Make the Web Art Again

A red baseball-style cap with white embroidered letters reading "Make the Web Art Again."
A red baseball-style cap with white embroidered lettering reading "Make the Web Art Again."
Original illustration by me. Copy and share it if you want.

Last night it seemed plausible that as remaining Twitter employees weighed the choices they’d been offered by the company’s delusional new owner (accept his insistence that they be “extremely hardcore” or take three months’ severance pay) the end could happen at any moment. Despite a gloomy near-term outlook for tech hiring many of them were walking away, taking an unimaginable amount of institutional knowledge about systems and processes with them.

Reports are that thanks to this completely avoidable self-inflicted damage, entire key teams responsible for site stability have left. Those that remain have small fractions of their headcount of two weeks ago, when Elon Musk no longer could avoid the consequences of the trap he incredibly and incomprehensibly laid for himself months ago by offering over $44B to purchase the business.

It’s always good to be skeptical of self-reported data, but surely there aren’t enough people invested in making Musk’s baldfaced managerial incompetence even more obvious to significantly skew this graph., November 18, 2022. Times shown in PST (GMT-8).

The unfortunate reality behind all that red is the lives of real people. They are being needlessly dicked around in the kind of pathetic display of ego that an emotionally stunted segment of the population applauds in the wealthy even though they’d be the first to make sweeping complaints about children if a four year-old acted like that.

On the other hand, it is almost exactly 20 years since my own career got rudely and arbitrarily disrupted by bizarre personal politics and abusive scapegoating at one of the largest corporations in the world. And while I’ve never fully gotten over my anger about the treatment or the very real long-term financial effects it’s had on my family, the most important lasting effect it had on me is this: I never again could bring myself to work for a giant tech firm.

I’ve applied at a couple a few times, but I just couldn’t hide my lack of enthusiasm in the interviews. You know you should be doing something else when your response to “We’ve decided to move forward with another candidate” is “Oh, thank god.”

Most likely a lot of the ex-Twitterites will feel similarly, or at least so I tell myself. I’ve talked to people who formerly worked at Facebook and, though they have the circumspection I lack and won’t say anything publicly, privately they admitted their experiences there and the path the company has followed left them sour on the entire Silicon Valley and Venture Capital dominated tech world.

Twitter seems to have gone full Chernobyl. Meanwhile Facebook is laying off 11,000 people. Amazon is cutting 10,000 people starting with the devices division it hoped would make every second of our lives a shopping experience.

A lot of hype is happening right now about disgruntled people (aka “users”) abandoning their Twitter accounts and starting Mastodon accounts. And that certainly seems to be happening, which in a way sucks for established Mastodon communities.

The bigger point to keep in mind is that Mastodon is in no way a replacement for Twitter. It is its own thing by design, based on foundational web principles of decentralization and user agency that we almost forgot about during the past 15 years while we were being relentlessly commoditized by the social media behemoths.

On a macro level I’m starting to feel a little invigorated. Almost, dare I say, hopeful? Is it actually possible that we might be reclaiming, at least in some small measure, the web of the ’90s?

I got into the web early. Not like “before it was cool” early, but like “when it was cool but still obscure” early. And what drew me to it was that I saw it as an artistic medium of self-expression.

It started with the techies, but it was we who teethed on zines and cassette culture who clicked “view source,” looked at the HTML, and said “I can do this.” The computer science people might have known how it worked, but it was the loose spectrum of DIY punks, post-punks, and grungers who knew what it was for.

This attitude permeated my first corporate job, working at an early web content company where I ecstatically wrote and produced what we thought of as journalism, but which arguably was an early model for what we now call “clickbait.” It hardly mattered that the company was founded by second-richest man in the world, who would occasionally pop by the office and share his off-kilter opinions about our work. He was as enthralled with the new medium as a form of expression as we who were building it were.

My first rude awakening came when I was listening to NPR on the way to work and they reported we’d been sold to a certain large media conglomerate that is often referred to as “The Mouse.” In short order I went through a silly dance in which I was taken into a room and informed that my job had been eliminated and I was being terminated, but a new job had been created that I was free to take with no break in employment.

And thus began the I’m Only In It For The Money phase of my career. I tried my damnedest to make that new job work for me, but in the new paradigm it rapidly became apparent who was getting more compensation and who was getting less. I clearly was getting less, and since the loosey-goosey rules of the company’s startup days had been replaced by the multinational HR department’s job title matrix, I could now only move forward one incremental step at a time like a pawn after its initial move.

My new title was the uninspiring “Associate Producer,” arguably a demotion considering the level of self-directed autonomy I’d had in my previous role. When I advocated for advancement, I received it. One day I got an email from HR with the subject line: “New Title: Sr. Ass. Prod.”

I left that job shortly after, with a great credit on my resume that got me exactly twice the salary, a hiring bonus, and a free relocation to San Francisco. The hitch was that instead of only making content, I was sliding obliquely into also doing more technical work. And that, it turns out, was to be the path to advancement I’d follow for the next few years: Repeatedly, the reward for doing good work was one I gave myself to leave the place I did it so I could make more elsewhere. And repeatedly the new job was more technical in nature than the old one.

The one constant has been my yearning for what got me onto the web in the first place and what I found in the first years of my first job making content for it: Creative satisfaction. Like Charles Foster Kane on his deathbed, I recall the joy in my last moment before money changed everything.

Just as I’ve hopped companies for employment, so have I hopped services and platforms for expressing myself online. As of today I’m about 90% off Twitter (like many I can’t seem to prevent myself from popping in to view the spectacle as it slides ass-first into the icy waters while terrified passengers leap from the bow hoping to be rescued by those who got to the lifeboats early), but while my 15 years on the platform were longer than any other forum I’ve used regularly, in the end it’s just as disposable as the others.

I never controlled Twitter and therefore as long as I used it I never controlled myself. Even now, when I’ve used their built-in archiving service to download my content, they kept me from having my direct messages and the high-res versions of images I’ve uploaded.

Twitter just don’t care. They never cared about me except as a commoditized source of free content and a demographic profile to be sold. And I can’t blame that on Elon Musk. The good people who used to, and in some cases still do, work there long ago bought into supporting that model with their labor too.

What I do control are my personal site (made by hand using only static HTML and CSS in the current iteration), this WordPress blog, and anything else I decide to put online using domains I’ve registered on a server I pay for. In other words what I control is my artistic and creative expression.

This was how most of the web was in the early days, and it would be lovely to see some measure of it come back. Even now, when viewing a page’s source so often reveals a mess of script-generated, bloated, needlessly complex HTML, it’s not hard to learn how to do it yourself. And you can do it far, far better than a whole lot of self-important “engineers” who look down on user experience as an annoyance to hand off to junior staff can.

So there. Consider this a call for a Make the Web Art Again movement.