Social network co-hosting lets users turn posts into games

It’s a generally accepted fact that if you build something on the internet, people will find ways to creatively destroy it. That’s exactly what happened with cohost, a new social media platform that allows posting using CSS.Digging into the #interactables tag on cohost reveals a ton of clickable, CSS-enabled experiments that go far beyond GIFs – there’s one WarioWare Cup-grabbing games, interactive Habbo tributes, magnetic fridge poems, this is definitely a banana gear machine, and even a “playable” Game Boy Color (which at one point was used for “GIF-playing” Pokémon” events). Yes, there are doom.

The co-host team embraced the madness. This was the beginning of an avalanche of creativity that simply couldn’t happen on other social media sites — a phenomenon that the co-host community later dubbed “CSS crime.”

While the major social media giants insist on uniform and standardized posts, cohost throws all this corporate mediocrity out the window. My first exposure to this nascent platform was like stumbled upon a bygone era of computing – an era in which websites unbridled reflections of personal expression and delightfully weird, often awkward vibes. Most importantly, cohost has nurtured a thriving demo scene filled with artists, designers, creative coders, and ambitious grunge posters ready to push the limits of computer art.

At first glance, cohost is a simple blog site. Posts (coposts or tongue-in-cheek “chhosts”) have no character limit and can optionally make multiple pages for different themes or projects. You can create a collaborative co-owned page that multiple people can use, such as for crowdfunding or podcasting. It’s like meeting the awkward offspring of Tumblr, Twitter, and Reddit. From a sensory design standpoint, the site’s plum and off-white accents and quasi-vintage logo evoke a sense of familiarity and nostalgia (with drop-down menus!) reminiscent of vintage restaurant cutlery and Hugh Hefner robes Personal Memories – A perfectly unbalanced palette that creates a strangely intimate mood. Clearly this is not a regular “modern” platform. It’s not an ecosystem or product.Co-hosting is a Web page.

Cohost is a humble company co-founded by Colin Bayer and Jae Kaplan, both of whom have professional backgrounds in software engineering and tech startups. “Sometime in 2019, I was complaining online about how Patreon escaped a highway robbery and how I wished I had the money to build a nonprofit competitor because the economy looked like a slam dunk,” recalls Bayer Dow. He and Kaplan eventually quit their jobs and pitched a friend at Bayer who provided a generous loan for their idea. Thus, cohost was born.

When cohost first rolled out to a group of trusted friends in February 2022, publishing with CSS was largely considered an exploit, and the team didn’t really address the issue. Full-blown CSS crime didn’t catch on until June when cohosts started early sign-ups. “[Users] Very quickly it started to test the limits of what we were allowed to work in post-composers,” said designer Aidan Grealish, who joined Bayer and Kaplan in 2020 and created the site’s mascot eggbug. “I think one of the earliest experiments was The eggbug playground, which is kind of interactive — I mean all the love in the world, it’s a real compliment — could probably be done on the first day of a web design class,” she said.

Despite lessons learned from past incarnations of personal web aesthetics, the co-hosting team is wary of stepping into familiar territory. For one, the site doesn’t use algorithms or promote “trends,” the team has pledged to never run ads or sell data, and is adamantly against cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Bayer and Kaplan were also quick to buck the trend of remembering web 1.0—the rose-colored age of GeoCities, IRC, and DIY web hosting—as an idealized playground without problems.

“In retrospect, Web 1.0 already had a romantic image, but I was too poor at the time to surf the Internet at home or pay for hosting, so my experience was very miserable,” Bayer said in describing how many free hosting services were available in the ’90s. Restricted. For example, his web hosting provider at the time didn’t allow users to write HTML for free and had limited stock layouts and editors. Better service is not feasible for users with limited internet access or who can’t afford to pay for extra features. “None of these make the popular web 1.0 imagery false; it’s clear that aesthetics are extremely Sick,” he said. “But a lot of people associate the dynamism of the early web with some fragmented, anti-capitalist zeitgeist, which I think is very incorrect; the digital divide is just as bad or worse, that era. Surviving startups are basically at the heart of capital at this point. “

Bayer goes on to point out that those survivors include Amazon and Google, both scrappy start-ups in the ’90s that have since grown into privatized forms of global infrastructure with plenty of problems. Google’s informal motto used to be “don’t be evil,” and “google” has become a common verb for the search engine of the same name. Amazon, a central part of global online retail and cloud computing, faces serious labor law violations (including failure to accommodate pregnant and disabled workers, leading to miscarriages) despite efforts to restore its image. The ’90s was a dizzyingly optimistic time for tech—a Panglo-esque ideal still fueled by those who helped define that era. For all its quirks, flaws, and memorable flaws, Web 1.0 was also the beginning of the corporatization of our internet today.

For Kaplan, the most interesting part of Web 1.0 is the level of control and creativity that old services offered users, things we no longer have on Facebook or Twitter today. Our modern understanding of social media can be said to begin with GeoCities, which offers a free “home” and concepts of “residence” and identity. It ushered in a renaissance of design chaos, as people learned to quickly and easily combine GIFs, embedded audio files, tables, and frames. No two GeoCities pages look alike, and it’s intoxicating to explore these incredibly unique pages. “We’re in an age where everyone’s profile looks exactly the same on major sites, and the limited control that users originally had to have has been taken away,” Kaplan said. “It felt less like ‘this is my page on Twitter’ and more like ‘this is part of Twitter, you can only see my posts.'”

Ironically, what drives the cohost demo scene is constraint and control – a defining part of demo scene art is being as creative as possible within the fixed technical constraints and hardware at hand. Blackle Mori, one of the site’s prolific CSS criminals (who uses it/its pronouns), explains how it allows users to “grow” visual elements by interacting with elaborate mechanics with the “resize” CSS property. Mori says its approach is basically “an attack on hackers” to get around cohost’s HTML limitations and inability to use JavaScript, the programming language used to make interactive web pages. (Some of the more elaborate technical points Mori authored are discussed in this Hacker News forum thread.)

For Mori, playing around with cohost means using a lot of HTML and CSS knowledge accumulated over the years. “What’s unique about Web technology is its complexity, and that’s precisely because it’s been around for so long,” Mori said. “Developers and designers come and go, each adding their own ideas to what makes up the Web. in a huge stack of abstractions. And because the network has to fail backwards compatibility, all these ideas are here to stay forever.”

What doesn’t always exist is internet art tied to a particular platform. (Rest in peace, Vine.) Cohosting is still a work in progress, but the team is mindful of “what ifs”: i.e., what happens to interacting objects if cohosting eventually fails to resolve? “It’s not strictly a dossier, but our goal is to never destroy a post,” Kaplan said. “When we make changes to how we render or the set of rules a post can use, we have systems in place to ensure that posts published prior to the change remain rendered as usual.” Grealish is interested in CSS crime as a site-specific art form to deal with, it does not always survive environmental changes in the physical world. “The site-specific digital artwork, a work that talks to its own existence, and the tools that make it possible, really excites me personally, and I hope co-hosting can be a space where this kind of intentionality can be encouraged ,”she says.

Currently, the team is focused on making sure cohost stays up and running, and is in awe of users manipulating CSS and SVG files to great effect.All three were quick to share their favorite interactive content, including a readable rendition of the Stone Ship Age book fogLights Out Games, and Mori’s subtle One World Story alternate universe novel; Mori feared getting suspended or banned for tweaking the cohost UI, but the admins love it and its Mario 64 title screen. (Bayer admits he’s “partly ashamed” of the mistakes Mori found while making One World Story.) Grealish particularly likes tools that allow co-hosts to get more creative with their posts, like ravel for artists and games Designer Everest Pipkin, which enables the interactive fiction tool Twine in cohost. It works by using “details” HTML tags that allow interaction without JavaScript. Pipkin has used detail tags in previous works (such as the unfolding poem “The Soft Corruptor”). “While I laid out the Soft Corruptor by hand, I didn’t want anyone else to do the same,” Pipkin said. “So, spread out; a tool that neatly nests detail and summary tags together for you.”

With cohost still in invite-only early access mode, the future still looks bright for enterprising CSS criminals. One of the main goals of the team is monetization. After all, it all started with Bayer’s dissatisfaction with Patreon – allowing its users to take full advantage of its unique post feature. That means finding better ways to embed Bandcamp pages and YouTube videos, but right now, nothing is set in stone, although Kaplan says audio and video are priorities. “I love Bitsy games and would like to support ‘bitsyposting’ at some point,” Grealish said. “In general, I (selfishly) want to support as many interactive art styles as possible.” The current monetization guinea pig is the cohost @staff page, which receives subscription funds from cohosts and signups (“This will grant you access to [the team’s] The stupidest, worst idea”).

The team seems to be most concerned with keeping pace with the needs and desires of the hosting community. “Especially when we’re out of startup mode, our salaries are increasingly being paid for by the creativity of our users, which we can’t manage by fiat or we’re just as bad as everyone else,” Bayer said. For now, the co-hosting team just wants their kids to exist and be a sustainable company. “My goal was never to beat any other platform,” Kaplan said. “I just want the co-host to keep paying my rent.” Grealish agrees, thinking how awesome it would be for someone in ten years to say they learned CSS by messing around on cohosts thing.

“That would be bad,” Kaplan said. “From the ground up, the new goal is to have people in ten years talking about co-hosting the way people my age talk about Neopets and MySpace.”

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