Sometimes it’s hard to remember what all this Internet was put here for.
When it first arrived, the Internet felt limitless, formless, free, and wild; you never knew where the next click would take you. It was a vast, virtual primordial ooze from which anything imaginable (and plenty that wasn’t) could emerge: new languages, new experiences, maybe even new humanity. For a kid who spent his idle time in libraries and museums, the World Wide Web (as we heralded it) felt like an explosion of those concepts and their potential, and threatened to make anachronisms of both.
Fast-forward a quarter century, and the Internet is reminiscent of another cultural site that actually achieved anachronism: The mall. Each day we wander its halls, aimlessly browsing back and forth between the superstores that anchor it (Amazon is Sears, eBay is Bradlees, Walmart.com is ... Walmart, I guess), maybe hit the movie theater (YouTube, Netflix, Hulu), scan the directory at the center (Google), annoy the security guards (also Google), loiter around the food court (where sheer boredom ignites all kinds of drama), and consume a steady diet of nothing (a.k.a. Instagram, Twitter, Reddit).
In this metaphor we are all the disaffected (and vaguely goth) mall rats, longing for a life less lame, but lost as to where to find it — and besides, all our “friends” are here. Do you think we’d be spending every night skating around the Denny’s (a.k.a. Facebook) otherwise?
That’s right. I just called Facebook the Denny’s of the Internet. And why not? Our social media feeds only seem to feed us what everyone else is ordering. Meanwhile, the meta-multiplex of our streaming services still feels like there’s nothing good showing. And the endlessly searchable stacks of Spotify still feel sort of like a Strawberries.
It’s a dire situation, but not one I haven’t escaped from before. Eventually my cranky teen self discovered the commuter rail into Boston and experienced a comprehensive attitude overhaul. I explored everything from its storied art institutions to its underground clubs, its indie bookstores and record shops to its unmarked galleries. I combed through its cultures, countercultures, and subcultures; and I never once had to eat at Sbarro.
In the same way, there remains a wild, wonderful, weird, and rewarding Internet beyond the walls of our depressing virtual mall — which is frankly starting to get old and gross, its fountains clogged with coins and unfulfilled wishes. Push past the glass doors and go exploring and a different Internet dotted with cultural oases awaits, far removed from the noise and the crowds and the commentariat and the clickbait.
I’ve had my sanity saved several times over the past few weeks with my Medici.tv subscription ($12.99/mo). It’s a streaming service dedicated to classical and contemporary concert music, with a massive archive of recent and historical performances: operas, ballets, chamber music, full programs from the world’s top orchestras. It’s also got in-depth profiles of composers and musicians, master classes, educational programs, and some delightfully dusty documentaries. It also webcasts over 150 live events each year.
Similarly, Idagio.com is a classical streaming site offering a free tier of access to over 2 million tracks (or a $9.99/mo subscription) with lossless audio, curated playlists, and robust searchability — making it easy to summon and compare dozens of performances of the same works.
Theater buffs can also claim the best seat in the house (i.e. their house) with streaming services like BroadwayHD.com ($8.99/mo) — which has over 300 on-demand plays and musicals available (from recent hits to “legendary” performances) — and Stage, a newish streaming network ($4.99/mo) that offers hundreds of live theatrical performances, operas, musicals, dance, documentaries, and original productions. If you’re going to have online drama, it might as well be this kind.
For film lovers, there’s a wide world of options beyond the dizzying array of airplane movies on Netflix. The Criterion Collection launched its own subscription-based streaming channel two years ago (a happy ending after it left Hulu and caused a minor panic in 2016). The Criterion Channel ($10.99/mo) has nearly 2,000 films at the ready from the likes of Godard, Ichikawa, Buñuel, Akerman, and hundreds of other art-house luminaries. Also worth checking out is Ovid.tv ($6.99/mo), a collaboration between eight independent film distributors specializing in documentaries, independent films, and international cinema, with an emphasis on political and social films, creative documentaries, and art-house features and shorts. And for a more curated experience (people love that word), there’s Mubi.com ($10.99/mo), which assembles a hand-picked selection of 30 hard-to-find independent films and “cult classics" each month.
And if you prefer a cultural escape that’s a bit more free (in both senses), the Google Cultural Institute and its Arts & Culture portal is an online resource of millions of artworks, images, historical sites, and cultural artifacts, drawn (and scanned) from over 1,200 of the world’s top museums and archives — including high-res captures of masterpieces and 360-degree museum walk-throughs.
But two of my very favorite cultural nooks on the Internet have been there since the get-go. Rhizome.org — now an online outpost (i.e. “affiliate in residence”) of the New Museum — was founded in 1996 as an e-mail list started by artist Mark Tribe dedicated to art that was incorporating or dependent on emerging Web technologies. It eventually evolved into an online “ArtBase” of new media works, and now exists as a hub of both archival and contemporary Web and software-based artworks. (It’s oldweb.today portal — which allows you to time-travel Web archives through vintage browser emulators — can take you on a particularly satisfying trip through the ruins of the early Internet with faster loading times and none of the squealing modem noise).
And lastly there’s the ever trusty treasure trove of UbuWeb, founded in 1996 by poet Kenneth Goldsmith and maintaining a collection of thousands of arcane works of 20th-century and contemporary poetry, text and sound art, readings, radio plays, interviews, archived publications (you can browse, for instance, through the entirety of Aspen, the legendary “multimedia magazine in a box” published by Phyllis Johnson between 1965 to 1971). It also has maintained a defiantly Web 1.0 architecture (you may need your reading glasses) and an ethos of experimentation and adventure that seems all but lost on today’s Internet. It’s a safe haven for a lost avant-garde that stands as a reminder of what the Internet was supposed to be: Whatever we wanted.