Recapturing early internet whimsy with HTML

The HTML Energy community advocates understanding HTML for what it quite literally is: a language. And it celebrates the way the rudimentary character of that language demands intention from the user. As an amalgamation of minuscule and intricate creative decisions, a site constructed using only HTML is a form of self-­expression. Viewing a site’s source code is as important as navigating its interface. There are often Easter eggs hidden in that code, such as cheeky messages or citations taken from other HTML sites. In many ways, an HTML site captures something of the creator’s identity: what did that individual choose to build, and how?

This fascination with different applications of HTML is also seen in physical community gatherings sometimes called “freewrites,” where members of the movement get together to write code. Sunday Sites and Fruitful School are among the websites that organize these gatherings, often integrating educational elements into their sessions to empower more people to join the movement. Meanwhile, sites like HTML Review showcase some of its products in the format of a literary magazine. 


Terrarium of Many Sceneries

Ji Kim’s Terrarium of Many Sceneries collages snippets of footage from an old iPhone. As visitors scroll through the site, images overlap and embedded audio clips play. When users click any image, a small description of when and where it was taken appears, alongside more accompanying media. 
Kim’s site is designed to mimic the sporadic, layered nature of memory. It is a digital experience that is intentionally fragmented and overwhelming—like trying to remember a family trip taken years ago. 


A Room with a Window

Shelby Wilson’s A Room with a Window is a site that allows for only one interaction: opening and closing a set of window shades. The site intentionally conflates physical and digital spaces: Wilson plays with the idea of a browser as a portal to a place with physical boundaries and edges, but also maintains surrealist components (the room doesn’t get darker when the blinds close) and randomized elements (the color of the room changes on each visit) to highlight the digital form.


HTML Garden

Spencer Chang’s site imagines what a garden might look like on the internet. Several “plants” made of native HTML elements grow, and the passage of time is acknowledged and noticeable upon each visit—seasons change, plants sprout and bloom. There’s no explicit action called for—just observation.


Prose Play

Katherine Yang’s Prose Play is an interactive poem that encourages users to input different words into a pre-set sentence structure. Framing words as variables, the site explores the interactivity of the internet. It puts the literary theory of the “Death of the Author”—the idea that the meaning of a text is not determined by the author’s intention but by the reader’s interpretation—in the context of code. 


Erich Friedman

Erich Friedman’s site is a personal encyclopedia of his life, with archives of everything from movie ratings to reviews of mini-golf courses across central Florida. Organized into the categories of Math Stuff, Puzzle Stuff, Personal Stuff, and Professional Stuff, the site is simple in structure. It uses basic HTML to showcase Friedman’s eclectic interests over the past decade, including a list of fun facts for every number from 0 to 9,999 and collections of math and trivia problems. The site does not drive any specific action. It merely stands as an exhaustive, candid portrait of Erich Friedman, occupying a small piece of the web. 


Museum of Screens

Toulou TouMou’s Museum of Screens is a site that houses browser games created by game enthusiasts. In order to interact with the games on display, users have to navigate the digital space like a physical museum visualized in ASCII graphics. There are actual visiting hours, with a “rest day” chosen at random. 
Created to give due credit to amateur developers during the era of Flash games, TouMou’s museum aims to highlight the importance of acknowledging authorship and the rich history of independent games. 

There is no centralized source for HTML Energy sites: serendipity makes them finding them feel special, like happening upon a piece of street art behind a parking lot. They’re not designed for discovery, nor are they optimized for any particular action. They simply engage with a visitor on the visitor’s terms, offering a portrait of their creator. If sites like Google or Facebook are the supermarkets and shopping malls where you buy your necessities, HTML Energy sites are like the hidden gardens you happen upon, unmarked on any map. 

Tiffany Ng is a freelance writer exploring the relationship between art, tech, and culture.

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