I’m quite interested in concepts of the “Small Web” and adjacent topics, but it is definitely true that “small web” itself is a vague term that different people use to talk about different kinds of projects. What unites all these different concepts is the kind of web they define themselves against; that kind of bloated, corporate, algorithm-ruled and ad-ridden mess that constitutes the majority of highly-trafficked websites these days. Nonetheless, I’m aware of about three different visions for the web that the term “Small Web” can refer to.
A late 90s-style, hand-crafted web
For the well-known essay Rediscovering the Small Web, the “Small Web” refers to recapturing the magic of the late 1990s/early 2000s web, full of small-scale personal homepages and hobby sites, hand-crafted and manually coded by individuals. (Neopets, a website that was more my speed at the time, actually let users create one page like this for each of their pets, incentivising a whole generation of young people (mostly girls) to learn HTML to do so.) Often they’d be full of pixel art, flashing GIFs, occasionally garish colour schemes, and cover a whole range of topics down to the most obscure and eccentric. What united them is that the most fondly-remembered, at least, were real passion projects, labours of love.
At the time, people didn’t use CMSes like Wordpress to automate any part of managing their content, so content tended to be less strictly chronological and more likely to be organised by topic, the esteem the website creator held it in, etc. (There is another good essay, How Blogs Broke the Web, talking about the radical change that chronological organisation made to the structure of many websites.) A more “modern” spin on the non-chronological personal site might be the digital garden.
People were also more likely then to find new sites by following links on sites they already visited, or at least through a curated directory of sites, than by looking a term up in a search engine. There were also “webrings”, the idea of which being that you could hop from site to site all about a given topic or theme that the webring was organised around. Even once blogs existed, there were blogrolls to assist with the discovery of new blogs to read – still a human-scale web, I would say, not yet aggregated or algorithmed all to hell.
Finding these kinds of sites can be tough, especially if you’re looking for authentic 1990s sites and not retro callbacks, since Google seems to refuse to show you pages from over 10 years ago. However, there are definitely some people still making and managing sites like this to this day. Neocities provides free hosting for a lot of them, and also has a website gallery to make it easier to explore its collection of retro-style websites. There is also Wiby, a search engine for HTML-only (not even much CSS) webpages. And if you just want to relive old memories and browse old sprites, buttons, “dolls”, “adoptables”, etc. then you can check out Nostalgia for the 2000s, which has collected a whole lot of them.
Alternative protocols, like Gemini
Another interpretation of the “Small Web” concept is that it refers to the use of alternative protocols to the dominant HTTP(S), lightweight ones like the older Gopher and newer Gemini. For example, the blog post Introduction to Gemini describes these collectively as “the Small Internet”.
I have no real experience with Gopher, but I do have some with Gemini. I’ve written my own blog post, Experimenting with Gemini, that talks about a lot of the different features that make Gemini attractive to its enthusiasts. Gemini pages are fast to load, because they cannot include scripts, stylesheets or even images (just links to images, although some clients have options to load these in-line if you want). Because of the lack of scripting, your browsing across Gemini capsules can’t be tracked for purposes like targeted advertising. The protocol itself is much simpler than HTTP(S), to the point that it’s possible for programmers to “just slap together” a Gemini browser or server if they feel like it. It’s a protocol that is proudly for hobbyists and tinkerers, and pretty much useless if not actively hostile to major tech corporations.
There is some criticism of Gemini (for example, this Hacker News thread is very divided on it). The main criticism just seems to be, “What’s the point? If you really want lightweight sites with zero styling, you can make those in HTML already.” I guess the thing about that is that hobbyist sites and projects don’t have to have a point; you’re not trying to turn a profit with them or anything, you’re just making them and working on them because it satisfies you. And then there are people who do see a point, anyway; for example, people appreciate knowing that they can click links to totally unknown Gemini capsules and rest assured that they won’t be full of ads, autoplaying videos, malicious scripting or even large-filesize images that are about to load on them regardless of whether they have a slow connection or restrictive data cap. The protocol itself doesn’t allow any of that. For text-oriented browsing Gemini is a really nice experience.
Another criticism of Gemini is that it’s still largely geared around technical people. Setting up your own Gemini capsule, to post your own content, for example, is definitely a lot more involved than signing up for a Neocities account. Either you have a spare computer on hand or spin up a VPS and have the technical nous to run a Gemini server on it, or you find somebody running a site like Flounder, or a tilde, and ask them very nicely if they’ll give you some space to upload to. For some people I think the more technical and DIY nature of Gemini is part of the fun, but for others it’ll be a turn-off. At any rate, if I were asked what I think the term “Small Web” should refer to, I would say it does describe some parts of the HTTP(S)-based web and not just these lighter-weight alternative protocols.
An independent web
Finally, there is a vision of the Small Web that’s less restrictive than either of the previous two options, and refers more to a web made up of personal homepages, hobby sites, and small community sites, independent of the reach of the major tech giants. The IndieWeb is one formulation of this idea, although not the only one. (They also don’t identify with the “small web” term particularly, correctly identifying that it is very vague.)
I guess where the Neocities crowd are looking back nostalgically at the late 90s/early 00s web, this group are looking back more fondly at the mid- to late-2000s, blog-dominated web (before people started ditching their personal blogs in favour of Twitter accounts and Tumblrs). Like the other camps, they (or we, because I’d include myself in this group) don’t want to see a web dominated by a small number of tech giants, and see the value in individuals (and clubs, organisations, etc.) maintaining their own web presences, where they can’t get screwed by algorithms, falsely-issued DMCA take-downs and Community Guidelines that seem to get applied unfairly and without oversight.
Aral Balkan has a good blog post, What is the Small Web?, where he describes this conception of the Small Web. For him it is a clearly anti-capitalist concept, about getting away from surveillance capitalism and maintaining control over your own server, where tech giants like Facebook can’t just take down your website if they don’t like what you’re saying, or if they decide hosting your content is no longer part of their stategic outlook.
A related thing would be the Fediverse (Fediverse Party has a brief explainer on that), which is not so much about “controlling your own server” (although it can be, if you choose to run your own) but is about decentralising social media. Imagine if instead of, say, Twitter and their shoddy abuse team being in charge of all Twitter users and every tweet ever posted, those users were distributed over loads of different nodes, each moderated by their own teams, with the power to defederate from other nodes whose principles that are incompatible with their own. Well, that describes Fediverse projects like Mastodon and Pleroma. The IndieWeb takes another approach to this kind of idea, where you can use microformats2 HTML classes to mark up your posts in a standardised way that mf2-aware clients can interpret as social media posts. And in fact, if you look up a Mastodon profile, you’ll find those posts are also marked up with the relevant HTML classes (except images for some reason), and a fair bit of IndieWeb blogging software also implements ActivityPub for Mastodon compatibility, so these two approaches are somewhat compatible between themselves.
So I guess for me, the term “Small Web” refers to a couple of main things: independence from tech giants, and websites that are lightweight and high-performance. There are lots of different ideas and projects aimed at building that kind of web, and I think all of them have valuable things to contribute to the discussion.