Why aren’t there more websites about love?
A conversation with Chia Amisola
Chia Amisola is a Phillipines-born internet and ambient artist / designer whose work surrounds the making of creative tooling, spaces, and communities, especially on the web. They describe themselves as “interested in reimagining creation that’s synonymous with liberation.” We spoke about folk archival, html love letters, and why websites are like people. You can read Part II of this conversation here.
Love is a theme that comes up time and time again in your work. Is that an intentional choice? Is there something about the web that makes it ripe for exploring or expressing love?
I didn't really realize that until a few months ago, when I noticed that a lot of what I was driven to make were websites that serve as love letters to my friends. I would sit down one day missing people from home or feeling overwhelmed with emotions. I wanted to capture that somehow, to send a message about how I was feeling at a specific moment in time.
Making is definitely a love language of mine, not necessarily because 'material' is necessary to prove love, but because I read love as a condition and practice of stewarding in each other something that might outlast us both.
A lot of those messages tend to be about love: love for where I am, love for others, love for moments, love that is in the form of longing especially. It feels weird to everyone around me that URLs I send are meant to be received as love letters. The common notion of a website is so distant from that of a handwritten note, because most people are used to large platforms that aren't working in their best interests. But from my end, I know the labor and effort that goes into maintaining websites, and also the intimacy that comes when you deliver them in a specific way. A website is an act of demanding space for yourself and the people you love and constantly tending that space. It's a way of naming: to take on a URL and courageously ask to be witnessed, visited. I understand certain sites that I frequent as continuous labors of love, whether they're directed to a specific person or something broader. I see making websites and making in general as nothing more than a way of asking to be loved.
Can you tell me about a website that you made for just one person?
Towards the end of 2021 I made I love it when you love me too. It’s a simple website that cycles through phrases beginning with “I love it when you—.” A lot of them are specific scenarios I’d collected in my Notes app inspired by my current partner. I was afraid to deliver it to them directly, so I posted it publicly. It was nice to see that even though it was made for one person, it resonated with a lot of other people, some of whom repurposed the open-source code and made gifts for their loved ones. I later began using the whole site as a template to teach about the 'poetic web' to others. It feels like the love I originally directed to my partner and a small group of friends has now multiplied and shapeshifted for others to build on themselves.
I see it as a testament to how you can craft a public website but still have it feel very intimate and personal.
A lot of websites don't feel like gifts; scale is a challenge for that. I also have struggled with needing to justify a utility in my sites, especially coming from my background in the Philippines where I was always so honed in on finding a greater purpose and problem to solve. It took a while to realize that there's nothing truer than poetic expression or more simply, expression.
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It sounds like in giving that website to your partner, you struggled with something that I struggle with too: with a physical gift, there are all sorts of rituals we have developed to add meaning to the packaging and the ceremony of giving the gift. But with digital gifts there’s less to draw on.
I'm kind of jealous of printed material as a form because there's a designated act of publishing and it becomes a solid checkpoint that everyone can gather and celebrate around. Whereas for a website, it's so malleable and never really finished and it's hard to define the moment in which it’s ready to find an audience. But maybe that quality of softness and ambiguity is what makes websites feel human. So what if the ritual of human gathering and celebration around the website happens not when you hit publish but every single time someone enters it? How can we see websites as sites for an ever-infinite moment that feels entirely special and momentous?
When I think about many or even most other forms of art, film, books, poetry, music, the theme of love is so prolific that it's almost inescapable. It’s difficult to think of songs or movies that aren’t about love, in some sense. It makes me wonder: why aren't there more websites about love?
The internet as a whole has moved on from creating websites by hand to producing materials on other platforms, where people don’t have as much say about what they make and how it’s distributed. Websites are templated, heavy, constrained, seen as a place for performance rather than sincerity. They aren't seen as places where we can put our whole selves into. So we put all these gifty artifacts on other platforms, but then their purpose and their intention towards love gets appropriated by the profit-oriented goals of large corporations. We're always performing in some way, but it's hard to say it's a performance you control when you're unfamiliar with the stage you're on. The fact that many people think this is the only medium of communication available to us makes it clear that we’re all continuously trying to express love, but not really getting at it.
With a website that you own, you’re really able to take up space and dictate the environment in which you want to give and be received. I think so much of love is also that, right?
And the very thing that you were saying makes it hard to express love online is what could make the internet really ripe for expressions of love: the precarity and the upkeep that's required. A physical love letter might represent a discrete expression of love, but it doesn't allow the opportunity of continuous expression through maintenance.
It’s not that you need a personal website to express love. But it's sad that when everyone is on the internet for community, the platforms that promise connection often just serve us detachment, or a love that is compromised by concern for metrics or other externalities.
It's a hard balance learning how to dwell within these platforms while trying to reinvent them. Because not everyone has the privilege or luxury, of course, of stewarding their own environment. So bettering the internet is about navigating the existing platforms that the majority of the world is on and evolving our ways of communication so that they’re better receptive to the intent that people are trying to express in spite of platform constraints. We could wield the tools and platforms we have differently.
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It almost feels like a trap. Even if you’re just trying to express a feeling, the second you post it to Instagram or Twitter, you’re instantly receiving growth-coded feedback that alters the meaning of that expression.
Yeah, it's hard. My interest in making things for the browser is primarily because it's easiest for me to produce things that are accessible to people back home in the Philippines, where I spent 18 years of my life. Even if I now have the resources to make things in tangible mediums for more traditional art spaces, I still lean towards the internet and always will, because of what it has afforded me, and because it will continue to be the space that lets me communicate with people I love.
Plenty of people in the Philippines have no choice but to dwell on corporate-owned platforms. There's not much compromise when your work and school is conducted on Facebook or when you’re stuck on a walled internet plan. I recognize all the hostilities, but I still have to be there because that's where the people I love are.
How do I look at these platforms and my sites both as portals to a core intent? Because that’s what they really are: doorways to what I'm truly trying to express. There’s so many acts of translation that occur from space to space, because each website already has its own environment, language for communication, practices, and standards. That can be kind of nice, even if it’s working against a system.
You’ve said that you're interested in gathering all the people that you love in one place, and that you think the internet might be that place. Is that primarily about physical distance, or is there some other reason you feel like the internet is that place?
Physical distance is a huge part. Temporal distance is too — getting all people together at one point in time. One of the magical things about the web that it has rendered these boundaries less obvious or less constraining. The internet lets me construct a meeting point in which the people I love can gather. You can make a website that respects what’s happening in one locality, but I think it's kind of a waste of the medium to do that rather than blurring these boundaries. I don't necessarily want to replicate the experience of meeting in a physical place; the internet has its own wonderful navigational structure, in which everyone can visit the same link and experience it differently, which lets you communicate and love in a more directed way. Imposing the same limits of physical space onto the digital encourages the replication of power structures and dynamics that don't need to exist, like artificial scarcity instead of abundance. Making on the internet should be an act of reinvention.
There’s love in context or keeping contexts separate, and giving different people different parts of yourself that are more attuned to what they need. But then there's also love in collapsing context and bringing together people that you love from different places and smashing their contexts together and seeing what happens. It’s interesting to hear how you think about the internet’s place in that false binary.
Any meeting point in real life is also so fragmented and so imprecise — you present different selves to different people. The internet just makes controlling the fragmentation easier. I wish I could do that in real life too.
Digital space intensifies the bad and good of physical space: it’s important to recognize both its transgressions and unique qualities.
Tell me about The Sound of Love, your web project that presents the comments that appear underneath songs on Youtube. What drew you to repackage these comments in this way?
It started as an impulse that I would feel when I would listen to a song on YouTube and feel moved. I'd scroll down, and see if it resonated in the same way for others. And I stumbled upon this trove of people sharing deeply intimate encounters and experiences. I wanted to repackage them in a site in which the human messages left under often bot-recorded uploads or dead channels would become the central focus instead of the songs. It’s an example of the act of witnessing a space where most of the world gathers and seeing this super, intimate human behavior just like tucked under the hood of a cold platform. I wanted to give it the space it deserved.
We always say “never read the YouTube comments.” But I think there's something very romantic about them. If someone posted one of those same comments to Twitter or Instagram, it would have had a different meaning. There’s not really a clear way to growth-hack a YouTube comment, which gives it the space to be a more innocent form of expression. “I just needed to express this to other people listening to this song.” Or even, “I needed to get this out of my system even if nobody can hear me.”
Exactly. So many of the comments I collected don't have any likes, or were posted a decade ago. Maybe we put these messages in the sea of comments in an attempt to be heard, but the act is only done if you have the intention to share. You don’t leave comments under YouTube videos with the same expectation of virality you might have when broadcasting on other social platforms. And in that lack of expectation for attention lives a provocation: I can't help but do anything right now but share what I’ve just felt or remembered, even if no one else sees it.
It’s so sad how even outside of the internet, if you are not thought of as “significant” then your outputs are deemed not worthy of saving. I’ve been thinking about preservation, in which there’s a politics of optics and power that determines whether someone is worthy of saving — and thus, being known. Who doesn't want to be a part of history? Who wants to, simply, be known? Don't we all, in some way?
That’s the idea behind my personal archival practice as well. I'm capturing websites that I made when I was literally a child because I thought that it was worthy of saving, that I was worthy of saving. So in a way it's an act of self preservation as well: if I didn’t save me, if I didn’t love me, I didn’t know if anyone would.
More on archival and care in Part II of my conversation with Chia:
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