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The internet’s most useless website is a well of deep wisdom

You literally can’t do anything at Zombo.com, which is precisely how it sets you free.

By Eoin O'Carroll

Some human endeavors peak early before a long decline: commercial airline travel, the Ramones discography, eating a large stack of pancakes. Also, the internet. The pinnacle of cyberspace, it turns out, was attained in late 1999 with the launch of a website called Zombocom.

Zombocom’s superiority lies in its simplicity. The site does nothing but display a blinking pinwheel accompanied by a deep voice confidently telling you how awesome it is.

“The infinite is possible at Zombocom!” says the voice in an accent precisely halfway between Sidney Poitier and Darth Vader. “The unattainable is unknown at Zombocom!”

When I first visited Zombocom, in early 2000, I remember how it deftly captured the era’s bland techno-exuberance and self-indulgent animated intros. But only now, returning to the site two decades later, do I grasp Zombocom’s deeply existential wisdom.

“You can do anything at Zombocom!” says the voice. “Anything at all! The only limit is yourself!”

You literally can’t do anything at Zombocom, and that’s precisely how it sets you free.


The origins of Zombocom are shrouded in mystery. The site’s creator, Josh Levine, did not respond to an interview request. Perhaps his only known public appearance came at the 2012 ROFLCon III, a “biennial extravaganza of deranged internet culture,” held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he spoke on a panel about the ‘90s internet, using his online nickname, Zblofu. Searches of newspaper and magazine archives on ProQuest, Google News, and LexisNexis suggest that, like Milan Kundera, Harper Lee, and Queen Elizabeth, Zblofu has never granted an interview. A circa-2002 FAQ about Zombocom, from a defunct website called 15footstick.com, is, like Zombocom itself, of no practical use. “Zombocom is a portal without a door,” it says. “There is no opening or closing at Zombocom.”

Zombocom’s vague mysticism belongs to the more innocent turn-of-the-century web, when Google was in beta, websites with spammy names like ”HotJobs.com” purchased Super Bowl ads, and Jeff Bezos was scraping by as a low-double-digit billionaire. Going online felt like embarking on a journey: You’d alert other members of your household that you were borrowing the phone lines, launch a browser with a name like “Navigator” or “Explorer,” and merge onto the information superhighway.

In the Zombocom era, mindfulness came more naturally. We didn’t have to deliberately set aside time for long thoughts.

Back then, expressing yourself online meant building a website, either by registering your own domain or by using a service like GeoCities or Angelfire. Staking a claim in late-20th-century cyberspace required far more effort than signing up for a Twitter or Facebook account does today. But, unlike with Twitter and Facebook, you could design your pages however you liked. The only limit was yourself — and your ability to spot unclosed tags in your HTML markup.

“I sorely miss the day when people had homepages where they posted content,” says Joseph Reagle, an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern. “You weren’t worried about ads. You weren’t worried about one big behemoth tracking you. Now we’re stuck with all these constrained, proprietary, ad-infested spaces where we’re all being watched and we’re all being rated.”

In the Zombocom era, mindfulness came more naturally. We didn’t have to deliberately set aside time for long thoughts.

Then came the dotcom bust, custom ringtones, NSA spying, cyberbullying, clickbait, smartphone overuse, 4chan, surveillance capitalism, election tampering, QAnon, meme stocks, pre-installed video-call effects that turn the user’s head into an animated poop emoji, and the 24/7, eyeball-chasing, hair-trigger-moral-outrage-inducing, politically polarizing, democracy-threatening horror show we collectively call “Big Tech.”

Along the way, the internet’s values shifted, and with it our concepts of what it meant to be true to oneself. “Way back at the start of the internet,” says Reagle, “you used to be ‘flamed’ — or criticized — for trying to advertise. It’s hard to comprehend.”

Reagle says when he asks his students the meaning of “authenticity” — Generation X’s idée fixe — they typically define it as acting in a way that is consistent with one’s personal brand. “Younger people don’t worry about selling out,” he says.

Even back in 2012, Zblofu seemed to grasp where all this was headed.

“Basically, there’s only, like, five websites, practically, that people ever go to,” Zblofu told the audience at the ROFLCon panel. “I would like to see some of the dominant forces taken down that are in corporate control today. Like, everybody.”


By offering nothing packaged as everything, Zombocom reveals just how much the web has constrained our behavior. Most tech companies offer the promise of freedom while relentlessly steering you toward actions that benefit their bottom line.

Zombocom, which serves no ads, collects no user data, and loses money every year on hosting and domain registration fees, is the exact opposite. It’s the anti-Facebook, the anti-Amazon, the anti-Google. The effortless minimalism that Apple strives for, but never quite attains? Zombocom had it from day one. The performative pseudo-spirituality preached by tech bros fresh off their ayahuasca retreats? Zombocom reminds us that self-actualization isn’t a user experience, that transcendence isn’t a lifehack.

The audio track runs for one minute and 43 seconds before it restarts. On Facebook or Reddit, that time would pass in an instant. On Zombocom, which offers nothing to click but a mute button and nothing to watch but the strobing pinwheel, it feels like an eternity.

Which, of course, is the point. Huge swaths of the Internet are aimed at fragmenting our attention and selling the pieces to the highest bidders, all at the expense of our privacy, our productivity, and our tranquility. Zombocom, with its lack of functionality paired with the insistence that you are free to do anything — anything at all — forces you to consider the world beyond your screen, a world where, just as the site promises, the only limit is yourself.

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Eoin O’Carroll is a writer and podcaster based in Amherst, Massachusetts.

 

Illustrations by Joan Alturo 

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