Reminders of a Bygone Internet

The Windows 93 project and the revival of the early Internet experience do more than just shift web design.

Press start to begin. (Windows 93)

It’s garish. It’s twisted. It’s, as Engadget calls it, “your childhood on acid.”

It’s the Windows 93 operating system, in website form.

No, Windows 93 never existed. The site is simply an art project, it seems, both celebrating and poking fun at the clunky design and terrible aesthetics of early computer history. It’s basically a fully functional, more sophisticated version of Windows Really Good Edition—another Internet gem for nostalgic users—that includes applications that throw back to Internet jokes upon Internet jokes, presented in breathtakingly glitchy fashion.

The point of the project seems to be two-fold. Its first goal, clearly, is to boggle your mind as you click through the files: There’s a text version of Star Wars, a web browser dubbed the "Cat Explorer," multiple viruses (hydra.exe's the worst, trust me), and games (Solitaire is aptly renamed "Solitude"). If none of that makes sense, just go and poke around for yourself with the volume on.

The second—and possibly unintentional—goal of the project is to examine computing as it was. It’s part of a phenomenon Kyle Chayka described Tuesday on Gizmodo as “The Great Web 1.0 Revival.” In other words, new sites and platforms (think Ello, or Facebook’s new Rooms app) are returning to the nature of the early Internet out of collective nostalgia. “Like artisanal hipster nostalgia for a time when men were men, shoes were handmade, and everyone pickled their own vegetables,” Chayka wrote, “the Internet’s vanguard is pushing for a return toward a simpler digital era.”

Simpler, here, means minimalist. Sites like Ello cut down on the noise, most obviously with its questionable promise to never include ads. But it also evokes Web 1.0 through its design—a design developer Jeffry van der Groot disapproved of in a Medium post titled “Ello: a design disaster”:

It is taking modern, fashionable design trends and applying it to a web application without any thought as to how it impacts usability and readability… Different shapes are also used randomly. Both square and round elements clash, but are also not grouped together giving a very cluttered and chaotic impression.

Van der Groot went on to criticize the admittedly awkward-looking fonts and monochromatic color palette, and even though Ello did use modern design trends, those elements just help the point: Nothing says Web 1.0 quite like "cluttered and chaotic." Sure, we don't know exactly how the Ello team approached design—the stark look could just be, as van der Groot said, bad design—but it's perhaps reminiscent of the early Internet, when no one knew what a site should look like, and how it should treat users.

Just look at the first design of Wired’s website, then called HotWired, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of its launch on Monday. (It's a happy coincidence of Internet anniversaries this week, considering Wednesday also marked the 45th birthday of the first message sent via the ARPANET.) Below is the original site:


The colors were painful, the icons inexplicable, the font questionable—the same criticisms van der Groot had for Ello.

HotWired's creators, including Creative Director Barbara Kuhr, explained to today's Wired site the thinking behind the design:

Kuhr was working on the design. She and [her husband John] Plunkett came up with a logo that nodded to the magazine’s blocky pixel-inspired word mark but used circles for a more playful effect...

[Intern Jeff Veen] was quick to embrace the medium’s constraints. For the first iteration of HotWired, she wanted to layer [Dutch artist Max] Kisman’s section icons to create an image map. The idea for this sort of launching-pad homepage was inspired in part by CD-ROMs, which had familiarized people with a clickable start screen. But when they built the image map in HTML, the browser automatically drew a thick blue border around it, as was standard for all linked images. Kuhr’s response was to make the blue border even thicker and to slap a lopsided white rectangle on top of it, effectively turning the unsightly web artifact into a graphic element of the design.

And that’s Web 1.0 design in a nutshell: playful effects and elaborate homepages.

Of course, the nostalgia isn’t just about adopting design elements from the Internet’s first iterations; it’s also about adopting a smaller web, connecting you to only who you want to be connected to.

“The new wave of social networking is all about rediscovering who your real friends are,” Chayka wrote. When the major social networks are flooded with advertisers and pseudo-friends, how can you wade through them all?

By treating the web like a blank canvas, just as Web 1.0 did. While Geocities and Angelfire turn in their long-forgotten graves, the users of the self-proclaimed "cheap, unmodified Unix computer" works as a clear example of the revival leading to a niche community that allows for, as Chayka pointed out, "free-form self-expression." Users create their own pages, customize them, and post what they want. The only difference is it doesn't act like a social network.

And that’s where things get tricky. The Internet naturally allowed for online communities to form, and those online communities naturally led to the social networks we have today, which eventually made the Internet into an epic echo chamber, where anything and everything is public.

That public identity is the most jarring transformation the Internet has seen. Where Web 1.0 had been a fun, playful platform, today's version can be far more dangerous. “Spam may have been a latent threat in the Web 1.0 era, but the prevalence of anonymity and the simple nature of social networks made it feel generally harmless,” Chayka wrote. “The loss of online privacy has become a much more imminent danger as of late. The internet is now a much more public place where anything that gets written has a tendency to fall into the wrong hands almost immediately.”

The Internet doesn't have to be this way—and the shift back to its nascent days ultimately serves as a reminder of its early feeling: that through it you could discover what was on the web for yourself, that you could find others interested in what you're interested in and create your own spaces.

In a way, that's what Facebook's Rooms is trying to recapture by having users make their own communities. As Facebook's Josh Miller, who leads the team behind Rooms, told an Atlantic reporter this week, "You pop open Netscape and you didn't have a trending page.... It felt like you were going to different places with every different website."

That's a squarely Web 1.0 feel. And designer nostalgia is bringing about far more than a change in how sites look. Developers are now making different decisions about how apps and platforms should work, trying to give users the best parts of both the new and old web.

This nostalgia, therefore, works kind of like the Windows 93 project. There's the harmless, if obnoxious-looking, desktop-as-time-capsule, but there's also the twisted sense of the unknown.

The aesthetics instantly bring you back to that early digital era, but the point of the project is to dive into the applications themselves. Some are fun Easter Eggs. Others are threats. And so Windows 93—and all these exercises in micronostalgia—serve a third function: to act as a reminder of how quickly the Internet can change.

And how—seriously, take my word for it—you should never trust the dolphin.