Web as canvas: The evolution of the world wide web as a creative forum
Visualisation of routes between computers via the Internet, this graph shows roughly 30% of a class C block (a fraction, of a fraction, of a fraction of the Internet), courtesy of Matt Britt and using data from the Opte project. 34
In the latter half of the 1990s, the web was moving into the large scale volumes that we associate it with nowadays. Google first indexed the web in 1998, cataloguing around 26 million web pages. Two years later in 2000, the figure was over one billion pages. Since then the web continues to grow alarmingly fast, today Google indexes over one trillion unique web addresses. Google engineers Jesse Alpert & Nissan Hajaj used this analogy to put this indexing task into perspective:
“[the] one trillion URLs [addresses] is similar to a map made up of one trillion intersections. So multiple times every day, we [Google] do the computational equivalent of fully exploring every intersection of every road in the United States. Except it'd be a map about 50,000 times as big as the U.S., with 50,000 times as many roads and intersections.” 6
In reality the one trillion web pages is actually only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how big the web is. The ‘Deep Web’ is generally considered to be several orders of magnitude larger (maybe as much as 400) than the ‘Surface Web’ 7. This extra information is mostly made up of unlinked pages, dynamic pages, private pages, contextual pages and non-HTML content such as video, music, flash or any other format.
The percentage of households in the UK with a computer has increased from 33 percent in 1999 to 67 percent in 2006. In the same time period those with Internet connections (and therefore access to the web) increased from 10 percent 59 percent 8. There is little doubt that both increases are, at least in part, attributable to consumers wanting to have access to the Web.
Despite the dot-com bubble of the late 90s, and its subsequent bust, the web has become a massively influential economic factor. In the UK, £4.5 billion was spent by consumers online in January 2008 alone 9. On average, ecommerce grows by around 50% year on year. This is a massive shift in consumers’ habits. The web has proved to be an excellent ‘container’ for capitalist values and aims.
The number of hits that Google's homepage receives each day (many hundreds of millions) prompted Mark Ontkush (a ‘green computing’ consultant) to suggested that Google should consider changing their default background colour to black, in order to save around 750 megawatt hours of electricity per year 10. The idea - now outdated by the uptake of flat screen monitors - was based around the fact that cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors require more energy to display white than they do black, and of course the huge number of hits that Google gets daily.
By realising the scale of the Web it is easier to comprehend how the diversity of ideas and content, has gone on to spawn the potential to influence and create culture, even cultural movements. As the Web was booming in the mid to late 1990s, artists had been exploring the Web as an artistic medium for some time already, albeit in an extremely experimental way. The movement was named Net Art.
The Net artists used the newly available 'canvass' of the web to be creative and make artistic statements through a wide variety of means. European artists such as Alexei Shulgin, Vuk Cosic and Olia Lialina - who were all part of the 'net.art' working group - experimented with different ways of presenting creative ideas, mainly concentrating on works that could be viewed through a web browser. They're often attributed as being amongst the pioneers of the Net Art movement.
Net Art was not immediately a 'hit' with the art establishment, and although selected institutions including (but not limited to) The Walker Arts Centre (Minneapolis) and The Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts (Tokyo) did go some way to support the movement, Net Art had scant recognition until almost the end of the century. Ironically by this time the movement had started to decline as indicated by Alexei Shulgin and Natalie Bookchin in their collaborative manifesto Introduction to Net Art 1994-1999.
The Introduction to Net Art is a document that succinctly lays out almost every aspect of the Net Art movement including: 11
ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) is a system for mapping letters, numbers and control characters (such as return or backspace) to the 256 different combinations of the 8 bits in a single byte. Vuk Cosic was a pioneer of ASCII art, using letters, numbers and characters as the dots or pixels that make up an image. The result is a low-tech aesthetic that can be applied to virtually anything; Cosic's has gone so far as to convert live action film into ASCII and he has also worked with three dimensional ASCII representations.
"Works and experiments with moving ASCII , ASCII audio, ASCII camera and such, are all directed towards conversions of contents between one media platform and an other, every time carefully directed at their full uselessness from the viewpoint of everyday high tech and all it's consequences." 14
The vast majority of ASCII art on the Internet isn't designed to be as thoughtful or 'artistic' as Cosic's projects. Huge libraries of ASCII images exist, and include extremely varied imagery. From recreations of album covers, to cartoon style depictions like the one below.
_-^##########// ( ) \\##########^-_
-############// |\^^/| \\############-
_/############// (@::@) \\############\_
/#############(( \\// ))#############\
-###############\\ (oo) //###############-
-#################\\ / VV \ //#################-
_#/|##########/\######( /\ )######/\##########|\#_
|/ |#/\#/\#/\/ \#/\##\ | | /##/\#/ \/\#/\#/\#| \|
` |/ V V ` V \#\| | | |/#/ V ' V V \| '
` ` ` ` / | | | | \ ' ' ' '
( | | | | )
__\ | | | | /__
ASCII Bat 15
ASCII Art is a recurrent theme in Net Art, sometimes as an abstract element and sometimes depicting recognisable objects. It was often used as a design motif within other Net Art pieces. However the main drive behind ASCII art, as seen by Cosic, was to provoke thought about the nature of web content. As he says "directed at their full uselessness from the viewpoint of everyday high tech". 16
Many pieces of Net Art are designed to be accessible through the Web (including, but not exclusive to, most ASCII pieces) using a web browser. Web browsers interpret a markup language called Hypertext Markup Language (or HTML) which gives the browser instructions about how and what to display on the web page. The vast majority of Net Art pieces are based on HTML pages. Lia Lialina's My Boyfriend Came back from the War is regarded as a classic of the genre and is symptomatic of HTML based Net Art.
The work consists of imagery, textual elements and frames. According to how the user interacts with the work, different text and images are shown in different parts of the page and the page may even entirely change its layout. In My Boyfriend Came back from the War the different text and images represent a conversation. As you continue clicking the conversation becomes more and more complex. In Digital Art (World of Art) Chritiane Paul 17 says that the work is a about 'war' (including the metaphorical sense of the word) as well as reflection on how information is communicated through the Web.
Screenshot from My Boyfriend Came back from the War 18
As well as co-authoring Introduction to Net Art, and working many other influential projects (both as part of the Net Art movement and subsequently), Alexei Shulgin's is attributed with creating 'Form Art'. Forms are HTML elements that can be used on web pages to collect information from the person viewing the page. Forms are constructed from sub-elements such as check boxes, radio buttons and text boxes. Form Art leads the viewer through seemingly countless pages of buttons and boxes. Sometimes the form elements are arranged in an obviously aesthetic patterns, when at other times they appear more random. Occasionally animations are formed by the movement of elements on the page or movement between pages. Shulgin's website runme.org says idea is to use forms "as graphical elements for creating images and animations, both abstract and figurative" 19.
While it would be unfair to say that Net Art has ended, the movement's ability to inspire a buzz amongst artists, and audiences, peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Shulgin's Introduction to Net Art acknowledges this. Net Art began in a time when very few people were connected to the Web and the building blocks of the Web were relatively simplistic. As user numbers grew and the way in which Web systems were built became more complex the hub of creativity on the Web wasn't limited to a (relatively) small number of Net artists. Many websites centering on user-generated content began to appear; and with the invitation the users did generate the content.
Web 2.0 is a contentious issue. Tim Berners-Lee is rather scathing about the subject; "I think Web 2.0 is, of course, a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means..... the idea of the Web as interaction between people is really what the Web is."21
Web 2.0 it doesn't refer to a new 'version' of the web. Web 2.0 is a paradigm shift in both how the web is used by end-users and how software is developed. Web 2.0 is just an evolution. Web 1.0 refers to how things used to be done, Web 2.0 refers to how they're done now. Commonly cited Web 2.0 innovations include wikis, trackbacks, podcasts, blogs, social networking and sites specifically aimed at users generating the content. Collaborative categorisation of data, tagging, folksonomies, the network as platform, user generated content and a collective web intelligence are also aspects of the perceived change that is Web 2.0.
The separation of design and content makes web pages much more accessible. In the early days of HTML structural elements of the page were intermingled with design elements. By clearly separating them, publishing platforms such as Moveable Type, Blogger and Wordpress are able to offer non-technical users any easy way of running and administering a website. XML (extensible markup language) is designed to do just this and is utilised in all sorts of Web 2.0 systems.
An entirely XML based system is RSS (really simple syndication). RSS (and other data 'feeds') are an element of Web 2.0. Feeds present constantly changing data (for example news headlines) and deliver them to software, where they ca be processed.There are literally thousands of 'feed readers' available. One application of RSS is to allow users to easily keep track of ever changing content, across many websites. As well as being a delivery mechanism for human readers, this data can easily be harvested from one data source by a computer, and then be presented in some other form. Increasingly RSS is being seen as an platform, in its own right, used to deliver Web 2.0 content. 22
Application Programming Interfaces (or APIs) allow different software systems, including websites, to communicate with each other. Many modern websites offer APIs which allow others to access and even update their data. Famous websites with public APIs are Google Maps, Flickr, YouTube, Amazon, and eBay. An example is shown below, BidNearBy.com. It shows eBay auction data 'mashed' with a Google Map, allowing you to pick and choose nearby auctions. Making use of more than one API (or other data source) like this is know as a 'mashup'.
Web 2.0 is no single thing, but it is an amalgam of some or all of the technologies and ideologies mentioned above. Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly media, who publish books and websites as well as running conferences centering on the Web, has written extensively about the subject and has published a compact definition of Web 2.0, summarised as: 23
"Imagine a network based on participation
That encourages open communication
Data is not controlled by anyone
But by many
We are the new "intel inside"
The Internet is no longer isolated web pages of information
Everything is connected
We are in control
Web 2.0 is people"
Web 2.0 is the realisation of some of the Web's core ideals, collaboration and interaction. It also represents leaps forward in Web technology. Although sceptics like Tim Berners-Lee don't appreciate the 'jargonisation' of ideas that they've long understood and appreciated, this doesn't mean that the concept isn't relevant.
"Ultimately, the label "Web 2.0" is far less important than the concepts, projects, and practices included in its scope." 25
Quite apart from disputes among the technologists, academics and amateurs who theorise about Web 2.0, there are also real world issues to deal with. Although not explicitly a result of Web 2.0, all of these issues are certainly experienced by Web 2.0 systems.
The Web 2.0 landscape is rich when compared to the Web of the late 1990s. Millions of blogs, user generated videos and photographs, social networking and Wikis have produced unprecedented amounts of content. However it doesn't immediately mean that the content they've produced is actually good or relevant. In fact the user-centric architecture of Web 2.0 systems, and the inevitable scale of such sites, is an open door for hackers and spammers to attempt to exploit the systems for their own means. As well as the people who deliberately flood the Web with spam (normally for some sort of financial gain) there is another flood of low quality, incorrect or simply ignorant content that is posted by perfectly legitimate (but maybe misinformed) users. There are perfectly adequate systems to reduce the spam issue, but due to the scale of the Web for every 10 sites that have spam controls there will always be 10 more that do not, and thus invite the spammers to try to take advantage of them. The problem of low quality content is increasingly being dealt with by 2.0 style applications such as social bookmarking. Sites like Digg, Delicious and Stumbleupon effectively work as human powered filters, removing irrelevance and promoting 'good' content.
The exponents of the Net Art movement were often concerned with copyright, authorship and ownership issues. Ironically, at the time there was no major issue. Volumes were so small and the infrastructure didn't exist for anybody to lose out by abuse of copyright. However, since the Net Art movement first drew attention to the issues, the advent of broadband connections, modern compression techniques (MP3 or DivX for example) and Web 2.0 style distribution (BitTorrent), means that large scale theft of intellectual property is commonplace. Sites that host user generated content, such as YouTube, Flickr or Metacafe are also exposed to copy written work being uploaded to them. Yet another concern of such sites is that legitimate content uploaded, may be stolen or plagiarised. Given the volumes involved, and the nature of the Internet, policing this abuse is virtually impossible and there are virtually no deterrents. Even the legal distribution of music or video through the Web has encountered issues. Because of the digital rights management systems that are employed by the likes of iTunes, some users who purchased music and have subsequently moved or upgraded computers are now left in situation where they cannot play the music that is rightfully 'owned' by them.
Creative Commons - a charitable corporation - attempts to tackle some of these copyright and authorship issues. Reasoning that the arguments tended toward polar opinions, Creative Commons created a series of licences that changed the copyright terms from 'All rights reserved' to 'Some rights reserved'. As well as creating a construct for authors to publish their work with an explicit license, which may well allow reuse of the work, it has also massively raised awareness of the issues among normal web users. Flickr allows its users to assign a Creative Commons license to images right through its standard interface.
Another concern is that at some point the Web 2.0 boom will reach a critical mass, similarly to the current banking crisis. The Web 2.0 startups will realise that investment in the potential to make money through data mining actually outstrips the ability to make money. In this scenario the constantly innovating and technologically exciting Web 2.0 companies may well be bought by larger corporations and development will slow or cease, the only focus from that point on will be recovering revenue; which ultimately means advertising and the sale of mined data.
Although not a popular opinion, some in fact believe that opportunities that Web 2.0 presents everyday people with actually pose a threat. In his book Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen explores how 'blogs, wikis, social networking, and the digital world are assulting our culture, economy and values'. Keen is concerned that the use of social software and user-centric publishing may dilute what would otherwise be an astute understanding. Some of the issues covered involve the inaccuracy of content on blogs, specifically pertaining to politics, art and culture. He cites Wikipedia as perpetuating a cycle of misinformation, and labels YouTube as being absurd. Keen states that "For the real consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution is less culture, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information" 29
Any network that operates with the openness, size and scale of the Web is an obvious target for exploitation. Additionally when anyone is free to create content as and how they wish too, it is certain that not all of it will be of interest or relevance to everyone else. However this infers that some of it will always be of relevance or interest to someone.
"Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Web 2.0 ideas and technologies have proved to be an excellent toolset for creativity. Taking advantage of rich AJAX interfaces and other ways of delivering content through the Web, such as Adobe Flash, Silverlight or Java, has allowed for a vast array of creative work to be produced. Other factors such as ever faster computers, more available bandwidth and ultimately a larger audience helps to drive this forward. APIs as well as adding value to companies data are also exploited for purely creative means; to make something that is evocative rather than solely useful. The idea of connecting Web systems to physical input/output devices - as explored by Alexei Shulgin's 'FuFme' Net Art piece 30 - becomes more and more commonplace. These are but a few of the factors that have allowed the Web 2.0 era to become so culturally rich. In addition, and as explained in the Introduction to Net Art, most of the products are not part of a hyped art movement but are just individuals' creative activities.
Webcanvas.com an collaborative web project. Using an AJAX powered interface it allows users to scroll around an infinite canvass. At any point on the infinite canvass a user can digitally paint on it, or upload an existing image. Using AJAX it provides an easy to use and slick interfaces for skilled and unskilled artists alike to paint, but more importantly it is about mass collaboration and interaction.
Bandwidth & Collaboration
Google Earth on the face of it isn't very 2.0, it is just a very clever piece of software. I've included it as an example as its success is in part due to the availability of the broader bandwidths associated with Web 2.0. Another - more 2.0 centric - aspect of Google Earth is that users can add their own 'layers' of information, data that can be overlayed onto the underlying map data. Users can share these layers with each other and contribute to each others layers.
One group of web users actually developed a virtual game of tag using Google earth (as illustrated below). Although this project appears to have ceased the idea is indicative of a Web 2.0 creative mindset. 31
Rich content delivery methods, such as Adobe Flash, have facilitated the creation of massive numbers of online cartoons, games, curiosities, visual illusions and artworks. A fetching example of such a curiosity is Bubblewrap, this page displays a sheet of the packaging material, when the mouse cursor is moved over the bubbles burst.32 Flash, however, is not by design anything to do with Web 2.0; it is just a way of delivering rich content through the Web. The Sheep Market is a project that has utilised Flash to create a Web 2.0 style artwork.33 The site lets users draw their own cartoon sheep (using Flash). All of the drawn sheep are added to the library. Anyone who subsequently visits the site is presented with images of all the sheep in the library, if they click on any of them they're shown exactly how the sheep was drawn in real time. In addition users are offered the opportunity to purchase any of the sheep, printed onto a postage stamp.
Public APIs offered by the large web entities have allowed programmers to exercise their creative flair in a whole new genre; the 'mashup'. ProgramableWeb - a site dedicated to documenting and indexing APIs and mashups - currently lists 999 APIs and 3465 mashups. Not all of these are artistic per se, but a good number of them are. Artistic or not, they're certainly creative. One example of a mashup was mentioned earlier, BidNearBy, which mashes mapping data with eBay auction data; this is more of a tool than an expression of creativity.
In a strange crossover between the interests of Web 2.0 and ASCII (a Net Art theme), ASCII maps 34 uses the Google Maps API, but converts the mapping or satellite data into ASCII, see below.
Facebook has an API, and in fact a whole language for developing applications built on top of the Facebook platform, thus this is a whole new platform for creativity. Some curious examples are the friend wheel (pictured) and honesty box. The wheel is simply a graphical representation of all of your friends and also shows how each of them are related to each other. The honesty box allows you to say something to one of your friends, but without them knowing it was you!
Web 2.0 refers to software, but developments in hardware have created a plethora of input/output (I/O) possibilities, which in turn are used in creative projects. As previously mentioned Alexei Shulgin's FuFme project played with the idea. He suggested that lovers could each have a terminal connected to their computer. By 'interfacing' with these terminals a couple could simulate sex via the Internet. Since the late 1990s real hardware has progressed immensely. Invariably hardware I/O solutions can be connected to the Internet and ultimately can be accessed via the Web (or feed information back to the Web).
The creativity that takes place in the Web 2.0 era is liberated from the homogeneity that to some extent defined the Net Art movement, which was limited by technology, scale and audience. Instead the potential is now massively diverse. Everyday users, artists, software developers- everyone has the opportunity to harness their expression through the Web. As compared to Net Art, Web 2.0 is both more prolific (in terms of content creation) and more highly developed (if not ideologically, then at least technically).
As it happens the ideas that the Net Art movement tried to address were before their time and the technology that they were trying to express their ideas through was extremely limited (relative to today). In contrast to the products of Net Art, the creative product of Web 2.0 often aren't trying to address or promote any artistic providence at all. Fun or intrigue is often the desired outcome. Furthermore this outcome is often achieved through play, a concept which is critical to health and creativity and has at its heart "unimpeded movement, liberation". 39