Internet self-expression: then and now

// this whole article will probably be re-written soon. it needs a better narrative.
When we show up on the internet, we have some level of expectation that we’re going to be able to represent ourselves the way we want. I can usually choose my name, a profile picture, and can self-express however I want.

But like… have y’all noticed that self-expression isn’t what it used to be? If we look at the peak self-expression platforms of the mid 2000’s compared to now, here’s what we see:I didn't put any effort into finding these examples. I might come back later and try to be more thoughtful about it.

The real estate that’s devoted to self-expression has shrunk considerably. We used to be out there with backgrounds, fonts, and colors, but profiles have somehow homogenized to the point where the aesthetic of the grid is as about as expressive as you can be.

This essay dives into why this shift occured, covering the history of self-expression on the internet and where we might go next.

Self-expression on the internet is not new. From AIM away messages to blogs, we’ve personalized our presences as long as we’ve been on the internet. Early social media sites like MySpace, Xanga, and Neopets, required you to use HTML and CSS if you wanted to edit the look of it. You were given a page that was a completely blank canvas, and with the freedom of HTML, you could fill it with any piece of media you wanted.

This freedom of customization gave way to incredible genres of self-expression, like adoptables, blingee-style sparkling graphics, and word art. It gave the user true control over their corner of the site – they weren’t just editing one piece of content on the page, they were editing the page itself.

// need more research on this section
This came with risk though. Giving users the ability to put their own code in opened up all kinds of vulnerabilities, like malicious code slipping through. When Facebook came around, they had done away with coded customization, giving users the option to upload a profile and cover photo instead.

It also resulted in horribly inaccessible and unreadable content. Turns out the average person prefers to go for cool-looking over accessible. As web accessibility standards started developing in 2008, the general internet started moving towards more standardization of UI and interactions. It makes sense that larger sites started looking to standardize their own sites.

Aside from removing customizations, Facebook also introduced a new model where social media became more about ongoing activity. Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat appeared shortly after, each with a similar model where the expression on your profile comes from the collection of content you post over time, rather than the profile itself.

There’s also the idea of the blog breaking the web, and how the change towards organizing content by chronology impacted expression for the web too. Need to explore this further.

// the rest of this essay is still being worked on. check back later.


  • Self-expression online
    • Emoji
    • Avatars, pfps
    • The way u speak
  • GenZ and need for self-expression
  • History of self-expression
    • Dolls, Early avatars (MSN Messenger, AIM), Email signatures
    • Some have gone the way of the dodo
      • MySpace, other hyper-customizable
      • Text decorations
      • Stickers (under construction, etc.)
    • At some point, self-expression has homogenized under corporate tech hegemony
      • Choosing posts on Instagram is about as “creative” as u can get
      • You get to pick and choose self-expression but only within a very narrow pre-defined set of agreements
  • Looking forward
    • Rise of Cozy Web?
    • Rise of digital gardens?