There’s a word for what you’re feeling. It’s anemoia. And it’s completely made up.
In 2009, writer John Koenig created a Tumblr blog called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. In weekly posts that would eventually become a book, Koenig created brand new words for emotions, feelings, and situations that were common, but without a single word that perfectly represented the idea. Instead, he made up new words.
Koenig first came up with the idea while studying poetry in college, while struggling to define complex emotions and feelings. “Once I gave a name to it, it felt somehow OK,” he would later recall. For each entry in his alternative dictionary, Koenig attached words to a deliberated and precise etymology, deriving words from familiar colloquialisms and lexicons. It was a strange and unique project, one that was essentially born for the web.
In 2012, Koenig created the word anemoia to describe nostalgia for a time you’ve never known. When I first came upon that word, I felt like it was finally able to describe what I believe is a collective feeling by lovers of web history, myself firmly included in that. I believe many of us are feeling a pang of anemoia that we can’t quite trace correctly. And if we are able to give a name and a definition to it, maybe we can feel somehow ok. I’m going to aim to do that.
But first, a bit of personal history.
In 2004, my high school instituted a school-wide rule. No hoodies allowed. No sweatshirts with hoods can be worn in the hallways or classrooms. No covering your faces with a hoodie. It was a rule, I’ve now found out, that was popular in a lot of high schools at the time. The practical reason was that hoodies made it impossible to identify who the wearer was, posing all sorts of security risks. But this was the era of the hoodie. Some members of the student body went into near revolt.
In my own act of minuscule disobedience, I opened up some software I was just beginning to learn—Adobe Flash—and created a 30 second video lampooning (I thought quite brilliantly) our principal and the new rule he had created. In order to show it to everyone around school, I experimented with another bit of software, the Notepad app, to patch together a bit of HTML to embed the Flash file and clumsily FTP’ed it into some server space I had managed to find.
It was the first website I ever built.
From there, I was called upon to create a website for a band I was in. Then a local nonprofit. Then my college’s digital media lab. And on and on it went until it became my profession, and my passion. A common story. In talking to people that are integral to the history of the web, it’s a story I’ve heard on many occasions.
And now, almost 20 years later, it is hard to recapture that feeling again. That feeling of the first website. And whenever I try to satiate that feeling I end up not reaching back for the web of 2004, but five, ten, fifteen years before that. I yearn to join a web that I had never known. A web that most people had never known. But in our crowded, privacy-invading, closed modern web, it’s a feeling shared by a lot of people.
I know I’m not alone because every few months somebody comes up with a new project that attempts to replicate some site or platform or service of an earlier web. A Geocities copy here, or a Myspace replica there. A new garish or ornate aesthetic or a service that simplifies the languages of the web. And the people that sign up to join these new projects aren’t just those that were around when it was first created. They’re all kinds of people. They’re experiencing anemoia, and trying to chase it with technology that harkens back to a time when the web felt more experimental and fun. We are, after all, technologists, and our minds reach for technological solutions that try to replicate the experience of building on the early web.
But I would argue that it isn’t technology that is at the root of our anemoia. I believe we aren’t nostalgic for the technology, or the aesthetic, or even the open web ethos. What we’re nostalgic for is a time when outsiders were given a chance to do something fun, off to the side and left alone, because mainstream culture had no idea what the hell to do with this thing that was right in front of it.
I’ve been researching the web for the better half of a decade, and its most exciting stories aren’t when some new technology or technique or programming language was released. The web, before it was the web, was hidden right there in plain sight. Anyone could reach out and do something with it, and go instantly global. So you had people who were chewed up and spit out by mainstream expectations that found refuge on the web. And what they built was something reckless and edgy and interesting.
When Justin Hall started posting to the web, he didn’t know what a blog was. The word didn’t exist yet. All Hall knew was that he was a chronic over-sharer, and the web was an excellent place to overshare. On his personal site, Links from the Underground, Hall spewed intimate details from every aspect of his life—his passions, his trauma, and his sex life—and beamed it all over the world.
When Jamie Levy and Marrisa Bowe set out to create a web magazine, their only rule was that it couldn’t look like print. That wouldn’t work for the web crowd. Besides, it was boring. They created Word magazine which blended a bombastic punk rock aesthetic with offbeat editorial that defined the look and tone of web content going forward.
Jerry Yang and David Filo were doing little more than procrastinating when they started categorizing their favorite websites into distinct categories. They didn’t think to call it something catchy and fun, so they called it Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web, years before it would become Yahoo!.
Adam Curry didn’t have permission from MTV to create their website, but he did it anyway and hoped no one would notice. Jeffrey Zeldman and Alec Pollak got the Batman Forever website assignment at their ad agency precisely because they were young and new, and had the time to lock themselves in a room and experiment. Even Tim Berners-Lee was working well outside of the primary work of his employer CERN, the particle physics lab where he cooked up the idea for internet-linked hypertext.
I could go on and on.
Now here’s the thing I didn’t tell you about those hoodies at my high school. Not everybody wore them. Most people didn’t care about the rule. But I was part of a group of kids that coveted our hoodies. At the time, we were called emo kids, or scene kids (it was a disparaging label, but we adopted it nonetheless). And on the weekends we’d go to cheap shows at local venues where very band worth their salt would have merch tables filled to the brim with hoodies.
And for my small group of relative outsiders, the web fit right in with what all of the other stuff we were doing. So when I experience wistful anemoia thinking about the earliest years of the web, I’m reconnecting with the part of myself that built a silly little website for a handful of scene kids I hung out with that might think it was cool. I think it’s that same feeling that grips others as well.
I’m not sure we’ll be able to shake off this anemoia. We yearn to be outsiders again. And we won’t. And that’s ok. But, we might be able to direct this feeling to something worthwhile now that it has a name.