This linkblog-thing your currently reading continues to be an intriguing project for me, half-baked as it still currently is as an idea. So much so I recently decided to give it a name: In The Margins.
Why have I chosen this atrocious name? Well, there are a few reasons.
- As I mentioned last week, I feel like I do a lot of my best writing “in the margins” of others.
- My first blog post here was about marginalia. So that’s cute.
- Margins can also refer to the outer area edges of a place or thing, like maybe the outer edges of the internet? Like maybe a certain smol web? Yeah it’s a bit of a stretch.
- When I told my partner about the name she said “I hate it. You should definitely use it.” So that’s that.
- I couldn’t think of anything better.
In other news, I’ve also decided to also offer this thing as a email newsletter. Though I initially had some reservations about doing so.
Newsletters (and I mean e-newsletters) are kind of a hot-trend right now, ever since people realized users might pay to read words from their favourite writers (who knew?). But “free” e-newsletters have been going for, well, since the dawn of email. Or a little thereafter, I guess. The problem is, when most people say “free newsletter” these days, what they mean is free advertising for them. Sure, they might start off by offering some helpful content, but pretty soon your left with annoying barrage of salespeak, until you can finally be bothered to scroll down to that unsubscribe button.
This can’t just be me, right?
And then, of course, you have to trust that they’re not going to do anything fishy with your personal information.
Now, someday I might write a book. If I do, I probably won’t shut-up about it for a while. And I already have my “what I’m up to section” where I’m liable to self-promote too. Also maybe I’ll make something interesting that isn’t just more words? Probably not.
But what I can assure you is that if you do sign up for this linkblog in email form, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
They’ll be no extras, no free eBooks (you wish), and zero invites to join my get-rich-quick 12-part-course. All you’ll get is the same thing you can get on my site or on my RSS feed. The only reason I’m offering it at all, is in case some people might prefer this in their inbox.
And would I lie to you? Maybe. That’s a chance you’ll have to take. Or not. But whether you call this thing a newsletter, a linkblog, “In The Margins” or anything else, I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you’ll stick around as it develops.
(On a side note, I’m using buttondown for the mail service, as I felt they were one of the better options out there in regards to both user and my own privacy. In a perfect world, I’d use an open-source self-hosted service, but that’s not an option for me right now. If anyone has some other suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them)
Search Neocities websites by newest, and among the blank pages and constructions gifs, you will probably see a few purple pages staring back at you.
To the casual observer, these purple pages, with their menus and starlit backgrounds, might seem like a template offered on behalf of Neocities. But they represent one of the many contributions of one of Neocities most influential, now seemingly former residents, Sadness.
Head to sadgrl.online, and you will find this purple layout builder many Neocitizens use as the foundation for their static creations. You will also find an 88x31 button maker, HTML and CSS guides, and instructions on how to achieve a better web experience. That is not to mention the shrines, blog posts, a link roll, and an about page, where Sadness describes herself as a 30-something who loves building websites and uses the web as her primary means of communication.
As of writing, sadgirl.online remains the most followed website on Neocities. Only slightly less popular is Sadness’s other website, The Yesterweb.
If Sadness's main site could be described as her home on the web, then the Yesterweb is more akin to the community hall. More than just a gathering place for old web enthusiasts, though, the Yesterweb saw itself as a movement, one with a mission statement to “to progressively transform the culture of the internet and beyond.”
At its height, the Yesterweb featured not only a forum and old-school webring, but a recurring fanzine, a discord server, a 3D Mozilla Hub, and a Mastodon instance.
Yet today, most of these services have been closed. And Sadness notes on her homepage that she is “Taking an indefinite hiatus from webmistressing.” Things it seems, have gone terribly wrong.
Now I want to make clear at this stage that I have zero interest in speculating on the details of what has happened here. So, if you were looking for some gossip, you’re going to be disappointed. And for the record, I have no affiliation with the Yesterweb, Sadness, or anyone involved in the situation. Please do not message me with details of who did what, who’s to blame etc. I will ignore them.
What I am interested in is communities - how they are created, how they grow, and how to stop them from imploding every time they reach a certain mass. And the document left behind on the Yesterweb’s homepage, which details the communities goals, aspirations, struggles, and, ultimately, failures, shares some fascinating insights (without getting into the nitty-gritty details).
It is quite a long read, but there are two particular parts I want to draw attention to, titled ‘observed phenomena’ and ‘significant errors’ accordingly.
The sections note several splits within the community over its organizational structure, emotional turmoil for contributors, heavy-handed moderators, issues regarding 18+ and potentially triggering discussions, the presence of die-hard personalities, and a myriad of other issues. And again, this is just coming from the organizers and moderation team.
Honestly, it’s an eye-opening read. Yet it all sounds vaguely familiar.
As anyone who has spent time partaking in online communities or forums will know, things can quickly turn sour, no matter how good the initial intentions are. Idealogical differences form, new members butt heads with old members, everyone turns against the moderators, and then, one day, someone pulls the plug, and the community dies.
The evil of social media platforms is that they enable this social implosion to occur on a greater scale, and actively promote any resulting toxicity. And because everyone from your gran to the president of the United States is on these platforms, the results have IRL impacts.
But the forums of the old web were not some utopia free from such drama. And modern interpretations of the old web aren’t either.
So this raises the question, how do we build better communities online?
One person who has invested significant time and effort into investigating this question is a blogger by the name of Visakanv, who has amassed a lot of thoughts and links on the subject:
There’s a lot to go through, but there are three particular points that Visakanv (and the writers he links) makes here that I think are worth pointing out in particular:
- Safe spaces for insiders are crucial
People often conflate the idea of “safe spaces” with echo chambers. But as Visakanv notes, a safe space is only an echo chamber if the members of that space never go anywhere else, which is rarely the case.
In reality, a safe space is simply a place, real or virtual, where a group of people can talk freely without feeling the need to constantly explain themselves. The benefit of such a space is that it allows for truly constructive dialogue.
Visakanv gives this example:
“Feminists arguing internally about how to best achieve their goals have much more rich, interesting, thought-provoking conversations when they don’t have to be interrupted to explain “women are people too” to newbies every 20 minutes."
- “Cool” Communities are ripe for exploitation
Visakanv links to several articles which articulate a concept known as the ‘evaporative cooling effect.’ I’ll link them below too. But essentially, you can boil the idea down to group A (typically, pioneers, creators and geeks) attracts B (typically, fanatics), which attracts C (typically exploiters, casuals and sociopaths), who push group A away.
In other words, any community with something others may consider interesting (or profitable) is susceptible to exploitation, either from well-meaning “fans” who take without contributing, or those who see an opportunity to make a fast buck. In the process, the core “thing” that brought the community together in the first place, erodes away to be replaced by hollow replica of itself.
You only have to look at every music genre ever, to see how scenes become diluted and consumed.
To be clear, the concept shouldn’t be mistaken for “newbies ruin everything.” Rather, some of the newbies might ruin the fun. Also sometimes group A might find themselves tempted to become part of group C.
But how do you stop evaporative cooling?
- Some social gating is important, actually
Let’s be real about a few things:
- Some people are just assholes, especially online
- A privileged fan can be a worse curse than a hater
- A few friends are way more fun to be around than any crowd
Pointless gatekeeping sucks, sure. But truly open communities are doomed. So for a community to survive long-term, Visakanv suggests, it requires strong moderation and a shared focus on contribution. Yet this is something that Visakanv believes most people don’t have the stomach for
"Most people want the fun of participating in an already-great community without having to do the work of making sure that their participation is net positive to the group as a whole. It’s ignorant and selfish. We have never properly solved this problem.
Some will say, well that’s human nature and you can’t solve human nature. But if we don’t make an effort then Good Things periodically crumble, which is Sad. People keep starting New Things, rarely salvaging or learning from the old; the cycle continues. "
Of course, it’s easier to talk about these things than to put them into practice. And Visakanv himself notes there’s no surefire way to ensure a community lasts and thrives:
“It bums me out that scenes so often wither or collapse on themselves. The post-mortem almost always comes down to “some people were being dicks”.
And then there’s the meta problem where people who are trying too hard to prevent shitty behavior end up policing others too hard, which is shitty behavior in of itself. Again, it’s complicated, and this is why communities and scenes keep dying."
It’s also worth mentioning, I think, that communities are a lot more easier to maintain than “movements” focused on growth.
The Yesterweb may be gone, but the small web community as a whole, as far as I can see, continues to thrive. Perhaps it’s because the price of entry is contribution, in the form of html goodness. Or perhaps it’s because static sites remain relatively “uncool” and just a little nerdy for most. Maybe it’s that, consciously or not, the community at large guards heavily against over-commercialisation and sociopathic behaviour. I don’t know. All I know is that it continues to be a gosh-darn lovely place to be.
But I think it is a shame that for many people just discovering the small web, their introduction may be an abandoned website. And I think it’s a greater shame that some people who loved building little static sites on the net have lost their passion to continue doing so.
Yet maybe the best ideas of the Yesterweb will yet take root elsewhere. Perhaps even starting their life anew, on a little purple site, with a moonlit header.
Murid.neocities or “Occasionally, Content” is a site you should probably make a point of checking out, just for all of the wonderful art alone. But its webmaster also posts a fair amount of writing, often of the introspective and illuminating variety.
Recently, Murid made an intriguing post concerning anemoia-seeking teenagers and the retro websites they create. In particular, Murid addresses the criticisms people make against these sites. Such criticisms often mention that most teenagers misunderstand the old web, have nothing much to say, and abandon their creations once they realize web-building is difficult. However, as Murid states, these criticisms often miss the point. And that we should be championing, not criticizing, what these teens are really doing - learning.
When I built my first site as a teenager, I had the advantage of being surrounded by a still thriving web culture. You could Google something, and there was a decent chance you ended up on a quirky site that wasn’t “SEO Optimized.” Today’s teens don’t have that benefit. They are, as Murid says, like “archaeologists trying to piece together a time before they were born.”
Nonetheless, my first site was still a diabolical mess. I vaguely remember putrid green text, garish animations, and cynical ramblings that went nowhere (perhaps little has changed). I’m sure there were plenty of adults dying to tell me that I wasn’t web-mastering correctly.
But while I’m glad my site has been lost to web rot, I’m thankful for having had that learning experience. For a teen with low self-esteem and an introverted nature, having that output for self-expression was vital. Even, that is, if I had nothing much to express.
These teens making and abandoning sites, are getting that same learning experience, even if their sites objectively “fail”.
“Even the lowest effort pile of pronouns and links to social media is an effort. That’s growth. Have a gold star. That’s an accomplishment right there. Let them try it out, and once they realize that learning HTML is hard or that there isn’t much that they actually have to say, let them abandon the site and move on, with a little wisdom gained. That terrible site that has a flashing”Welcome to my website" marquee and an under-construction gif has served its purpose."