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It’s Hard to Name Web Aesthetic Movements

Who gets to decide?

There’s a site, Brutalist Web Sites, that aggregates websites that look kind of raw—that show their seams. The citizens of Hacker News, where I (this is Paul) found the link this morning, immediately undertook to argue whether the sites shown are truly Brutalist or not—but of course, as Wikipedia points out (after some arguments of its own), there is no one clear true definition of Brutalism. The Brutalist Web Site, itself a Brutalist Web Site, says:

In its ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy, Brutalism can be seen as a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of todays webdesign.

Cool! There was a tweet in February by Jon Gold (who has a very fun nerdy website) that didn’t attempt to name anything but did make an interesting point:

Many people see the “brutalist” websites as “true to the medium,” and authentic—but you can’t make money off them (Craigslist as an outlier). Meanwhile, the two websites shown in wireframe above are instantly recognizable as very commercial and promotional. It makes me wonder where the limits are: Are you more or less brutalist if you use CSS transformations to make something rotate when the mouse goes over it? Is a web page in HTML more “honest” than a web app in React? The boundaries are blurry.

There are—there have been, there currently are, and there will be—many attempts to pull aesthetic movements together out of the stuff people find on the Internet. There is/was, for example, the “New Aesthetic,” which defined itself as “a series of artefacts of the heterogeneous network, which recognises differences, the gaps in our distant but overlapping realities,” circa 2011. It involved some nice people and lots of pixels. There is glitch art and poetic computation.

And even as the Web was just getting going in the early 1990s, people were seeking to pin down hypertext and “situate” it—tame it, really—within the larger trends in literary and cultural theory. I have a couple shelves of books with titles like The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, Cybertext: Perspectives in Ergodic Literature, Hamlet on the Holodeck, and Virtual Geography. They make me feel smart to have around, but it’s impossibly hard to pin down a single working theory of how digital things should behave.

What this all means in practice is that Internet arts organizations and design programs have to change their home pages at least once a year. And that nothing you say about “the web” can ever be true because someone else does it different and it works. (See brutalist website Craigslist.)

When I was younger I saw how things were getting remixed and cut up on the Internet and I accepted the wisdom that we were headed towards a cut-and-paste culture. I fully bought into the idea that “everything is a remix.” Blurry boundaries made the Internet amazing.

That’s not wrong, but you could also say “everything is a genre.” Genre is fluid and becoming more fluid (like gender!). You can see this in music, where naming genres is very important to people — is it chillwave, vaporwave, or witch house? If it’s vaporwave, is it segahaze, mallsoft, or fringewave?

Naming a genre definitely can be valuable and useful, but it also divides the world into people who have the privilege of defining the genre, and everyone else. A genre makes a scene. I was very early to writing online and I remember when people—people who are now my friends—tried to define what makes a “good” blog, and what the rules should be. It bugged the hell out of me. Who were they to show up and tell me how things should be made? I felt angry but also left out. Why wasn’t I consulted?

This way you learn. It turns out that people like really simple, easy things that save them time and don’t want to each build their own custom content management systems. People like rules and scenes if they think they can join them.

Anyway, I like the collection of brutalist websites and think they are cool, because they help me think about the underlying architecture of web pages. I get that calling them “brutalist” is a little ironic. I used to feel kind of bummed and threatened when people named things but now I realize it’s just part of the process—everyone is a little landgrabby, including me, and it’s no big deal because nearly every clever name for some Internet thing will eventually fade away, just like blogs faded away.

Story published on Apr 18, 2016.