Illustration
Katya Dorokhina
Date
6 January 2020
Reading Time
7 minute read
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Can the Weird Web make a comeback in 2020?

Wonderfully odd and quirky creations are returning to the internet. Here, Neal Agarwal makes a case for Weird Web 2.0.

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Illustration
Katya Dorokhina
Date
6 January 2020
Reading Time
7 minute read

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Google Design’s goal is to connect, support, and inspire designers and design technologists.

Neal Agarwal has been coding since he was ten years old and graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in computer science. He’s interested in combining creativity and technology, as you can see in all of his projects. Here, Neal lays down his argument for web creators like himself to return to a time when digital tools were utilised to create a wonderfully weird online world.

When I was growing up, Flash was all the rage and the web felt like a digital Burning Man. This was during the 2000s when the web was a landscape where people cultivated their own unique creations. I like to call this the “Weird Web”, a place where internet creators expressed themselves through interactive content, games and experiments. It was a place that brought delight and joy. There were creative tools like Line Rider, interactive visualisations like The Scale of the Universe, and who could forget bizarre games like This is The Only Level?

But, when Flash slowly died a decade later, the weird web went with it. Social media became the 800-pound gorilla that slowly swallowed up independent creators. That said, there are a few trends today that give me hope that the weird web will make a comeback. Not only that, but I think it’ll be even better this time around.

Yet to understand the future and what may be possible in 2020, I think it’s important to first understand the past. Weird Web 1.0 was almost entirely made with Flash, a programme with capabilities ahead of its time. It provided amazing cross-browser functionality, animation, graphics and sound. In fact, when Steve Jobs wrote the death letter for Flash in 2010, HTML5 was still lacking in many of these areas. It took a long time for it to catch up, but once it did, it quickly surpassed Flash in performance and cross-browser capability. The days of opening Internet Explorer 6 and sighing at your massacred web page are (mostly) over.

“Flash provided a great entry point for beginners, but learning how to create things for the modern web is a daunting task.”

Neal Agarwal

Because of this, the opportunity to begin Weird Web 2.0 is an exciting and plausible one, especially when you compare the modern web to Flash. For one thing, graphics and animation on the modern web are far more powerful. Flash was primarily limited to vector graphics, while the modern web gives creators direct access to the GPU with the WebGL, and the upcoming WebGPU APIs. As a result, beautiful and high-performance 3D animation is now possible on the web.

Another thing the web long struggled with is programmatic sound. Luckily, on the modern web, sound is finally a first-class citizen. The Web Audio API provides everything you could want in a sound API. It even provides advanced transformations, allowing for the creation of generative music. New libraries like React and Vue have also made interactive web content far easier to produce. Tedious tasks that used to take a long time in vanilla JavaScript are now simple in modern web libraries. Creators can now produce content much faster than ever before.

However, the main advantage Flash still maintains over the modern web is ease-of-use. Flash provided a great entry point for beginner animators and programmers, and learning how to create things for the modern web is a daunting task by comparison. Luckily, no-code tools are becoming more powerful and give those who don’t know how to code the ability to create content. These tools still have a long way to go but have made tremendous progress in the past five years.

The technology needed for creatives to bring about the Weird Web 2.0 is all here. But the content of the future won’t look the same as the past. And it shouldn’t either. But what will the content of Weird Web 2.0 look like?

Let’s start with a trend that is already apparent: URL-based multiplayer games. The rise of cloud computing means that it has never been easier to set up and maintain game servers. URL-based multiplayer games are powerful because they reduce friction for getting players into the game. Two great examples of this are Agar.io and Slither.io, games where just clicking a link means you’re already in a multiplayer game! Some other games take the URL-based aspect even further. Want your friend to join your lobby? Just send the lobby URL. Want to share your custom map? Just send the map URL.

As the web becomes more powerful, creators will also increasingly use the HTML DOM itself to render their games. A great example of a DOM game is Cookie Clicker. Made by Julien Thiennot, it uses standard HTML tags for the layout and HTML canvas for graphics-intensive parts. Now with libraries like React and Vue too, making highly interactive pages has never been easier or faster. The same technology that powers web apps will power many of the games of the future, further blurring the line between game and website.

I also believe interactive educational content will be a huge part of the Weird Web 2.0. The self-learning movement has exploded in the past decade and people are turning to the web to learn and explore new topics. Creators in this area have started making what are termed as “explorables”, or interactive educational content. One of my favourite people in this space right now is Nicky Case, who makes pages like The Evolution of Trust, which teaches the user a concept through interaction. I suspect there are many people who learn best through guided interaction and don’t yet know it.

Now that sound on the web is a first-class citizen, Weird Web 2.0 creators can explore interactive music and sound. A great example of this is MTA.me, which uses the New York subway system to generate music. Another project called Soundscape allows you to create your own music and visualises it in a 3D world. These are just two examples and there’s still so much more to explore with sound on the web.

“Even before it died, Flash creators struggled to make a living. Luckily, today they have a lot more tools than before.”

Neal Agarwal

Two new technologies on the horizon for the web are machine learning and AR/VR. Machine learning will bring new capabilities like style-transfer, image recognition and natural language processing to the web. It’s hard to predict what creators will do with these new abilities, but a great example is Quick Draw, a game by Google that uses machine learning to guess your drawings. AR/VR on the web is still in its infancy, but there’s been great progress in the past few years and there’s even a proposed specification to make a VR API for the web.

Yet the biggest hurdle towards the success of the Weird Web 2.0 is not the technology, but the ability for creators to get paid. Even before it died, Flash creators struggled to make a living. Luckily, today they have a lot more tools than before.

The main way Flash creators made money was by selling their content to game portals. This is problematic, because it vastly limits your leverage as the game portals hold access to your customers (the viewers). To anyone thinking of making interactive content on the web, I highly recommend that you own your content and are direct-to-audience. This will give you the highest chance of success, because having direct access to your audience allows for more monetisation options. Creators today can monetise through Patreon, subscriptions and sponsorships, to name just a few, which weren’t easily available to Flash creators.

Two years ago, I created my own little corner of the web: neal.fun. It’s my playground where I can experiment with different forms of interactive media. On the site, you can explore the deep sea, spend Bill Gates’ money, or try to draw famous logos from memory. I started making the site just for fun, but I recently decided to go full-time on making things for the site. Being an independent creator will never be easy, but I hope it’s now at least viable.

The reaction to my little corner of the web has given me much hope for the future and a possible Weird Web 2.0. I’ve received countless messages of people telling me it reminded them of the web they grew up with, the web they miss. But even more interestingly, people who didn’t grow up in the Flash era have been telling me they’ve never seen things like this and that they want more. Something that hasn’t changed is that people still love this medium.

I’m excited about the next decade of the web. And while nothing is ever certain, the weird web appears to be poised for a comeback and I hope you’ll join me in helping create it. Maybe this time it will stick around.

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