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Neal Agarwal
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Work / Digital

Creative coder Neal Agarwal on bringing the internet back to its weird days

There was a period, somewhere in the mid-to-late 2000s, where the internet was in peak adolescence, somewhere between its text-based academic origin and the dominance of social media as it exists today. Social media as we know it was still on the rise, with the first video on YouTube being uploaded in 2006 and Instagram was a mere twinkle in its founder’s eyes. Being a kid on the internet then meant being enveloped in flash games and animations, having to find weird content away from the dominant aggregators that we are more comfortable with today.

This was the internet that Neal Agarwal, a 21-year-old creative coder, found himself growing up in. A recent computer science graduate from Virginia Tech, Neal tells us about the frenetic days of the internet’s younger years. “To understand my current work, I think you’d have to understand what the internet was like when I was growing up,” Neal tells It’s Nice That. “Flash was all over the internet, and the internet felt like a digital burning man,” adding that the decline of Flash, the multimedia plugin that was explicitly excluded from the first generation of iPads in 2010 for security and stability issues, caused a lot of strange and unusual content to disappear with it. “Social media and mobile apps ate everything up, and the web became boring again,” Neal says.

Wanting to make websites to showcase his favourite Flash games when he was just ten, Neal started out with HTML and CSS out of necessity. What started out as a simple exercise slowly grew into confident mastery of the medium. “It felt like a superpower, and I was hooked,” Neal says. “I had no idea that programming was this huge topic,” he adds, “when I started learning Javascript – my first ‘real’ programming language – I was surprised just how much I intuitively understood because of Scratch,” referring to the block-based language that’s often used to introduce programming concepts to children.

Despite briefly mourning the death of Flash content, Neal feels that the technologies on the web are more powerful than ever today. “Flash creators couldn’t do half the things that are now possible. So my goal is to explore what’s possible on the modern web,” Neal says. “My hope is that more people will join in. I think it’s very possible that we will see a new generation of people creating crazy things on the web again.”

A quick look at his projects reveals a series of experiments, aking to finding Easter eggs on the web. In the spirit of the days of the internet’s youth, Neal notes that these experiments are often made without any purpose “other than to see what’s possible.” One of these experiments, Hidden images in highlighted text, is a simple concept that is, at its core, deeply creative. Starting by placing an image on an HTML canvas as a reference, his code figures out what the background colour of the letter should be based on the location of the letter, using Styled Components to generate the CSS for each letter. “Obviously I don’t recommend adding this to a normal site since it would be very slow – but it was fun to make nonetheless,” he explains.

With many other projects like Spend Bill Gates’ Money that shows just how difficult it is to actually spend $90 billion, to Tenyearsago.io that lets you see what websites looked like ten years ago, let’s hope many others follow in Neal’s footsteps and return the internet back to its weird, somewhat innocent days.

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