Memes from the Year 2000 | MIT Center for Civic Media
Matt's a Research Assistant at the Center. He has spent his career at the intersection of technology and social change. He graduated with high honors from the University of Maryland College Park, where he wrote a thesis on the disruptive role of political blogs in journalism. He went on to join the strategy team at EchoDitto, a boutique consulting firm building cool technology for nonprofits, startups, and socially responsible businesses.
Then Matt attempted to save democracy by directing new media at Americans for Campaign Reform, a bi-partisan grassroots effort to enact voluntary public financing of federal campaigns. Right before Citizens United v. FEC hit, he joined the New Organizing Institute, where he helped to train the next generation of organizers. For most of this time, he also ran one of the most popular NetSquared groups in the world.
Matt's interested in pretty much everything, particularly the everything taking place at the Media Lab.
Memes from the Year 2000
It's 2012. Nerds are in and internet memes can actually make you famous IRL. But way back in the Year 2000, things were different. YouTube didn't exist, and a video had to be sent around as an email attachment (remember RealPlayer?). Your mom yelled at you for tying up the phone line and GeoCities plastered banners all over your creations.
The past is well-represented here, by Eric Wu of Eric Conveys an Emotion (founded in 1998), Zblofu of Zombocom, and Jonti Picking of Weebl's Stuff. They were all online in the 90's, but things really exploded in 2000.
Eric shot still photos of himself conveying requested emotions, gradually growing more complicated, from sad to conveying sarcastic respect for an authority figure.
Now we turn to Weebl, who's created an unreal amount of animated gifs on Weebl's Stuff. We got to revisit one of the Weebl classics, Badger Badger.
Next up is Zombocom - "I hope I paid my hosting bill" -Zblofu. According to Rob, Zombocom perfectly represents the experience on the internet in 2000: content solely consisting of flash animations, a permanent loading circle, and a repeating sound clip perpetually welcoming users to Zombocom. (XKCD's take).
Eric came to the internet via AOL, like many of us in the 1990s. He started his site over a summer in college, complete with a Jackie Chan image gallery and movie reviews. A friend encouraged him to post faces and solicit emotion requests. A few months in, people who were not his friends started sending requests. He obliged. "I always said I would stop when it stopped being fun. And I haven't updated since 2006, so..." Weebl similarly reflected on his beginnings on the internet with AOL.
Zblofu started Zombocom as a test. At the time, SpunkyTown was a company of 50 or so people paid with venture funding to do nothing but create Flash animations.
What are you up to these days?
Eric went to Silicon Valley and worked for Yahoo! for six years. He's now a general manager of an ice cream shop in Brooklyn, where he's experimenting with a Nyancat flavor: cream cheese ice cream with swirl of raspberry and chunks of poptart and rainbow sprinkles.
Weebl continues to make funny animations.
Zblofu makes music and works for a calendar company, which ironically, only takes six months a year. "I don't even want to go into calendars..." Rob follows up: "What goes into making a calendar?" "Not much."
How has the internet changed since 2000?
Eric: It's definitely become more social.
Weebl: Back then, everyone had personal websites. But now, the destinations are always the same: Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Zblofu agrees: "There are basically only five websites out there ... I miss the individual creativity."
Rob sees lower barriers to entry to producing content online. The technical and financial barriers are lower -- you can just go to YouTube. This allows the culture to become more centralized in these privately owned repositories of content.
We're talking about monetization now. Back in the day, website owners sold adspace in order to pay for their own hosting costs. Independent websites found themselves in the unwelcome position of hiring an ad sales person rather than rely on pennies from AdSense.
As the conversation wanes, we return to omfgdogs.com -- because you can't go wrong with animated dogs and rainbows.
Eric: "I like cool cats and dogs. Every night I trade cat and dog pictures."
What's the average visitor time on Zombocom?
"A pretty long time. Some people would just leave it on 24 hours a day."
Who's the voice behind Zombocom?
"That's the one thing I'm not allowed to talk about."
Speaking to the idea of past, present, future, do you think what you were known for then would have been successful today? If our online environment is more saturated today, how do you stand out?
Jonti: "I think if you knew the answer to that you'd be very rich."
Eric: "Very funny, immediately understood. If I did it today, it'd be much more social. The requests would go to a big list, and the best face would win."
Eric's response points to a shift in internet culture. In the early days of the year 2000, we were excited to stumble across an individual's small strange corner of the web. Today, we expect a social platform where the featured content is the best of a large crowd, rather than the best from an average person.
Eric is currently working on a new project: he's looking for a huge dataset of faces occupying different emotions and use it as an educational tool for helping people with Asperger's and autism.
Why are we just finding out who's behind Zombocom?
Zblofu: [The ROFLCon organizers] are the first people who called, so I said, "Sure." My name is on the WhoIs.
Do you like pancakes?
Which creation is your favorite?
Jonti: "Walk in the woods."
All of these sites are simple ideas. They're accessible. What was the international response?
"I heard a rumor that someone in South Korea watched it for 3 days straight and then killed themselves. That made me feel a bit bad." (WAS THIS ACTUALLY A RUMOR?)
Zombocom ran into accessibility issues when a deaf person contacted Zblofu and "chewed him out" for not having a text-only version of his site.
Did anyone ever take Zombocom seriously, and think there'd eventually be a real site there?
"I did." There are people who study this sort of thing, and have over-analyzed it and written papers on it.
Who do you wish was on this panel?
Eric: "The Homestar Runner guys. I looked them up on Wikipedia and they're working on Yo Gabba Gabba."
Superbad. Not the movie, but the site.
If I buy you a beer later, will you sing one of your Weebl songs?
Jonti: "If you make it a whisky, then yeah."
[the crowd goes wild]
The internet of the future:
"It'll probably be one site, a lot like YouTube, with nothing but cats on it. Forever." -Weebl
Zblofu imagines a Utopian future in which everyone has access to food, water, and internet. "I'd like to see some of the dominant forces taken down. Things have become so fragmented, and things are moving so fast, that I'd hope for things that take time, and thought (unlike what I did), and that quality could become one of the internet values."
This post written with help from Lexi Ross.