The internet made us consumers, not creators

Why digital creativity isn’t what it used to be

As internet culture pushes increasingly mainstream, there’s a growing swell of nostalgia for the days of the early web. Bulletin boards, web rings, usenet — some of the first communities on the World Wide Web. There’s a charming (and let’s not forget, exclusive) appeal to the unselfconscious aesthetic of the olden web, but that’s not the only reason we look fondly on those days.

When there was less content (sorry, I know how painfully lame that term is) on the web, and the tools to participate on the web were more limited, a different type of creative expression flourished. I remember my first experiences of unsupervised time behind the keyboard of our family 386. Windows 3.1 was groundbreaking! I composed simple QBASIC games or sketched elaborate mosaics in ASCHII. I wrote short stories in a program in a program called Creative Writer — a MS word processor targeted at kids. I spent hours messing around in local software. I had no choice — it could take hours to download a new game over 14.4 dial up, and I was running out of hours on the promotional AOL accounts I created. I was not a sophisticated web user as an 8 year old kid. But I was inspired to try my hand at what I did see online, and platform constraints meant I had plenty of time for unstructured digital doodling.

In 1994, you needed a driver’s license to get on the infoway

There’s no arguing the web is slightly more powerful and influential today than when I got my first “Infoway Drivers License” in 1994. I wasn’t uploading videos to YouTube, learning Spanish in DuoLingo, or mindlessly flipping through Random while waiting for takeout. This flood of cheap and easy content has fundamentally shifted the use of computers: instead of being a tool for creating, our internet devices are consumption devices: a variety of frames that all look through the same window.

It’s not a coincidence that the third (fourth?) wave of publishers have heralded an era of increasingly pandering and vacuous posts. Interneting in 2015 is a game that’s less about substance and more about optimization. Dose, Viral Nova, Vox, etc., are allegedly generating new peak levels of content, but are in fact reheating the same increasingly bland leftovers, across a narrowing spectrum of channels. Reach today mostly boils down to Facebook and Pinterest. Our volume of content has swelled, but an average internet user is less likely than ever to be a creator. Why go through the hassle of updating one’s Live Journal? It’s much less taxing to repost the latest collection of gifs ripped from “Home Alone” or “Arrested Development.” We express ourselves less through original creations, and more by selecting content to reflect our values.

We’ll never see the forced creativity of Internet 1995 again. I frequently (tbh, nearly always) elect to peruse other internetters’ photos or thinkpieces instead of giving myself a blank canvas. Still, knowing what made early PC creativity special helps me appreciate those who continue to peddle smart, original content today.