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Grieving Eden

There’s a line in Dan Olson’s legendary “Line Goes Up” video essay that’s stuck with me:

“We used to have a web where anyone could learn to write a webpage in HTML in an afternoon…. Over time, people, understandably, wanted the web to do more, to look better…. Soon, the definition of what a ‘website’ was and looked like sailed out of reach for casual users, and eventually out of reach of all but the most dedicated hobbyists.”

The news this morning was that Twitter was closing down free access to their API in exchange for a paid version. I saw it in reference to someone warning someone else to unlink a game login that was connected with Twitter, for fear that it would break, and they would lose their account. For whatever reason, the news put me in a really bad mood.

I couldn’t help but start thinking about what we had, and what we could’ve had for the future.

For all the clamoring nostalgia for Web 1.0, I do think it’s worth talking about the good parts about the modern web. For one: free access and documentation to APIs and programming tools. I’m not much of a programmer myself; ripping code from github to make a reskinned Discord bot is about the extent of my work with APIs. That being said, the fact that I could do that, and host it locally, and that the process took some time, but even me, a smart person with very little programming experience, could figure it out in a day? That is really worthwhile, in my opinion.

In Tom Scott’s video “This Video Has [x] Views,” he discusses the early, exciting stages of Web 2.0, when APIs were first developed, and how the idea of apps being able to talk to each other through code was this shining vision of a future full of creative uses of data. It could’ve been a world where information was free, where people could learn, where anyone could make anything, limited only by their time and dedication.

And then it wasn’t.

I was born in the year 2000, a year after GeoCities became the 3rd most visited site in the world. My babysitter was the one with the MySpace, for reference. I was too young, and my family and community too behind the times, to really experience the early web. I was, however, on Club Penguin, and Pixie Hollow, and played tons of Newgrounds games. I developed a real passion for art, especially digital art, on Disney’s Create website. I loved being on the Internet in the late 2000s; it seemed like an endless, free world of play, where things could always get bigger, better, and more fun.

And then it wasn’t.

Of all those websites I loved, only Newgrounds is still active, rendered obsolete by Flash’s discontinuation in 2020.

When I saw the news about Twitter’s API, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of these things. About how knowledge of the web has gotten increasingly more specialized. About how Flash used to be a one-time purchase. About our loss of GeoCities, Angelfire, Yahoo Pipes. About how when I first researched making a website, my first results weren’t for something like WordPress, it was for full stack “web app” packages by startups with minimalist color schemes. It put me in a bad mood, and I couldn’t understand why I wanted to just scream. And then I realized.

I was grieving.

I was grieving everything that could’ve been.

There ARE good parts to Web 2.0; and if you look hard enough, you can even take advantage of them. But to think about what could’ve been, had corporatization not taken hold, had three platforms not gained control over the vast, vast majority of the web, fills me with legitimate grief. My head spins when I think about those early days and compare them to what we have now. I get overwhelmed thinking about everything a modern web dev has to keep in mind. I want to be able to buy Flash, learn basic coding, post something I make on deviantArt, and have it work. I want to stumble across data and information, and have it be beautiful and true. I want things online to exist, for the sake of existing. We’re all reaching for the crumbs of what we could’ve had. We’re lapping at the small puddles of what was left for us: customization, free tools, toys, information. Facebook took away gifs, and then graciously gives us looping video. Adobe took away Flash, then graciously gives us free Instagram editing. Our ability to freely interact with the web keeps getting stripped away, bit by bit by bit, and we don’t get a choice. We can only acquiesce, or outright refuse. There’s no more wishing for only the good parts if you’re not a web developer yourself.

Forgive me for thinking it’s not just them who should be able to have fun anymore.

My optimism is going to be my downfall, I already know this. I don’t even use Twitter’s API. I don’t even use Twitter. But my grief for a future we can never have now fills me to my breaking.