How GeoCities webrings made the ‘90s internet a cozier place
Believe it or not, the internet used to feel a lot cozier. In the early days of the World Wide Web, as many of us called it back then, going online was like exploring the Wild West. In those days, seeking out the content you wanted online wasn't exactly simple. Before Google's debut in the late '90s, much of what we uncovered during our online dalliances were the product of sifting through hosts like GeoCities or Tripod pages. Sure, we had early search engines like AltaVista, Yahoo, Lycos, or even Excite back then, but they weren't nearly as reliable or functional as what we're used to today. In truth, navigating the internet was sometimes an exercise in futility, unless you were willing to simply explore.
Call me crazy, but that's exactly what I miss about the internet. Fast forward to the 2000s, and everything — especially in the past decade or so — has become so compartmentalized. It often feels like there's nothing left to discover online, so we're left with scrolling through Instagram and Facebook feeds for entertainment. That's why there's one relic of the internet's past I still yearn for: webrings. I'm still mourning their untimely death. And while I know it was ultimately for the better in terms of efficiency and better search efficacy in the end, I still find myself missing them.
What are webrings?
Webrings are a forgotten antiquity of the past, a solution created to resolve a problem that no longer exists. They were were initially conceived as a way to help connect websites and other content that centered around specific topics to help web surfers find what they were looking for. They usually appeared at the bottom of a website to serve as a waypoint for individuals seeking out similar websites surrounding a theme.
For instance, say you were looking for Calvin & Hobbes content. You'd visit the homepage for a webring about the comic, or somehow stumble upon one of the members' pages. From there, you could scroll down to the bottom of the site (or find the webring on the page wherever it was embedded) and click one of several navigation buttons: Previous, Next, Random, etc.
You could opt to skip over the previous site or next site in the ring, see the next 5 sites in the rotation, or even see the entire list of webring members. This made it incredibly easy to continue browsing through content about one particular thing — because otherwise it would have been quite difficult to surf the same themed websites, save for links on connected pages.
Webrings were usually owned by one person or a group of people, who would add new sites to the ring and separate the higher-quality destinations from spam. If you were a webmaster, you could submit your own website for approval, and if you happened to be added, you could add a special webring box to your own page. More than just a novel way to browse the internet, webrings felt like an exclusive club and a way to filter the type of content you'd see out of the massive amount of content found online.
What was so great about webrings, anyway?
While it may seem as though I'm simply longing for a more complicated time, webrings actually made browsing aimlessly online a lot more fun. The internet at that point felt like a giant mystery. Every click could lead you down another rabbit hole. You could end up seeking out the name of a Sailor Moon voice actress on one fan site, then come out of your browsing session having found a new character-centric "shrine" you absolutely loved by the end. Remember that, at this point in time, databases like IMDB simply didn't exist yet.
It was like embarking on a discovery-centric trek that opened up additional parts of the internet you may not have seen otherwise, all wrapped up neatly for you in a small, heavily-artifacted .JPG image map.
There were webrings for just about everything, too. If you had a favorite actor, you could join a group of like-minded creators and fans online and get to know them through the pages they created. That means you could potentially even make friends and reach outside of your comfort zone by chatting with the creators of some of your favorite sites. There was a sense of camaraderie and community between web designers back then, and everyone felt only just an email away. The internet as a whole just felt more tight-knit.
Using webrings was, like many other aspects of early internet life, a method that early online denizens used to try and map out the massive, unexplored frontier that was the Web. It was a way to make sense of this exciting new technology that no one was quite sure about just yet — and it brought people together.
These days, it feels as though our online destinations are pre-ordained. If you want to find something specific, you just search for it (using Google, natch). You can start clicking around once you find it, but there isn't any care taken to compile online destinations and categorize them anymore. If there are steps taken to personalize and offer tailored recommendations for users, it comes by way of algorithms that platforms like Facebook or Instagram employ. Unfortunately, most methods used today lack a human touch.
But that's a necessary evil, considering how much the internet has grown over the years. The internet is a much more massive playground than it was in the late '90s. The amount of data online is nearly limitless. To try and compile some sort of list of content that interlinks with each other as well as maintain a relationship with the owners of each website seems like such a fool's errand now.
The same feeling of togetherness, that sense of belonging to something special that came along with joining or running a webring, has been missing from the modern internet for years. Seeing these classic images of simplistic, Web 1.0 webring designs always takes me back to a time when the internet was hardly sinister, but an exciting new tool that everyone wanted to use and be a part of.
It hits me in the same way watching a favorite movie from childhood does, or hearing a classic song. The internet will never be this simple again — not in the age of SEO, clickbait, paid advertisements, or other practices the internet has birthed. But as long as we can look back on constructs like webrings, there's always a place of familiarity to go back to and appreciate about the internet's infancy.
Personally, I'll always look back fondly upon the day I was accepted into the "Sailor Scouts Webring," which collected individual sites based on Sailor Moon characters. There were exclusive spots for each Sailor Scout, from Sailor Moon to Sailor Saturn. My hastily made creation, all about Sailor Neptune, was cobbled together in Dreamweaver and half of its sections were under construction. But I proudly accepted my place in the webring. My hit counter never went up much after that, but I was so excited to be a part of something bigger than me online. I don't know if I've ever felt that proud again.
It's highly doubtful we'll ever find an analogue for webrings or anything like them in this day and age, but it's always fun to reflect and remember so that we can appreciate how far we've come.