations and to actively filter their own networks and content to be more diverse. I think she is thinking too small. The issue with the modern internet isn’t diversity but larger structural issues that benefit the few at the expense of the many. We need a coup d'état- we need to wrestle power back from the enemy and create our own platforms and spaces- like the Yesterweb is trying to do.
Urban gentrification pushes people out of their traditional communities- but what happens when a place as ubiquitous as the internet- that exists in all the same place all-at-once becomes gentrified? Where do we go? More importantly- how do we fight back?
So you’re probably thinking- Hey! It’s corporations that are ruining the internet! Let’s get ‘em! Whaddya wanna do? Regulate them to death?
In a way, yes- corporate interests shape and continue to shape the internet. As we are pushed into corporate platforms it becomes more difficult to leave them behind. Especially as all of our friends and families are on there- if we leave- won’t we be even more isolated, alienated and alone?
Xinyue Zhou et al wrote in 2008 a research paper titled, “Counteracting Loneliness: On the Restorative Function of Nostalgia”.
The main finding of the research paper was that nostalgia is a psychological resource for lonely people to protect and foster their mental health. Essentially- nostalgia is a coping mechanism against loneliness.
The study focuses on four qualities- loneliness, resilience, nostalgia, and perceived social support. Resilience is the ability to recover or resist shock, insult or disturbance and perceived social support is how supported they feel by friends, family, and their community- despite the reality of that support.
Their findings suggest that people that are lonely are more likely to feel less supported but are more likely to experience nostalgia. Nostalgia actually increases perceptions of social support. Nostalgia is strongest amongst people that were considered ‘resilient’.
“The lonelier one feels, the more nostalgic one becomes, and the more social support one consequently perceives.”
The study doesn’t try to guess why this occurs- but we can guess a few reasons ourselves.
Nostalgia is the binding factor that keeps a loose group of folks like the Yesterweb interconnected. As we were alienated in real life and in cyberspace, we became nostalgic for the times we weren’t so lonely- the Old Web.
My experience may not be universal- but based on anecdotes I’ve seen shared amongst people in the Yesterweb- they all have warm fuzzy feelings for the time when things were handmade- even those that weren’t there.
So yeah, the Yesterweb was borne out a desire to return to a time and place that exists in the past. Sometimes this appears as Old Web aesthetics but really what is most important to glean from our nostalgia for the Old Web is the community that was there.
Just like visiting a thriving and bustling community of folks that all help one another- the community feels alive- and the struggles of the few becomes the struggles of the many.
What we need to do is to focus on carving out smaller spaces on the internet away from the corporatization and the exploitation. The most effective way to do so is by working together. The issue is that no one person has the single best answer on how to combat the modern web and to bring back the best parts of the Old Web.
It's going to take all of the developers, creators, nerds, geeks, hobbyists, coders, sysadmins, webmasters and webmistresses that we've got to begin shaping what that broader goal looks like. What it's going to take is a lot of hard work.
I was so certain that nostalgia was a bitter rind on a sour fruit. But really nostalgia was a tool to get to the best part of the fruit, and with a tiny bit of sugar we can all enjoy the fruits of that labor.
So that raises my last questions- where do we go from here? How do we shape the resistance to the assault on the internet?
That's for us to figure out together.
I'll see you on the Yesterweb!
- 2 cups of frozen raspberries
- 1 cup of lemon juice
- 1/2 cup of monk fruit sweetener
- 4 cups of water
- 2 tablespoons of chia seeds