On Webrings

last updated 2021-07-10

An interview on webrings and shrinking the web

The webrings I've encountered have been an immense source of inspiration, social connection. At the start of 2021, I stumbled upon webring.xxiivv.com and was immediately drawn in to the thematic cohesion and shared pursuit of creating decommodified digital spaces, better tools, and experimental processes for creative projects. As someone who first became interested in code via trying to set up a website, it also carried an air of nostalgia that is especially poignant on the sites that replicate the geocities vibe.

A friend from Nashville, Eli, was thinking about writing something about webrings and asked the following, paraphrased:

Are webrings a recreation of a more user-controlled internet where information, creation, art, etc can be shared without mediation by corporate entities? This seems to me a big component of it. I can't speak to the precise genesis of the various webrings I've encountered, but there are prevalent attitudes rejecting corporate ownership over internet presence in favor of {low tech}, right to repair, and longterm-ism. Through sites on the webring, I've discovered many other efforts to replace popular but corporate internet services with open source, federated, and/or peer-to-peer systems and technologies.

Do webrings represent something more philosophical or nostalgic for you, or anyone you know? I think there are two components to this:

What webrings represent will differ participant-to-participant or visitor-to-visitor depending on past experience -- for example, how many hours they spent making a sick geocities site in the 90s. For me, my earliest memories of interacting with the internet were ones of sheer discovery and excitement. There was a universe to be traversed. Sites were both about topics (welcome to my website all about vintage medium format cameras!) and personal. Either way, the site was a unique representation of the creator. "Surfing" felt like walking the stacks of a library rather than a doomscroll of homogenic content. Stumbling upon a resonant site was exhilarating, and a whole browser extension, Stumble Upon, was built to try to structure the act of discovery across the vast chasms of the internet. Webrings create niche spaces that enable this kind of discovery and connection.

The nodes of the ring are as important as the ring itself. The websites are often thematically or philosophically aligned. One notes:

This webring is for homepages of people who are interested in low tech, small game tools, and other forms of Web 1.0 inspired creativity. https://emreed.net/LowTech_Directory.html

What has surprised and delighted me the most is the way some members of the webring interact with others - I now have digital pen pals that I've met via the rings. One person wrote a fantastic response essay to one of my posts from years ago. It creates a lightweight network without the hand-holding of a intermediary. It's cool!

And two questions from Eli's editor:

Do webrings show up on search engines? The webrings and the sites that comprise them will show up on search engines unless they explicitly exclude themselves using methods that any website could. But in the common case, yes, they will appear on search engines. Even cooler though is that some webrings have search engines that just search the member websites of the webring. This is an incredible way to find others reading the same books and adding notes to their personal site, or to find someone working with a similar technology.

What evidence supports that it is a recent ‘trend,’ or having a resurgence? Do you think that it is, and if so, why? I know that people are becoming more conscious of their online presences being wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate interest. For those who are interested in subverting that, I think it will become more and more popular. However, the corporate entities are formidable opponents when it comes to a mere trend. I think their hooks are sharp and deep enough to prevent a wholesale migration back to web 1.0, the cozy web, the low tech internet.

Compiled 2024-04-21