I was a freshman in college then, and little did I know that sixteen years later I would be able to Tweet my every thought at an instant from my cell phone, upload photos and share them via Flickr, and write stories on a blog. The Internet of today is a very different place than it was back then. As more and more people have begun using the Internet on a regular basis, the culture of the Internet has changed, and so has its influence on our culture as a whole.
In December of 1995, 16 million people around the world were users of the internet. Today, almost two billion people use the internet. Unlike today, where the Internet is seen as just another facet of our everyday lives, in the 1990s, the internet was not as mainstream. When something became popular on the ‘net, people who were not web surfers rarely heard about it. As Internet usage grew, so did the wider culture’s awareness of what happens on the Internet. For better or worse, what happens on the Internet has become part of the fabric of our culture, in way that would have been unheard of in the early to mid-1990s.
For this article, I have created a few broad categories of Internet culture. Within those categories, I will describe an old Internet trend or event and compare it to a new Internet trend or event. I will then decide whether we are better off now, worse off now, or at a draw, using completely subjective criteria I make up on the spot.
Internet infamy can take a number of different forms, but at its core it is either voluntary or involuntary. Voluntary means that the person who is now infamous put the picture, video, or document on the Internet voluntarily, or consented to the release of the picture, video, or document. Involuntary means that the person did not know that the picture, video, or document was released until after he or she had become infamous.
Old Internet examples of infamy include:
Trojan Room Coffee Pot (1993) – This was the Internet’s first live webcam. The coffee pot was located within the Computer Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. The webcam was created in 1991 so that people working in other parts of the building could avoid making a trip to the coffee room, only to find the coffee pot empty. It was not what we think of as a webcam today. It provided a live black and white picture of the current level of the coffee. When it was connected to the Internet in 1993, word of it spread quickly via e-mail, and people from all over the world would click to see the current state of the coffee pot.
Numa Numa (2004) – This video of Gary Brosima lip synching to “Dragostea din tei” was created for friends. Much like viral videos today, the link was forwarded to hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people. At first, Gary was not happy about the attention, but he eventually embraced it, making follow up videos and creating a webpage devoted to all things Numa Numa.
Star Wars Kid (2002) – This is a video of a boy swinging a golf club around, pretending it was a lightsaber. The boy filmed the video, but left it in a basement, where it was discovered by a classmate. The video was distributed among his classmates, then eventually uploaded to the Internet, where it became a hit. He and his family sued the families of four of his classmates over the harassment he had received from his classmates and the public. The suit was later settled.
New Internet examples of infamy include:
Jessi Slaughter was an 11 year old girl who posted images and videos on Myspace, YouTube and other social networking sites. 4chan, a website primarily used for posting funny pictures and discussing manga and anime, but also known for attacking internet sites, began harassing her, calling her home and harassing her online. Her father made a video in response, which became an internet sensation for the phrase, “You done goofed.” The family began receiving death threats and the police began investigating the case.
Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student, committed suicide after his roommate left a webcam running in his dorm room and secretly broadcast him engaging in sexual activity with another man.
A female Duke University student made a Powerpoint presentation evaluating and ranking the men she had had sexual encounters with. The presentation included names, photos, and quotes from the men. She sent this presentation to two of her friends, and one of the friends sent it off to some of her friends, and they sent it to their friends, and so forth. Jezebel picked up the story, posting the entire presentation, after redacting the names and blurring the faces. Deadspin posted the entire presentation without redacting the names or the faces, but has since redacted the names after being contacted by some of the men featured in the presentation, but have not blurred out the faces.
Better off, worse off, or the same? Worse off. We’ve gone from the video equivalent to an embarrassing yearbook photo being posted on the Internet (no matter how traumatizing it was to the person at the time) to an 11 year old receiving death threats because a message board decided to mess with her.
Fun and Whimsy
From the moment the Internet began, people loved looking at pictures of cute animals, and captioning those pictures with funny things.
Old Internet fun and whimsy was done just for the sake of doing it. You had a funny idea, you put up a webpage, and you stared at your hit counter and hoped that it went up. Or, you put up a webpage just for you and your friends, and you had no idea that other people found your webpage cool, too.
Bert is Evil (1998) – Bert is Evil is a website which features Bert from Sesame Street placed into pictures through the use of Photoshop. These pictures often showed him at the site of historical events or showed him doing bad things with awful people. The site inspired other people to put Bert in awful situations. Today, using Photoshop to put people into photos is so commonplace, that it has become a verb – “Bert has been Photoshopped into pictures.”
Oolong – Oolong could have also gone in the infamy category, but I chose to put him here. Oolong was a rabbit who belonged to a man in Japan. Oolong became famous when the picture of him with pancakes balanced on his head was used by various message boards. People on those message boards wanted to know more about the rabbit, and that is when people discovered that Oolong balanced a lot of different things on his head. Oolong’s owner had no idea that Oolong had become famous, until he noticed that he was getting a lot of hits on his webpage from people all over the world. He had put up a webpage of pictures of Oolong (with and without items on his head) just to share them with other rabbit lovers, and he was surprised to find out that there were so many people around the world who loved Oolong.
New Internet fun and whimsy is all about making money, whether through ad revenue, merchandising, or all of the above. You want to become as popular as possible as soon as possible.
Maru the Cat – Mugumogu has been posting videos of Maru the cat on YouTube as well as writing a blog about Maru’s adventures. Maru’s channel is the 8th most subscribed channel on YouTube, and there have been two books and a DVD of Maru released in Japan.
I Can Has Cheezburger – Who hasn’t heard of the Cheezburger empire? They’ve sold T-shirts and books and almost everyone knows what a lolcat is.
Better off, worse off, or the same? The same. There’s nothing stopping you from putting up cute pictures of your puppy, and if it happens to go viral, even better. There can never be enough webpages devoted to cute animals on the Internet!
This category refers to the melding of the Internet and “old” media – television, movies, print media.
The Old Internet had very few examples of this category:
Dancing Baby (1996). This was a 3D animated rendering of a dancing baby. The video became popular after it was distributed over the Internet, later appearing in several Ally McBeal episodes.
Man vs. Bear (2000). A canned salmon company in the United Kingdom started a marketing campaign revolving around a viral video showing what appeared to be a bear fighting a fisherman for a fresh salmon in what was one of the first viral marketing campaigns.
The New Internet is full of example of this category! Marketers try very hard to make their hip new YouTube video go viral. Not only that, but television shows and movies reference the Internet all the time. Family Guy has referenced Peanut Butter Jelly Time and Star Wars Kid in its episodes and Carmax has used the dramatic gopher in its commercials.
Better off, worse off, or the same? Tough call. Worse off in that marketers try too hard sometimes to force their viral ad. Better off in that when television and movies write references to the Internet correctly, they are often really funny.
This last category refers to the practical jokes that abound on the Internet.
The Old Internet had many pranks, but at their core, they all involved trying to get someone to click a link that would take them to a disgusting website. The most famous one was:
Goatse (2000). Goatse.cx was a website that contained an image of a man stretching his anus (and no, I won’t link to it, if it is still even around). People would disguise links to Goatse with what appeared to be legitimate web links, in order to trick their friends and enemies into clicking and “getting Goatse’d”.
The New Internet’s most famous prank involves getting people to click on a link, which would take them to a webpage that played the video to Rick Astley’s, “Never Gonna Give You Up”, in a practice known as Rickrolling.
Better off, worse off, or the same? BETTER OFF, by far! No one needs to see the things that I have seen. NO ONE.
The biggest difference between the Internet then and the Internet now is that what happens on the Internet doesn’t just stay on the Internet. It gets reported on the news, talked about around the water cooler at work, and indexed by Google. If you are unlucky enough to become an unknowing Internet sensation, as opposed to a voluntary Internet sensation, that “fame” is likely to live on forever. Google is one of the best and worst things to come out of the Internet. Google allows you to find almost anything you can think of, but it also indexes and documents almost everything put on the Internet, forever. The Internet was not a perfect place back in the day, nor was it any safer or more kind, but your mistakes were a lot less likely to make national or international news.