To call the web of ’94 “cool” is to offer a semantic bridge that linked the elusive familiarity of something “new and uncontainable” to the peculiar temporal and spatial experiences of web surfing with all its secluded sociality and sudden juxtapositions between the valuable and useless “free fun stuff!” that could be found in abundance online.
Returning to Cool Site of the Day and other early cool-site collections, we find links to movie trivia and webcams trained on fish tanks, mortgage calculators and email syntax guides, clip art collections, and NASA images of outer space. You could play a hand of blackjack, peruse Bartlett’s database of quotations, pose a question to the Magic 8 ball, and answer an online personal ad. There were satellite weather maps and feminist music communities, sci-fi enthusiasts and BDSM aficionados, geek subcultures and mainstream marketers—a cacophony of weird things, helpful tools, unexpected resources, and diverse voices made to seem suddenly close, personal, and rendered in rich detail.
Taking the attributes of each “cool site” on its own, we might be hard-pressed to make sense of what exactly it is that makes any selected site truly worthy of cool. But viewed as a collection, cool sites were those broadly in tune with the ethos of the web. It was precisely through the arbitrary juxtaposition of the various links presented each day that the contours of cool found footing in cyberspace. This ecosystem of cool sites gestured towards the sheer range of things the web could be: its temporal and spatial dislocations, its distinction from and extension of mainstream media, its promise as a vehicle for self-publishing, and the incredible blend of personal, mundane, and extraordinary that was encountered in the course of surfing the web.
The idea of “cool sites” may seem dated today, in an age when cool seems ever more fickle and fleeting. Today we have ubiquitous listicles of “12 cool must-have apps” or “top coolest gadgets of 2014.” But I can’t help feeling that there is something enduring about the early web’s legacy of techno-cool that lives on when I find myself marveling at so many “utterly useless apps you don’t want to miss!” How our smart phones can help us do something so dumb! And how, at the same time, when our location in space and time is merged with other sources of data, these devices and apps can surprise us with glimpses of things curious and unexpected.
Yes, in an era of incessant upgrade culture, when we are constantly made to feel as if the next new thing is quickly passing us by, the cold hand of cool is tightly clasped in capitalism’s embrace. But cool’s evasive contradictions, its pleasures in operating both inside and outside of the market, its desire for cheap thrills, fun stuff, and new experiences does, I think, find something recognizable even within the confounds of Google Play and the Apple App Store. There we can find simulated staplers that “satisfy the urge to press without wasting staples,” virtual lighters that allow you “to play safe with fire,” retro dialers that convert your smart phone into an old-fashioned rotary dial.
You can install a GPS-enabled tombstone finder! Instantly identify birdcalls, constellations, traffic patterns, song titles! Chat, connect, and hook up with potential romantic partners! Receive alerts five minutes before it will start raining in your exact location!
Wow! It’s all so… cool?