PRINT September 2010


Internet links pages

IN A RECENT SPEECH titled “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the Internet was now an integral part of US foreign policy. “Some countries,” Clinton said, making a thinly veiled reference to China, “have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks,” while the US stands for “a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” Although the technology of networked computers has its origins in military research, all this cold war–style rhetoric over Internet access would have come as a big surprise to anyone using the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. That Internet was very different: a place for meek computer science professors, adventurous home coders, and moms and pops who just wanted to say “Welcome to My Homepage.” It was not a place in which two superpowers did battle. What to make of this transformation?

In 1995, artist Alexei Shulgin created Bla-Bla Sites. The work consists of a simple HTML page full of hyperlinked URLs, each leading to a page somewhere else on the Web that was composed primarily of the text BLA BLA BLA BLA, or BLAH BLAH BLAH, repeated in various lengths and configurations. These pages were not affiliated with the artist but instead were fished from the vast ocean of the Web at that time, in 1995. I say “at that time” because although the page is still online, the pages it linked to have largely disappeared. So it might be helpful to think of this work as a performance, or as an action with a past, present, and future: “1995– .”

A Web page filled with “bla bla blas” in 1995 was most likely a temporary test page or a page halted midconstruction. It was a symptom of the staggering amount of arcane technical (and telephone-based) knowledge then needed to publish anything at all on the Web. Among other things, one needed to learn how to program Hypertext Markup Language; figure out how to use File Transfer Protocol to copy a file from one computer to another over a Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol-based network; use the phone book to find a local business that would “host” files; and then get a modulator-demodulator to call the phone number of this “host’s” computer. All this after finding access to an actual computer! Is it any wonder that many people were simply too exhausted, in the end, to publish anything to their sites? They simply typed “bla bla bla” over and over, never to return to their pages.

Bla-Bla Sites intuitively registered the inherent cultural and political potential that “links pages” held in the mid-’90s—when nearly every personal page on the Internet contained a page of links. As pioneer Olia Lialina writes, “The vernacular web was fascinated by the power of links and often ran to extremes. Sites composed of lists of links, long pages of unclassified and annotated links, webrings or published bookmarks.html files from the Netscape browser.” Their presence was not just a matter of personal branding or information. These link collections were meant to function as a kind of search engine: To find information, one hopped from links page to links page, user to user—an inconvenient and inefficient process at best.

Many elements of the early Web—“under construction” signs, “e-mail me” GIFS—have faded into folk status. Links pages, on the other hand, were the foundation of the entire Web 2.0 explosion. The individual pages may have seemed quaint. But multiplied by the hundreds of millions, they contained a formidable power. This power was, of course, eventually vacuumed up by Google. The company’s efficient search algorithm (which ranks a page partly based on how many links point to it) rendered the difficult process of surfing from links page to links page obsolete once and for all.

Each subsequent Web 2.0 breakthrough has lowered the bar for publishing and sharing information. Hypertext Markup Language is not needed to tweet. And why search for anything when your Facebook friends are constantly pushing music, videos, fashions, and thoughts on you? This scenario reminds me of the experience of a friend of mine, Joshua Schachter, in the early millennium. Josh had a personal links page that he had coded in order to allow the links to be organized by description and tagged into categories, so one could cross-reference the data in nonhierarchical directions. He needed such a custom system to keep track of the staggering amount of links he had accumulated: “I had twenty thousand links in a file . . . and I couldn’t find anything anymore.” This was like nothing I had seen on the Internet before.

In 2005, Josh sold, a social network bookmarking tool he had created—similar to the one described above—to Yahoo. In 2008, the site reported 5.3 million users. That’s 5.3 million links pages! Like Google, this type of cache comes with immense responsibility and the specter of censorship (should all links be available to all people all the time, or some of the people some of the time?). Meanwhile, on another server on the opposite side of the power spectrum, Bla-Bla Sites slowly disintegrated. In a field that went from “Welcome to My Page of Wrestling Links” to big business and rattling nation-states, Shulgin’s Bla-Bla Sites tellingly went from linking to nonsense, to almost nothing at all.

Cory Arcangel is a New York–based artist.