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Website nostalgia

Robert Weedon | Internet | Wednesday 26th February 2014

We’re all used to being nostalgic about old TV programmes from our childhood. That’s why a perfect icebreaker at parties or any other potentially awkward social occasion (except perhaps when getting an OBE) is to mention a children’s TV programme you used to watch. It’s almost always guaranteed to start some sort of conversation because although you didn’t know those people as a child, you probably all watched the same TV.

Thunderbirds and other Gerry Anderson programmes are especially good, as they have been around right from the 1960s to the present day and were shown all over the world, so quite a few generations will feel included. Although anything will do, really; I don’t ever remember The Clangers being on the television, but I’ll still happily do an impression of them.

By comparison to TV shows, people generally aren't nostalgic about websites. This is probably because they usually only host fairly transitory content and with a few exceptions are not really art forms in themselves (although with HTML5, that already may not be true). They present content rather than make their own.

The way that internet technology moves on means that generally every update to a website is an improvement, and once everyone has had a little moan about how the buttons and menus have moved, they'll get used to it. In fact, if you look at the first incarnation of popular websites, you usually look at them with much the same mixture of amusement and condescension as a teenager watching Muffin the Mule.

Looking back through the design and presentation of a famous website can be interesting, but generally not 'nostalgic' in the correct usage of the word. However, the other day I encountered for the first time "website design nostalgia" when I followed a link celebrating Facebook's 10th birthday on 4th February.

I spotted an article dating from when Facebook was floated on the New York Stock Exchange for $loads of money back in 2012. There was link to a "history of Facebook" which featured some screenshots of the various incarnations of Facebook.

Not being American, I wasn’t on theFacebook in 2004 but joined as soon as it arrived in about 2005-6 so it’s the second design that I consider to be the "classic" Facebook look. Here’s what Mark Zuckerberg’s profile looked like in that version:

Look how clean, how simple, how good that original design still is, almost starkly minimalist in its presentation; blue, grey and white, one picture, some brief details about your birthday, your relationship status, some photo albums and a few lists of films, music and books you like. That’s it.

It's like the original Issigonis Mini or the third generation iPod; clean, single-minded, no frills.

I then hopped over to Facebook as it currently exists and couldn’t help but thinking that there was very little that is an improvement on that early incarnation. Perhaps the newsfeed added a certain level of usability, although even that took away part of the original novelty of the site, namely the ability to flick through as if everybody had their own pages. Now it's more like an aggregator.

One of the main attractions of the early incarnation was that Facebook didn’t have the horrible gimmickry of Myspace and Bebo. It didn’t unexpectedly play heavy metal music at you or have whizzy Fisher-Price games features inviting you to a competitive pea-shelling competition.

Everyone’s profile looked roughly the same, meaning that you focussed on the content, not the website itself. In the film The Social Network (2010), the fictional version of Mark Zuckerberg states the following:
Friends, pictures, profiles, whatever you can visit, browse around, maybe it's someone you just met at a party...I'm not talking about a dating site, I'm talking about taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online.
You know what, fictional Mark was right. This is still generally the sort of stuff you want to know; you can tell a lot about somebody if Miss Congeniality 2 or You Me and Dupree are their favourite films or Dan Brown is their favourite novelist.

Now, I don’t particularly like Facebook any more. This might be because it still only really works as a tool for people at college or university, but apparently a whole generation of teenagers going up to university are also shunning the site because it's the place their parents now go, so perhaps it was only my generation that it really meant something to.

Perhaps the generation of students circa 2004-2010 were the "Facebook generation" in its purest form, when it was a site that you had to have a "" or ".edu" email to sign up.

As Simon mentioned way back in 2009 with the sale of Friends Reunited for about 50p, the only reason that people stick with a social networking site is because of its user base. Facebook is still currently the most popular social networking site in the World by some margin, but it didn't used to be. It used to be Microsoft's MySpace, which fell out of fashion when Facebook arrived for much the same reasons. Bebo, the other popular site in 2006 recently "closed for maintenance work and creative renewal".

It will be interesting to see if Facebook is still king in ten years' time.



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