Noah Brier | June 8, 2021

The Winamp Skin edition

On memory, technology, and customization

Noah here. Think back to the early-2000s internet and music is sure to play a big role in your memories. Napster was born in 1999 and was effectively gone by the end of 2001. After that, the next wave of P2P music services was led by names LimeWire, Morpheus, and BearShare. Of course, you could buy music on iTunes, but the tides didn’t really start to turn to paying for music until streaming services like Spotify combined with the power of the new wave of smartphones that emerged with the arrival of the iPhone in 2008.

iPods were a big destination for much of that downloaded music. But before iTunes, there was one choice for all your MP3 needs: Winamp. The music player was initially released in 1997 and acquired by AOL for nearly $100 million in 1999. By 2001 Winamp had 60 million users. Before that, you were stuck with either Windows Media Player or RealPlayer, neither of which worked all that well.

Why is this interesting?

As Ars Technica explains, “none of those players could, in the mid-1990s, do something as basic as playlists, much less visualizations, and custom skins, nor were they as tightly and efficiently programmed as Winamp.” And there it is. Ask anyone who was around the internet at the time and the first thing that will pop to mind is the skins. Winamp allowed you to customize and share the player interface. In what feels like an early social media and art phenomena, everyone had their Winamp styled in their own special way.

A scroll through the Winamp Skin Museum is a shot of nostalgia and a kind of archeological dig for early clues of the ever-evolving internet aesthetic. There’s metal, anime, minimalism, 8bit, psychedelics, and every stop in between.

It brings back more than just interesting visuals, though. Here’s The Verge:

This is the weird thing about Winamp skins, though: they don’t just capture a visual aesthetic, but a mode of interaction with technology. Personally, they remind me of an era when it felt like I had more control over my computer. I could customize Winamp skins, sure, but also my whole desktop, down to my extremely carefully collated music collection.

While I try not to fall for bouts of nostalgia, I do think there’s a kernel of truth in there. As the internet has taken over the world, much of the ability to configure and customize has gone away. Lots of this is for good reason, and generally, interface design is much better than it was twenty years ago. But for those of us who like to tinker and explore, it’s fun to remember a world where Winamp skins ruled the web. (NRB)

Throwback Game of the Day:

A walkthrough of Myst, chapter one:

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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