MySpace, StumbleUpon, GeoCities, LiveJournal, Tumblr — the early internet thrived on user-driven, customizable experiences that, while rudimentary in design, clunky in function, and altogether useless for major brands (i.e., not monetizable or targettable), offered humans some of the earliest opportunities for representing themselves online.
Two decades later, across multiple transformational eras of the internet (more on this below), what can we learn from these now archaic — and predominantly extinct — platforms? To start, let's set the stage of the golden age of the web and the subsequent erosion of online customization that followed.
These early platforms referenced above were among the first to offer users a customizable digital sandbox that lacked the restrictions — and intrusive, expensive, increasingly ineffective advertising practices — that is now commonplace across tech. These were platforms on which people created, not platforms on which products were sold.
FAANG companies undoubtedly standardized the internet user experience. These companies built easier ways for people to create and disseminate information while creating the ability for the world's biggest brands to reach these new, content-craving audiences through new experiences and digitally-native business models. However, FAANG-style companies have also contributed to the flattening of the once-loved, now-nostalgic digital aesthetic, eliminating (or narrowing) users' ability to find customization online.
Example: go to StumbleUpon right now, and you'll just get dragged between identical Pinterest boards.
Today's platform-to-user-to-brand relationship is a bit of a stalemate (a "Faustian Bargain," if you will). Internet users get information, easy experiences, immediate access, and global commerce, but at the cost of losing the magic of customization, ultimately suffering under the weight of flattened, recycled aesthetics. Brands receive customer data and broad global distribution for their goods. They, too, are constrained by aesthetic limitations online, and they're forced to ship just what's good for "most" rather than what's good for "each".
Looking back, while the freeform, low-res, experimental nature of early web platforms ultimately failed to support their sustainable bottom line, they thrived in their genuine, expressive capacity to empower users to feel unabashedly like themselves, whether that was through the ability to spin up free websites (GeoCities) or attach a song and glittery background to their profile (MySpace).
Ultimately, given the resources at their disposal, these pioneering platforms made good use of the digital surface area available to them at the time, enabling some of the first customizable consumer touchpoints long before this was a must-have page in the consumer brand playbook. Where they failed, however, was a clear monetization model that could support both users and brands while maintaining a customizable, exciting aesthetic.
To understand this further, let's analyze the three eras of the World Wide Web and what they’ve meant for ownership, customization, data, and user experiences.
Web1 to Web3 is a Journey of (and Return to) Data Ownership & Customization
The Golden Age of Customization | Web1 (1980s-early 2000s): Referred to as the Static Web, this era consisted of static, read-only websites with limited interactivity and an absence of metadata, which provided a one-size-fits-all experience for users. Users were primarily consumers (vs. creators) of content, which was entirely centralized and controlled by website owners and administrators. Personalization was minimal as content was predominantly static and pre-programmed.
The Evolution of Data and User Experience | Web2 (Early 2000s-mid-2010s/present): Referred to as the Social Web, this brought about a shift towards dynamic online experiences and the transition from read-only to read-write via platforms like Meta, X, and LinkedIn. Users could now create and share content, though it was still platform-owned. Personalization grew exponentially and became more immersive and interactive, with platforms leveraging algorithms to tailor content and ads based on user behavior (i.e., “the feed”).
A Return to Data Ownership and Customization | Web3 (Mid-2010s-present): Referred to as the Semantic Web, web3 enhances the internet’s existing content with metadata that enables machines to understand its context. This includes next-generation technologies like blockchain and decentralized protocols, which increase the potential of online interaction and applications. Web3 enables users to own their data, digital assets, and identities, empowering them to have more control and customization over their online experience.
Blockchain Enables (and Protects) Self-Owned Cultural Artifacts
Case in point for any millennials reading this: good luck trying to dig up your old MySpace profile.
Whether looking at the early internet or the current social media-driven landscape, traditional digital media is extremely impermanent — especially when you don’t own your data and have little visibility into the inner workings of platforms. Users can be censored and once game-changing platforms can abruptly fold, taking with them your content, data, and hard-earned social capital.
The opposite is true in web3 where onchain activity is permanent, transparent, and tamperproof.
This offers users and brands who leverage tokenized experiences confidence in the future ownership and lifecycle of their content, but it also enables people to create, enjoy, explore, and own customizable assets that exist in transparent, dynamic environments.
Brands Who Create Customizable Consumer Experiences Will Have a Bigger (and Better) Sandbox to Play in
Two decades after the freeform, customizable aesthetic of the early web, immersive virtual environments are being championed by brands like Prada, Vogue, Adidas, Gucci, Balenciaga, and even Netflix, who are exploring new ways to empower consumers to personalize their online experience. This direction is warranted for brands interested in targeting young, engaged consumers — and the numbers don’t lie.
Roblox’s 2023 Digital Expression, Fashion & Beauty Trends Report shared a fascinating insight into just how important digital self-expression is to Gen Z. According to the report, over half (56%) of Gen Z users now prioritize styling their avatar over their physical appearance, and 84% of Gen Z users consider digital fashion to be at least “somewhat important,” with 85% believing its importance has grown over the past year.
These consumer desires align with Roblox sales and industry trends: users updated their avatars a total of 165 billion times in the first 3 quarters of the year (up 38% YoY), and the purchase of nearly 1.6 billion digital fashion items and accessories marked a 15% YoY increase (Vogue). The report also found that 43% of Gen Z users want to see more items that can be worn in the physical and digital worlds (digital-physical twins), and 30% of people favor recognizable brand imagery in virtual spaces.
In a web3-enabled future, brands have even more room to leverage onchain technology to develop digital assets and immersive environments that are customizable, authentic, privacy-focused, transparent, and created for different segments based on their needs, wants, and opportunities.
In these expansive virtual sandboxes, brands can become more tactile and authentic with the digital surface area between themselves and their consumers. Brands can do this while not being forced into the limited (and expensive) targeting, retention, engagement, and data acquisition models of the major tech platforms and the level of intrusive user control they require.
The internet has changed drastically from the days of web1 and will continue to change as we navigate the future of web3 and what it means for brands and consumers. As brand leaders focused on creating more efficient, engaging, and authentic experiences for the next generation of users, learning from the past when deciding how to build for the future is a powerful and necessary approach — and one filled with value.
If you need a helping hand in building customizable consumer experiences using the strongest tools available, contact Mojito to discuss your project requirements and get a demo.