The Infinite Canvas

The internet had seemed to convey such possibility, from an artistic perspective.

Bear in mind that I came of age in the 1990s, when the internet was a half-formed thing.  Blogging platforms didn’t exist; instead, we had to carve out virtual homesteads by hand with crude HTML and ‘Under Construction’ GIFs.  It was a big deal when bandwidth allowed for embedded MIDI files.  And I was a card carrying member of the ‘I Hate HTML Frames’ club.

For a world that seemed like multiplayer Notepad, there was a lot of possibility.  Because we were producing Real Things, instead of consuming as-a-Service platforms, options were open to us.  We could make any given html file look much as we wanted, style sheets be damned.

And the early denizens took advantage of that.

From the early days of polling-stories and ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ styles of stories playing out in a facsimile of realtime, to interconnected and self-referential stories that used (or occasionally abused) HTML and CGI and Javascript to their advantage, the early web was an exploration of form.

If you’ve read Scott McAdams’s excellent Understanding Comics, you’re aware that (as he carves up the root of art) there are two possibilities that serve as the fundamental mechanism of conveying an idea.  One is Message–the meaning, the story, the information you’re trying to convey.  The other is Form–the package in which it arrives.  Any art produced finds a balance between these two points.  And the decision as to whether it’s better to be exploratory or to be meaningful is a false one.  If done right, you find the right vehicle for the right message for the right audience.

Example:  I’m listening to Bon Iver’s new album, 22 One Million, as I type this.  Much like Radiohead circa 2000, or David Bowie every 25 minutes, it’s a stylistic shift.  The lyrical content is similar to previous albums.  But the form has changed.  Grown.  (Been made weirder, perhaps.)  Chances are, it won’t net Justin Vernon a Grammy.  But it’s very much its own realized product, and the glitches and stylistic choices are part of a comprehensive whole.

I bring this up because the Internet has, to a certain extent, standardized.  eBooks mostly simulate physical books–there’s little need, or at least little desire, to push the boundaries there.  When someone breaks new ground (e.g., The Familiar by Mark Z. Danielewski) it’s not in a way that’s specific to a given platform.  Enhanced eBooks seem to land with a gentle thud in the marketplace.  (If you have a counter example, I’d love to hear about it!)

That standardization is something of a shame, in my opinion.  It’s convenient, to be sure.  But the virtual universe in its raw format allowed for newer ideas.  Not just colors or fonts–those can be done in physical print, too, albeit with more difficulty.  But consider if you will the Internet as an infinite canvas that could paint a story on one enormous page.  Frames arranged in a mosaic of paragraphs.  Stories that rewrite themselves on a browser reload, or in real-time based on TOD clocks. 

There were a lot of opportunities then.  I wrote at least one of all of the above, albeit badly, in those days.  I wasn’t alone in trying.   But I set it aside, eventually, to focus on meaning over form.  Finding a balance, after all, was far more important than having fun with the primordial bits of the web.  And as blogging platforms became prevalent, and then social media took its place, a lot of that experimentation was set aside.

I’m still waiting for someone to allow for New-Weird-as-a-Service (NWaaS).  I expect that, if I sit around and wait for it, I may be waiting an awfully long while.


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