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Web Wilderness Adventure Tours

Just as wilderness areas are good for the soul, the Web can offer rejuvenating opportunities for designers in disorienting, experimental regions. Curt Cloninger tours several "wild" Web sites and tells why you, too, should enter the Web wilderness.
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"Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail A smile from a veil, do you think you can tell?"
—Pink Floyd

Once a year I go backpacking in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, preferably in the Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness northeast of Robbinsville. That's where they filmed Nell, Last of the Mohicans, and parts of The Fugitive. After five days and four nights of being explicitly at the mercy of God, the rest of my year in the city always goes better. You could look at the wilderness and say, "This is land wasted." But to say so would be to prove yourself blind.

"Wilderness is an anchor to windward. Knowing it is there, we can also know that we are still a rich nation, tending to our resources as we should—not a people in despair searching every last nook and cranny of our land for a board of lumber, a barrel of oil, a blade of grass, or a tank of water."
—Senator Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico

Without these yearly wilderness excursions, my house in the city would gradually come to seem less like a home and more like a cage. Don't get me wrong: I don't want to live in the wilderness. I want to live in the city. But without the wilderness, I wouldn't want to live anywhere much at all.

Is the Web any different? If nothing on the Web is wild, primal, roaring, torrential, startling, disorienting, or out of control, then what is the rest of the Web really worth? Must every last pixel be watermarked? Must every site reinforce somebody's relative net worth? Even in the so-called Web design "underground," many designers are still blatantly reinforcing the "brand" of their noncommercial sites. "Did you like my experimental Web site? Excellent. Be sure to remember its catchy logo and clever tag line. Why not sign up now for my mailing list while you're at it? And on your way out, don't forget to check out my professional web design portfolio."

Despite what it may seem, I'm not anticommercial. Me work Web design day job, too. Me bring home pelt, make wigwam cozy for Paleface Squaw and Little Brave. I'm just saying that somewhere on the Web there should exist a corner, a space, a land where the streets have no names. Part of the fun of backpacking in wilderness areas (as opposed to national forest areas) is that the wilderness trails are poorly marked. This oversight is intentional. It's why you bring a compass and a map. It's part of why you go in the first place. It has to do with being out of control.

It would be ludicrous to call such intentional underdevelopment "poor urban planning." There's nothing urban about it. We're in the middle of the wilderness. Likewise, to say that "lacks a properly implemented structural hierarchy" is to entirely miss the point. Did you get lost and confused when you visited Wonderful! You got the point.

What follows is a free "guided tour" of some prime Web wilderness. In the real wilderness, not every rock, stick, and flower is labeled. In keeping with that spirit, I'll spare you the biographical details of these designers. Some are famous. Some are not so famous. Some are pseudonymous. Some are anonymous. Some may be dead and gone, for all I know.

Warning! This tour is not for Web professionals, content aggregators, new media branding consultants, machine/man interface sociologists, or any number of other funky professional things we call ourselves these days. This tour is for humans (you know, the thing you are when you're not working). Some disorientation and drowsiness may occur as a result. Keep arms, legs, and all valuables inside the vehicle. If repeated paradigm shifting occurs, see your doctor immediately.

The Horror! is a promotional site for a surrealistic Hollywood horror film, but you'd hardly know that it was a commercial site at all. Basically, Artisan Entertainment told U.K. experimental Web design studio hi-res to do whatever it wanted. The Donnie Darko site has a pop-up window at the beginning that leads to trailers of the film, but the rest of the site could just as well exist on its own. In fact, I have not yet seen the film, and I probably never will. unfolds like a cryptic mystery. Your job is to put the pieces together by discovering clues that lead to deeper levels of the site. But it's less of a Raymond Chandler who-dun-it and more of a paranormal Slaughterhouse Five where-am-I? The designers at hi-res know their Web conventions, and they know how to tweak them. An entirely separate URL is set up to resemble a legitimate newspaper site. Links lead from the Donnie Darko site to fake newspaper articles on this fake newspaper site. The articles are actually part of the narrative, but because they reside on a legitimate-looking newspaper site with its own separate URL, you wonder.... That is, until you click on one of the links at the fake newspaper site and your browser window melts into a possessed, Flash-generated 404 error message complete with evil bunny ASCII art. Yikes.

The Donnie Darko clues are not too difficult to discover—just a vehicle to draw you in and get you participating. You're likely to make it to the last level, if you care to. The narrative is not exactly linear, but it does build in suspense and intensity. I love this indirect way of spelling out a plot by inference. The signposts of the actual site are in flux. hi-res sabotages our conventional expectations of the Web, giving us just enough normal look and behavior to make us think we're at a "regular" site, and then janking us. These touchstones of orthodoxy right before the meltdown make a lot more disorienting than your average "freak-out-from-the-get-go" experimental art site. If you're going to have a punch line, don't neglect the setup.

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