When I was in high school I was in a band with a scene queen. She had feathered hair and a bedroom full of Hello Kitty merchandise. She would listen to Mindless Self Indulgence in the car. Every week when I would show up to practice, her earlobes would be stretched yet larger. I was not cool enough to be active on MySpace, but I had no doubt that she was hugely popular there. Our guitarist was in love with her, and I was in love with him. I wanted to be her more than I wanted to be myself. I braided a blue extension into my hair and amassed a collection of Day-Glo American Apparel t-shirts in the hopes that maybe some of her magic would transfer to me if I classed myself as part of the same cargo cult.
This year, when I discovered what egirls are, I felt the exact same feeling I had about the drummer. An incandescent envy that other people were allowed to make a career out of being decorative and childlike, while I was clearly cut from a different material that had to grow up quickly and excel in school and work. But what concern does a twenty[REDACTED] year-old have with the teenagers who populate TikTok? Only that those teenagers look exactly like the teenagers I was jealous of when I was a teenager myself.
Everything old is seemingly new again. It only took ten years for the exact visual lexicon of MySpace-era decora-punk to come back into fashion. The sideswept bangs and Sharpie eyeliner are very much still in effect, as are the low-res selfies cluttered with glittering gifs. The difference is that this time, they’re entirely divorced from the images we painstakingly crafted on our parents’ Gateway desktops. Instagram lets you imitate the exact aesthetic of 2006 in an easy menu format, complete with glitchy, artifacted gifs to select from. Similarly, the glossy, futuristic aesthetics of the Y2K era have resurfaced and peaked a mere decade and a half after their genesis. Pop stars dress like shiny aliens again. We’re even getting an utterly improbable Matrix sequel (good luck with the whole redpill thing these days).
The thing about aesthetics that originated online is that it feels like they never truly die. They are omnipresences to us. If everything functions as it should, the internet acts as a cultural archive where nothing is forgotten as long as the servers stay running (of course, we know what happens when they don’t – and even then, the news cycle is so quick and enough of the archive is squirreled away in other corners of the internet that it doesn’t register as much of a loss). In this space, the artistic and cultural movements that found homes online endlessly sample each other in referential feedback loops, creating shorter and shorter recursive cycles of trends that capitalize on the nostalgias of recent history. Unless there is such a time where we enter a “great ravine” (à la Liu Cixin) that forces us to reckon with a loss of digital media altogether, I would posit that internet-based design movements will become so recycled and self-referential that we may well hit a wall, or an “end of historicity” – an eternal present of quasi-ironic self-sampling in which the broad descriptor of ‘internet culture’ is the whole of the culture itself, and the same nostalgia can pine for both 30 years ago and one week ago.
To see how we got here, it may be helpful to look at vaporwave, which functions both a musical genre and an aesthetic sensibility. The origins of vaporwave are arguably cemented in the mall culture of the early 1990s, particularly the blandly soothing consumerism of piped-in smooth jazz and frozen yogurt shops. However, new generations of vaporwave composers, often in their teens, have very few malls of this style left to reference, as most have been buried under a few layers of remodels or have closed down altogether. These new composers have constructed a nostalgia removed from any physical basis, one which is only rooted in online archives and has taken on a cyberpunk-lite flavor in relation to its current surroundings. At this point in time, the music and graphics being produced by this subculture have very little to do with the actual sights and sounds of the era it purports to reference (note the anachronistic Greco-Roman busts and Arizona Iced Tea cans that dominate the imagery nowadays) and more to do with a nostalgia for only aesthetic precursors within the genre.
The thing about nostalgia for dead places is that it has to segue into a nostalgia for dead internet ecosystems, being that public spaces are increasingly just transitions between instances of being online. The aforementioned egirl is a mishmash of early Tumblr and MySpace tropes. Vaporwave aesthetics are closer kin to Geocities than they are to the actual, physical consumer spaces of the 1990s. However, our app ecosystem is much more stable than the ones that spawned these aesthetic subgroups. Interfaces are flat, minimal and uncustomizable, or users simply don’t see a need to customize them even if the option is available (I recently made a Tumblr post about how the website’s HTML themes have been largely forgotten by its users, and it racked up a solid 60,000 notes in agreement – on a similar note, when was the last time you saw one of your friends update their Facebook cover image?). As a whole, our current ecosystem is a series of clean, white spaces where content lives, but the space itself does not serve as content. To denote coolness or knowingness, users reference the aesthetics of past networks, as if to say “I was there.” In ten years, I imagine it will be difficult to find someone nostalgic for the aesthetics of 20-aughts Twitter or Facebook, because notably there aren’t any. The nostalgia will be for earlier design tropes, recycled in meme form to become present ones.
It is worth noting that I don’t see this culture-blending as a bad thing, but I do see it as the future of design. In my imagining, the only thing that could pull the plug on these recursions is a force strong enough to yank large swaths of humanity offline altogether. It could be electrical grids collapsing due to solar storms, pervasive wildfires, a failure of undersea fiber optics, or a worldwide shutdown due to political unrest or nuclear devastation. It could even be backlash against Singularity accelerationists should they somehow gain control of the zeitgeist. Whatever the case may be, in the 21st century, I don’t think that offline gets to be cool again. I think for it to be relevant, it has to be inevitable. In the end, I keep coming back to just two options for the aesthetics of the future: utopia, everything existing all at once, in perpetuity – or dystopia, mass deletion, a forced shutdown.