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How Old VHS Tapes Helped Save Early Web Design

Andy Baio has kept the early net alive by digitizing long-forgotten VHS tapes.

[VHS Tape: Yevgen Romanenko via Shutterstock]

Conventional wisdom has it that anything published online can never be truly erased. People petition governments for the "right to be forgotten"—to have personal information and images permanently removed from the Internet. But look for a screenshot or image from a page of the very early web, and you'll find it almost impossible to locate. Prominent technologist Andy Baio, who runs the site, where he promotes tech ephemera and news, has discovered an unlikely portal to an era that has all but disappeared from today's Internet, and quite nearly from the human record: VHS tapes. With these tapes, now viewable on YouTube, comes a critical look into a period that set the stage for the massive design and technological changes society has undergone over the past 20 years.

A Ragtag Approach To Archiving The Web
The Internet Archive was founded in 1996. It's an open-source project that houses 435 billion historical snapshots of webpages. But what of the digital traces that lived before 1996? Much of those have been lost to time.

In the late aughts, Baio figured out where he might be able to find this historical data. He began collecting instructional VHS tapes about the early web from thrift stores and Amazon's used video section, where he could get them for about a dollar each. With names like Internet Power and Computability they contain plenty of outdated jargon and quaint "gee wiz" attitudes, and were largely aimed at people who had an Internet connection but didn't know what to use it for. It turns out, these videos make up some of the only documentation left of that online era.

Baio began uploading the videos in 2008. He uploaded some to Viddler, a site that predates YouTube and allowed him to attach detailed blog posts and annotations. Others appeared on, until the service unceremoniously deleted all of its videos without notice. Still others appear on YouTube, though Baio only made the archive fully public a few months ago.

What The Tapes Reveal
The tapes are artifacts of an extinct Internet, providing insights into the way we saw the web 20 years ago, and perspective on what it has grown into today. Some of the material is hilariously naive—though it reveals how little some basic structures of the Internet have changed. "The focus is around using [the Internet] as a giant encyclopedia," Baio says of the videos presentations. "They say things like, 'A website is like a book. It's divided into chapters, and clicking a hyperlink is like going to a page.'"

One of the biggest differences between the web then and now? Design. In the mid '90s, the web was a massive repository of static information, put there by someone else and by seemingly mysterious means. "This was [before the popularity of] Geocities," Baio says. "There were web indexes like Yahoo and early search engines" but even these basic tools wouldn't help the average person who was unfamiliar with the web [find websites easily]. If you managed to get online it was still a time where a lot of stuff was found by word of mouth," Baio says.

He goes on: "The obvious thing looking at these old screenshots is simply how little control [designers] had. The browser defaults determined so much back then. You didn't have control over even the background color. It's a wash of gray." It was a time when the browser-mandated default font was Times New Roman, links were blue, and bulleted lists abounded. Even simple design decisions like where to place an image were made automatically by the browser.

Ironically, this "early web" aesthetic has been popping up everywhere over the past few years, adhering to the popular theory that nostalgia comes in 20 year cycles. You'll find it in fashion, music, and even homages by web designers themselves, who yearn for the simplicity of '90s web design and the anything-is-possible feeling of the pre-corporatized Internet.

An Abstract World
Nostalgia for the early web reaches beyond mere aesthetics. It extends into the underlying structures that gave designers and programmers a visceral connection to their machines. Recently, Baio tried to recreate a common feature of the early era of personal websites: the embeddable, autoplaying MIDI file. These were extremely popular on early personal web pages. "They were small enough, they were supported by the browser, and they fit in the free storage space," Baio says. But today, "Browsers don't support MIDI by default, or at all." This forced him to use a mildly absurd roundabout to achieve what would have been incredibly simple to code 20 years ago. Baio rendered a MIDI file as an MP3, badly, so as to retain its crappy, authentic '90s sound. "Today's sound cards are too good," he joked. Then, to allow it to autoplay, he needed to add a Javascript program to the mix. "So you've taken what would have been a 10K file, a tiny file with just instructions for what notes to play, and you've rendered it out into an MP3 file which is 3MB, insanely huge in comparison to a MIDI file," he says. "So something that was one line of HTML in 1996 becomes extremely hard to do now, and you're not even doing it right."

There's a concept in computer programming called "abstraction," which describes the fact that programming languages, as they get easier for humans to use, also inch farther away from binary—from the language that the computer actually understands. Today, writing in cutting-edge programming languages like Ruby or Clojure, your code is translated many times before it becomes something that can actually interface with the hardware. The evolution of web design has seen a similar shift toward using tools that are more intuitive for humans and less intuitive for machines. Take tools like Squarespace or Wordpress, which allow users to create professional-looking web pages without coding anything themselves. This has the side effect of making it much more difficult for us to understand what's really going on when we click a button or press play on a video. It's a level of trust in machines, and in the many programmers and web designers who have come before us, that, as Vikram Chandra points out in his excellent book Geek Sublime, can lead to inexplicable and sometimes dangerous bugs.

Abstraction, both literal and metaphorical, is another reason why projects like Baio's are so important. "Without cultural artifacts, civilization has no memory and no mechanism to learn from its successes and failures," the Internet Archive writes on its website. As computers become faster, more advanced, and easier to use, their history retreats at a frightening speed. We have to make an active attempt to save what documentation of this pivotal time in history we have. Otherwise, it could be drowned by the tides of progress for good.

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