Olia Lialina pointed me to this amazing post she wrote back in 2010 about what she has coded the “Prof. Dr.” style of webpages that can be dated back to 1993. In fact, the post is a tour-de-force of information about design in the early days of the web. She explains how she tries to convince her Interface Design students that the conception of site design is not reducible to Adobe’s Creative Suite. Rather, she pushes them to examine the early site design of the mid 1990s web:
….an era when the web was build and arranged and decorated by amateurs, when very web specific genres and looks were brought to existence, making it an incredible place to experience.
But even before the amateur free-for-all of the mid-90s there was the “Prof. Dr.” webpages, and I absolutely love the way Olia frames this early genre of web design:
“Prof.Dr” is a codeword, a tricky search request. I am aware of the fact that there are users outside of academia as well who always designed their sites in pure markup or redesigned according to 1993 standards recently. Still I suggest to use this name based on a scientific title as a tribute to the history, and reminder that all around the internet the very first pages were build at universities. To cement this term, within this article I’ll use only pages of senior academics holding a doctoral title.
How brilliant, an homage to the “Prof. Dr.”s who designed the web! But that’s not all, oh no, that’s not all:
A “~” in the URL continues to be part of the look and reminds of early computer culture, when “user” was equal to “developer”.(3) That’s why, where it is possible, I prefer to use the examples with a tilde.
Disco, this is what I have been looking for to complete the circle with Domain of One’s Own. The tilde was an indicator of a moment on the web when a user was equal to a developer! That’s it, we can’t turn back time, and I agree with Olia that this is not about a new retro aesthetic (although my impulse to make it that is very strong). This is about the recognition of a moment in time when a web space at a university was synonymous with developing the web. Helping to build it. In GeoCities terminology, homesteading. And that’s what we are trying to do with Domain of One’s Own, bring back a sense of web literacy in terms of design, history, and the possibilities to continue to particpate in it as an open, dare I say liberatory, space.
But Olia doesn’t stop there, she is light years ahead of me. She goes on to theorize the power of the primitive nature of these “Prof Dr.” pages.
Primitivity tells us the story of the browser being not only a browser, but also an editor. Every user of the early web was a producer of web content. Web pages were to be opened in the browser to look at them, but also to edit them, using existing pages as templates for new pages. The simple design of HTML made it possible for the first users to create state of the art pages with only four to five principal tags. The result was an extremely fast growing web. There were not many options, this is why we got many pages.
And she goes on…
Prof. Dr. pages look terribly the same. As if they were generated automatically by the browser, as one student said. Though, ironically, they are among the last pages generated completely by humans, not content management systems or services.
They look according to the viewer’s browser settings. This reveals the belief of the early 1990es that any visual design should be left at the discretion of the user.
A concept she later refers to as the “End User = Designer.” A reality long gone, and as she notes “it could only work for the very small web at connected universities.”
This is all gold, and there are innumerable examples of web pages from this era in her post. What’s more, she then moves on to the vernacular web which she dates at roughly 1995—the moment the web exploded well beyond connected universities. I really appreciate this broader conceptual frame for the early web spaces at universities as a frame for the user as both developer and designer. And I don’t necessarily take this to mean professional programmers and architects (even though the are Herr Doktors 🙂 ), as much as a community that is engaged and experimenting with form and connection through the tools that make it possible.
This brings us back, then, to a user innovation toolkit that enables and empowers people, which allows me to start making the link to the trailing edge of innovation that is the web. Olia surfaces so much of the design and conceptual thinking behind a web that returns us to some of its original magic as a web of links and people rather than third-party profiles and services. That said, I could easily fall into the dangerous trap of glorifying a moment wherein the potential of the read-write web was only available to the elite few. That’s what has changed over the last two decades in terms of access to these robust toolkits for innovation that universities have patently ignored when the need for a depp, critical web literacy has never been greater.