Just Take a Crowbar To It

Resizable worm, free to good home.

Forget tips and tricks for web development: have you considered doing some CSS crimes instead? On Cohost, the “CSS Crimes” tag is filled with users pushing the site to its limit in new and exciting ways. This is because Cohost allows CSS and HTML in posts, prompting an eclectic array of creations. There are digital Moiré animations, DIY erasure poetry on a post claiming that erasure poetry is an act of destruction, an in-post pixel art maker, or a worm to stretch and squash

The word “crime” says something about the way that users feel about what they’re doing: there's a sense of deviance to it, of the medium being twisted in unanticipated ways. They’re pushing at the bounds of how we're used to engaging with platforms, to make something unanticipated. In her Glitch Studies Manifesto, Rosa Menkman wrote:

Sometimes, [artists] use the computers’ inherent maxims as a façade, to trick the audience into a flow of certain expectation that the artwork subsequently rapidly breaks out of. As a result, the spectator is forced to acknowledge that the use of the computer is based on a genealogy of conventions, while in reality the computer is a machine that can be bent or used in many different ways. 

Gif art by Intern Camille that features two computer terminals. In one, a cursor hovers over a link for a “FREE SWORD CURSOR!!! (100% no viruses)” with a sword above it that crackles with orange light. In the other terminal, an erasure poem cycles through various permutations. Surrounding the terminals are numerous leaf fronds and sparkles.

Homestuck is another example of CSS crimes and glitch-as-storytelling. Yes, Homestuck, the webcomic that spawned a thousand convention horror stories. But even with the (unforgettable) reputation it has, it’s a piece of storytelling that's always breaking the medium it is told with. Significant story moments are told through Flash (rip) animations, but as soon as the expectations for Flash storytelling are established, they’re immediately broken. 

Near the middle of the podcast Homestuck Made This World, media academic Michael Lutz highlights how the Flash “[S] Cascade” does this, and why most fans can probably remember the first time they watched it. What makes Cascade memorable is that it “breaks” the website aesthetically (although it also crashed Newgrounds and MegaUpload in the process) by making the standard space of the screen expand past the established confines, after setting up the illusion that those borders were still there. To show that the world is breaking, it breaks the medium of the story itself. Or sometimes, you just get a green gremlin hitting a console with a crowbar and making the site physically shake. The story isn’t content to make the digital website a passive container, but instead makes it vital to the experience.

A screenshot of Homestuck, featuring the character Caliborn hitting a computer console. Around him, the site is falling apart, with the various HTML elements overlapping at askew angles

It’s a bit of storytelling that relies on upsetting your expectations of how digital spaces should work, and elicits the same delight I had reading House of Leaves for the first time, or watching Funny Games. Threading a needle through two unconnected pages or rearranging what you think are fixed elements of the plot can jolt the reader into attention.

Tumblr is filled with examples of this, like glitchlight’s "take his ass to the timeloop" (if you read it, make sure to click on the photos and highlight any white spaces! I didn’t the first time and missed the most vital parts!). Working within the minimal confines of Tumblr, it takes a gag about time loops and turns it into a disconcerting tragedy. Less seriously, there’s evilscientist3’s Microblr gag, which recreates the Tumblr dashboard but at a reduced and incomprehensible size and asks you to "equip a microscope" to see it properly. Both of these exploit the tension between platform and narrative to evoke a moment of surprise in the reader.

The beginning of glitchlight’s “take his ass to the timeloop” post, with the phrase “take his ass to the timeloop” repeated four times

All the way back in 1995, Shelley Jackson’s hypertext story Patchwork Girl played with the format of the Storyspace software that it was written on to create a fragmented, unraveling sense of character. The hope was to create something that was antagonistic towards the software that made it, with the medium grinding against itself setting the tone for the rest of the work.

None of this is a crime of course, but all of it pushes at the bounds of what a “text” can be. It’s creation in the act of breaking, of seeing how far you can bend a story or medium and still have it work. Sure, sometimes there might be an actual crime. You might download a cool dragon scimitar cursor, and end up with a computer virus. But even then, the computer’s wheezing hiccups have led to something that breaks up the monotony, at least for a few seconds. It’s a reminder that digital spaces don’t have to be staid or set, and that in any format, at any moment, any person, whether they know CSS and HTML or not, has the means at their disposal to do some trickery and break the smooth, streamlined way that platforms expect us to behave.

The final archaic word of the day is solertiousness: the quality of being crafty.

That’s a wrap on Intern Camille’s month with us. I confidently predict that you will see her in these pages again, and meanwhile you can also find her @hedgefruit on Twitter, @hedgefruit.bsky.social, or on her forthcoming substack.

This post reminded me of the first time I saw the Google “askew” easter egg. Like Intern Camille, I am an absolute sucker for fourth-wall breaking, CSS crimes, and stories that cut against their own media. So…

Open Thread: What are your favorite pieces of “CSS Crimes” type frame-breaking media?


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