“Two geeks walk into a userbar…..“
Okay, so I might have completely lost the punchline to this joke, but the popularity and artistic capacity for expression of the userbar certainly isn’t any laughing matter. For almost a decade, gamers, geeks and online artists have used userbars as decorations and virtual badges of honour to announce their presence and creativity on the internet.
So what exactly is a userbar?. It’s a small and slender graphic which is a really skinny version of the ubiquitous advertising banners found all over the web. The big difference though is that they aren’t ads for companies. Instead they are used to express a person’s interests, skills and passions; or to advertise their gaming level and prowess. Cramming a lot into a space usually measuring no more than the standard 350 by 19 pixels (with a border of 1 pixel thick, userbars can be larger though), userbar designers will often incorporate imagery, text and even animations and gifs taken from videos or popular TV shows. The most widely used typeface (font) for userbar text is Visitor TT2 BRK with the standard size of letters set at 13 pixels in height. The font gives a very computer generated and retro appearance to the bar and often, rather like a framed picture, designers can choose to make their userbars visually presentable by applying a ‘glass finish’ that gives the design a glossy look. The natural home of the userbar is usually forums, mainly those connected to gaming or technology, but I have seen them being attached to signatures used in a popular South Asian young people’s forum.
Userbars reached their zenith in the mid 2000’s, as the internet was already becoming well entrenched in people’s lives and gamers made the transition from downloading PC games to battling and co-operating with fellow hobbyists on online portals such as World of Warcraft. While userbars have never broken the mainstream like other ‘geeky‘ expressions of culture have done, and their popularity has declined since their heyday, userbars still retain a loyal fanbase and several thousand are being painstakingly handcrafted by forum users and passionate gamers today. There are vibrant online communities built around the designing of userbars as a hobby. One, userbars.be, is “a respectful community of creative people who are passionate about creating and sharing userbars they make ” with a showroom of more than 40,000 userbars sorted into categories such as brands, celebrities, computer hardware, patriotic, and sports. The site currently has over 28,000 members and contributors. Another, called userbars.name, is a German-based forum dedicated exclusively to the online art form, the 21st century evolution of the miniature paintings of 17th century India and Persia. It has a cult popularity among gamers from Russia and east Europe in particular.
One of the ideal things about userbars is their democratic nature, and that given such a limited space, there are countless millions of ways to express any vignette of personality or interest you like. Anyone with at least some basic graphic skills can make one, and there are sites, such as best-signatures.com, which offer easy to use userbar generators for the fresh-faced userbar novice. For the experienced artist, photo-editing and image suites like Adobe Photoshop or GIMP offer capabilities for making userbars from scratch and there are web-based tutorials and forums for anyone who wants to learn how to make them using photo-editing software. For those who don’t have the money or the inclination to get to grips with the complicated DIY Photoshop option and are frustrated by online userbar generators, there is also the option of downloading special software that creates userbars without the need for broadband. The one I used for this article is the AmitySource UserBar Generator 2.2, which is a small program that gives you the capability of designing your own bars, using images saved on your computer and your choice of colours and filler effect from a preset menu. Although not without its limitations, such as being only able to use the standard Visitor font and that only in one colour and style, the Userbar Generator is very easy to use, even if you’re utterly new to the game, like I am.
To celebrate the miniscule artistic awesomeness that is the humble userbar, I have used both best-signatures.com and the AmitySource generator to make some userbars of my own. In honour of their original spirit, I drew inspiration from other’s creations to make a series of bars that reflect my personality and interests, as well as things that are special to me. As well as the static userbars, I also found another website, www.myspacegens.com, which will quite happily take up to 10 static ones and blend them into a GIF that shows each individual bar in 2-second intervals, transforming your creations into a sort of uber-cool userbar slideshow. That’s very handy if you have a lot to say and display to your fellow gamers or forum commentators.
A brief explanation of the static userbars.
1. ANGLO MAURITIAN: This bar represent my ethnic heritage, half-English (British) and half-Mauritian. The image is a pin badge featuring the intertwined flags of the two nations
2. CADBURY’S CREME EGG FAN: In honour of one of my favourite items of confectionary and a childhood favourite. The image is of a batch of the UK version of these sweet treats
3. CASUAL PHOTOGRAPHER: I do like to pull out my phone once in a while and take some jaw-dropping pictures, and I humbly appreciate the great expression of photography as an art. The image is a Nikon camera lens or some other specialist model
4. EMOJI ABUSER: As my Whatsapp and Facebook contacts can attest, I am trigger happy when it comes to emoticons. Well it does save on typing. The image is of a gallery of emojis commonly used on messaging services and social media.
5. FREQUENT WHATSAPP USER: Whatsapp, the almost-free messaging service is very important for me to keep in contact with distant family and friends. I used the app’s logo and made the background the same colours.
6. HALF-EATEN MIND: Why should I have all the fun?. This was the first userbar I made, using the Best Signatures site. In honour of this wonderful blog which helps me express myself and keep the reporting dream alive, I used the blog mascot, Woodsy the Owl, as a background.
7. INFORMA PLC.: Made with pride to represent the company I work for, using their corporate logo.
8. KEBABISH KING: This one is to pay homage to one of my favourite restaurants, Kebabish Original (K.O.). As with the Informa bar, I used their logo.
9. KRAVING FOR KELLOGG’S KRAVE: In honour of one of my favourite breakfast cereals. Full of chocolatey goodness.
10. LONDON COMMUTER: They say if you tire of London, you tire of life. I don’t always enjoy commuting, but it is a fundamental part of my day-to-day life. I used a Transport for London (London Underground) ‘Tube Map’ as a background.
11. NEWHAM RESIDENT: In honour of the London borough where I live and grew up in. The logo is that of Newham Council, our local government body.
12. NEWSPAPER JUNKIE: I can’t get enough of that black and white, baby. In honour of a news media that has inspired my journey as a journalist and taught me so much about the world. Graphic used comes from a picture of various British newspapers.
13. POUND STERLING USER: In honour of my currency of choice when at home. This userbar features Bank of England paper money.
14. PROUD HINDU: This bar celebrates my religious identity. The symbol is ‘Aum’ the first sound to originate in the universe and an identifier of my faith. The orange colour is another marker of my beliefs.
15. REPPIN’ PLAISTOW: A little statement of local pride here, Plaistow is the part of east London where I now live and also grew up in. The logo is a signblind from the N69 night bus which cuts through Plaistow and Stratford. I used to take the daytime 69 route to go to college in Leyton.
16. SAMSUNG GALAXY S4 MINI USER: Influenced by the userbar’s original purpose, I made this one a technology special. The mobile phone in question is my current model.
17. SHANIYA’S UNCLE: I made this in honour of one of my nieces, who I’m very close to. I used a family photo of her and chose pink as a background as it’s her favourite hue.
18. SIMPSONS FAN: Depicting the yellow-skinned family at rest, this bar celebrates one of my all-time favourite cartoons.
19. TAX STAMP COLLECTOR: A homage to one of my pastimes. The picture was supplied by a fellow collector of some stamps I was swapping with him.
20. TRADITIONAL ASIAN DUDE: Paying my respects to one of my ancestral cultures. Unlike a lot of South Asians in the UK, I try to remain close to my roots.
21. WORDPRESS BLOGGER: As my blogging friends know, old WP is our bread and butter.
I hope you have enjoyed my userbar collection, and perhaps are inspired to make your own.
By the way, this will be the last article I will be publishing for 2014. This one came out on the 31st December 2014, New Year’s Eve and the very last day of this year. I will not be posting tomorrow, but will be back on Friday 2nd January hopefully. I wish you all a prosperous new year 2015.
“Userbar” Wikipedia http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Userbar
“Userbars.be – the best userbar site of the web !” – userbars.be http://www.userbars.be/
CC Search/Creative Commons http://search.creativecommons.org/
“Halo Clan Userbars” – R-a-w-Z, DeviantArt http://r-a-w-z.deviantart.com/art/Halo-Clan-Userbars-81516428
“Userbar Designer” – Best Signatures/Best-Signatures.com http://www.best-signatures.com/userbar/#designer
AmitySource Userbar Generator 2.2, downloaded from UptoDown.
“Animated GIF Maker” – myspacegens/MyspaceGens.com http://www.myspacegens.com/handler.php?gen=animatedimage
“Thank You Mario! – Super Mario Brothers Animated Text Generator” – Zach Beane, Thank You Mario/WigFlip http://wigflip.com/thankyoumario/