Website as original medium

May 18, 2023

Back in the late ’90s when I first starting going online, it seemed that the idea of using a website as a medium for artistic expression was still being explored. The first site that comes to mind is Kottke’s Osil8. The site featured short, self-contained “episodes” mainly composed in the primitive HTML/JPG/GIF language of the day. (Javascript and Flash were introduced as nearly exotic elements.) Most episodes were ironic, inventive riffs on the burgeoning internet culture.

While the self-reflective nature of Osil8 (using the medium to represent the medium) has in no way been abandoned by the web culture that followed it, what does seem to have changed is the use of the web as a legitimate medium for artistic expression. While there has been a proliferation of sites that serve as the distribution channels for photography, illustration, video and audio, websites themselves are less and less treated as genuine expressions of an artistic impulse.

Another star of the ’90s internet that comes to mind here is Joshua Davis. Davis was the creator of numerous websites that demanded a playful, patient and curious interaction from the user. They existed as hermetic spaces where users were asked to immerse themselves in an experience that contained elements of mystery, confusion and beauty. Today, Davis’s website has succumb to the egalitarian impulse from which little escape seems possible. His site mainly serves to re-publish content originating elsewhere: flickr, dopplr, twitter.

Is there a connection between the rise of blogging (and its related activities) and the decrease of websites as a medium for original expression? At the same time as I was exploring Kottke and Davis’s work, I was also exploring countless personal websites. This was during a period before blogging went mainstream (and now corporate), in which personal sites were not necessarily blogs, and if they were blogs, the use of a CMS to publish them had not yet become de facto. These sites seemed to be examples of genuine craftsmanship (I want to introduce the term “craft” to sit alongside “art”). The oppressively ubiquitous design patterns that have been introduced into the language of the web by all of the major blog CMS’s had not yet squelched the personalized, almost quaint element of the personal web. A peek into the source code of a page was often prompted by an especially slick use of nested tables or background images, or some other home-grown solution to an original design problem. The unique visual presentation matched with the explicitly personal content of these sites was a reminder that an actual individual was responsible for its creation.

As the web has increasingly becomes mediated by widely used tools and services, the sense that websites themselves could be examples of artistic expression seems to have waned. Again, this is not to suggest that the web has not become an unparalleled platform to distribute all forms of art and craft; it is to suggest that websites themselves (even personal websites) increasingly lack evidence that a unique, human personality has created them.