Immersive Internet Worlds That Generate Millions, Land Jobs, and Do Good
‘ Her ‘, the movie
The Ikea-fication of Design
Design for internet businesses has gotten smoothed out and polished and slick and scaleable and… honestly kind of average.
I don’t lament this, exactly. The commoditization of design is probably a net positive. It raises the average to something that’s broadly good and accessible.
But commoditized, copycat design loses its soul.
Here’s the good news: widespread soulless design is your opportunity. There’s never been a better time to differentiate yourself with design.
Internet Worlds: A Cure for Soulless Design
A still from the short film ‘ Dear Alice ‘, a stunning solarpunk world created for Chobani yogurt
If you want to stand out with design, break the rules and build a world of your own. You can build a moat of excellence, uniqueness, and even joy with design.
I call websites that do this internet worlds.
Some internet worlds sell a product. Others promote a cause, or educate and inspire. Others are merely a hobby for bored and talented web designers.
Internet worlds become their own sort of operating system: a walled garden with a distinctive UI, a unique way of doing things, and sense of narrative.
All My Favorite Internet Worlds
Here are a few of the best internet worlds, with notes on what you can learn from them for your own project.
It’s telling that many great internet worlds use a retro aesthetic. Worlds like this use nostalgia as the narrative, inviting you to immerse yourself in the brand.
Poolsuite began as a humble stylized Soundcloud player. They fully committed to the bit, meticulously weaving early internet aesthetic with 80’s beachside fashion and retro beats.
The project developed a cult following and the creators deftly met the demand for the aesthetic with a flywheel of related brands and products. Now, it’s a serious business with a growing list of e-commerce travel products. And they rode the NFT craze of 2021-22 to launch elite NFT memberships and a beautiful NFT illustration project.
The premise of Tree.fm is simple. It’s a feed of audio from forests around the world, paired with a stunning image of a forest. A pleasant world on its own, open to all, but also a subtle advertisement for a tree planting non-profit.
I’ll sometimes open a Tree.fm tab in the background as I work. I think about it a lot, even when I’m not in it. The world’s calm makes me feel inspired and optimistic.
Studyverse bills itself as a “virtual study hall”, aimed at combatting “distraction, procrastination and loneliness”. Users can invite their friends in, select some pleasant background music, choose a scene, and settle in to work. It’s an elaborate social pomodoro timer targeted at students, but it’s great for focusing at work too.
There’s money in this world. Studyverse raised a $2 million funding round in July of this year. It’s easy to imagine how Studyverse might leverage their long session times and immersive worlds to sell advertising, advanced productivity features, or premium scenes and music to become a high-margin business with committed fans.
Personal websites are a perfect canvas for world-building. Marco launched his site on Webflow to acclaim from the design community. It’s a delightful world with lots of stuff to click, cute sounds, fun easter eggs, and inspiring visual design.
Marco’s site is a reminder that world-building takes care and a willingness to obsess over the smallest details.
In a wonderful twist of events, Marco’s website recently led to him landing a job at Diagram, a startup focused on AI tools for designers.
Neal.fun is a portfolio of delightful internet projects from Neal Agarwal ranging from informative science visualizations to lighthearted gimmicks. Spend a little time in Neal’s world, and you’ll get the sense he’s just having fun, and taking us along for the ride.
SimilarWeb has traffic on Neal.fun at a staggering 2.6 million page views per month. Neal doesn’t run ads, but some back-of-the-napkin math tells me he might be able to bring in 6-7 figures per year in ad revenue if he wanted to monetize the site.
How Many Plants is an amazing example of an Internet World for people who might think: “I’m not especially technical, I can’t do this”. How Many Plants is deeply immersive, but built with static assets. Daniela built the site on Webflow over a period of 8 months before launching.
She uses clever layouts, gorgeous illustration, and artful typography to make a memorable, satisfying experience for her guests.
NFTs are particularly well-suited for immersive, playful internet worlds. Part art, part equities, NFT holders have expectations for their projects different from the purely commercial pressures on public equity holders.
When I buy an NFT, I’m signing up for good vibes as much as I’m interested in value appreciation of the asset. Heaven Computer was created by a solo Brazilian woman programmer—a creative coding project dripping in nostalgia and delight.
Other worlds worth visiting
Traf: Traf’s personal site is a huge inspiration. It’s committed to the dark minimalist aesthetic, with a gorgeous app-like personality.
I Miss My Bar: A little world where you can choose your own (audio) adventure. This one came out during the pandemic when many of us were stuck at home.
Stripe Press: A simple site, but memorable and tactile. Really fun to click through.
HenryHefferman.com: Henry’s site is packed with nostalgia. My favorite part is the fully functional Oregon Trail emulator hidden in the site.
Brett Victor’s website: Brett’s site has been inspiration to me for years. And to many others: Brett’s ideas are so influential that they’ve given rise to some of today’s most important tech companies.
Bruno-Simon.com: A masterclass in personal portfolios. I dare you not to smile as you play on Bruno’s site.
Ken Kifer’s Bike Pages: Proof that internet worlds need not be overly technical to be memorable. Thoughtful design and deeply personal, immersive writing can engage a visitor for hours.
So you want to build an internet world?
So you want to build an internet world of your own. A walled garden at your own URL. A place to welcome your visitors in, delight them, bedazzle them, and move them.
Where do you start?
1. Break the rules
Throw out everything you’ve been taught about design. The best worlds don’t start with key performance indicators, user research, and competitive analysis.
Making an immersive internet world looks more like starting a movie, a game, or an art project. Creativity should have the first word.
That’s what we love about them. When you visit these worlds, you get the sense their creators aren’t following best practices. They’re just having fun.
2. Use all the tools
The browser has a rich API, yet most websites only use a fraction of the tools available to them.
Most of my favorite internet worlds have something in common: they use audio. I think audio is a vastly underused affordance on the web. More apps (and physical products) should have sounds!
Also try using other tools like 3D elements, or clever uses of scroll events and cursor movements, or take advantage of audio and video input devices to augment and expand the world.
New tools for new user experiences.
3. Gamify it
As worlds evolve, games emerge.
My favorite internet worlds become a sort of online game. As they grow, I chase down side worlds that spin off from the main world. I dig up social media accounts, chase down interesting posts and installments, and try to learn about the creators.
In an internet world, sometimes obscurity creates more delight than clarity. If you sufficiently tempt them, your users might put in the work, follow overgrown trails, and construct a narrative of their own around your world.
4. Open it up
I think what makes internet worlds work is that they’re open—at least at first.
Most don’t require an account. If they do, the account is free. There might be path for superfans to pay or subscribe, but step one costs nothing.
It’s like walking by a restaurant with an outdoor patio and a great ambience. You can stand near the patio, or sit on a nearby bench, and be a part of the world by proximity. Bystanders can become an active participant later, but the initial cost of entry is low.
Your turn. What are your favorite worlds?
Hit reply and let me know: what are your favorite internet worlds. Where do you go online and get immersed and inspired?