Even though our family Geek Camp focused on technology—either playing with it or visiting it at sites around town—a big part of being a geek includes understanding the shared culture we experience when working with that tech. To that end, we set aside time each morning to gather and teach each other about key moments in Internet Culture.
The campers volunteered to look up some information on each topic and present it to their peers. Rather than emphasize ancient ‘Net history—like Douglas Engelbart’s demo or the first web site—the topics were largely post-ARPANET, spanning four categories (History, Community, Resources and Memes).
Obviously, there is much more content available than our two allotted hours could include. Not making the cut were (among others) Will It Blend, 1337 speak, Dr. Horrible, Old Spice Guy, Napster and the Dot-Com Bubble. Despite their clear importance to the language of the Internet, we also avoided obvious resources, like Google, that would be familiar to the kids.
In the end, we selected 16 things we thought our geeklets should know (but probably don’t) that can help form a base understanding of Internet Culture.
Ridley Scott took time out from his movie-making schedule to direct one of the most iconic television commercials in history. Running as part of the Super Bowl XVIII broadcast in 1984, the commercial cemented Apple’s image as an upstart company championing individuality. Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and John Sculley were thrilled with Scott’s work, but the Apple Board of Directors hated the commercial and tried to kill it.
The roots of every Mac vs. PC debate are in this commercial. The ad is poignant to watch today, in the context of Apple’s dominant success with smaller computing devices, the shift in nemesis from IBM to Microsoft and Google, and Pepsi spurning Super Bowl ads for a social media campaign. The Orwellian themes also make us question whether we live in the kind of world at which the Running Woman is throwing her hammer.
Take Away: A well-crafted metaphor changes perceptions.
Clippit (a.k.a., Clippy) was the default animated character for Microsoft Office Assistant, which came pre-installed with Office 97 software. Designed by Kevan Atteberry as a user-friendly troubleshooter, the paperclip with googly eyes tried to anticipate what a writer might need based on what she was typing at the time. By the 2001 release of XP, Clippy had been demoted. “Office XP is so easy to use that Clippy is no longer necessary, or useful,” a Microsoft product manager explained at the time. In 2011, Clippy made a comeback as a character in a game version of Office, to help people learn how to use the tools.
Clippy is a forerunner to Apple’s Siri, although the talking paperclip seemed to bring out more vitriol. Evolving from Microsoft Bob and Rover, Clippy was reviled as an intrusive helper with an unprofessional attitude. Microsoft had used Bayesian Logic to try to predict user frustration, and engineers reportedly stripped out much of the Office Assistant’s smarts to save disk space, but ultimately Clippy was just a bad social actor: No one wants to be told they are doing it wrong on every meeting. In 2003, a Stanford student completed a thesis on why people hated Clippy, finding that its joking negatively impacted perceptions. Clippy was #3 in the Time list of Top 50 Worst Inventions, right behind the Segway and New Coke.
Take Away: Bad mistakes sound like Gilbert Gottfried.
The Streisand Effect
In 2002, photographer Kenneth Adelman published some aerial shots of the California coastline, as part of a project to record erosion over time. One of those photos happened to show the expansive estate of singer-actress Barbara Streisand, prompting the celebrity to sue for $50 million and the removal of her house from the collection. Instead of suppressing the image, Streisand watched the photo become news that was freely broadcast across the country as television anchors reported on the celebrity’s lawsuit.
The “Streisand Effect” is the name given by writer Mike Masnick (TechDirt) to describe a situation made much worse by bringing attention to it. There are plenty of examples of how the noisy cricket draws flies. Pictopia, the service that hosted the photos and thus was included in the brouhaha, shut down this year after more than a decade selling images to media organizations. Adelman won a countersuit and the 2004 Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography.
Take Away: Private is public, if someone can see it.
It begins with the Moldova unrest in 2009 over fraudulent elections and extends through the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, which ousted Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power. These protest movements used the microblogging platform Twitter as a tool to organize and promote opposition views to the rest of the world. In particular, Iran inspired many Twitter users to change their avatars to green and their profile locations to Tehran—showing solidarity for the revolution and confusing authorities looking for locals covering the events.
The mainstreaming of Twitter got a boost from the U.S. State Department, who intervened to delay Twitter’s plans for an overnight maintenance window that would have disabled services during a critical daytime protest in Iran. The academic debate still rages about the impact Twitter actually had on the Arab Spring uprisings, but it is clear social media platforms didn’t cause them. Social media merely amplified far away actions as never before.
Take Away: Our digital connections make the world much smaller.
San Diego Comic-Con
There are a number of popular geek conferences, but arguably the Comic-Con in San Diego is the big one, with over 130,000 attendees. The purpose of the four-day event is to generate comic awareness and appreciation, celebrating the ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture. However, that mission expanded to include movies, games, fiction and collectibles that don’t have a comic form. The next conference starts on July 17.
Some of the most memorable moments include the introduction of the Avengers cast, sneak-previews of James Cameron’s Avatar, Christopher Nolan’s transmedia game to promote Dark Knight, and a stabbing over a free seat in a 2010 panel. However, the Con may have grown too big and too broad. As South By Southwest is to startups, SDCC draws floods of media types to make major announcements and create fan investment in upcoming projects. Overcrowding and cost prompt questions concerning whether the Con can survive in San Diego.
Take Away: Growth brings new attention and new problems. And Nathan Fillion.
Used often at summer camps and between fraternities as a social mechanism, the Color War of importance to the Internet is the one Ze Frank organized. Back in 2008, when Robert Scoble was the Justin Bieber of the day on Twitter, Frank tweeted his affiliation with the Blue Team and sparked a self-organizing frenzy. Among the activities that withstood the test of time was Young Me Now Me, now immortalized as a book.
Color War is included on this list because, in my geeky opinion, Ze Frank is bigger than Mark Zuckerberg. Frank is an uber geek with a keen understanding of how to craft community from the raw materials of the Internet. His vision fosters the creative potential of ad-hoc communities, and continues today in the form of Star.Me missions and a return of the A Show video blog, via Kickstarter.
Take Away: The Internet’s biggest gift is active connection with others.
The hacktivist group Anonymous relies on a decentralized command structure driven by ideas rather than directives. Their target websites typically suffer content hacks, information dumps, and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. Anonymous operations range from defacing hate-mongering websites to calling for prison reform. Their core advocacy congregates around protecting individual privacy and seeking organizational transparency (although hackers do sacrifice the former for sake of the latter, as was the case with Aaron Barr).
Anonymous inherits a trolling culture from their 4chan roots, but in recent years appears to be more altruistic and political in their motivations. Anons show up in Guy Fawkes masks at Occupy protests and have been supportive of actions by Wikileaks that assist transparency. Yet as a leaderless hive, Anonymous remains unpredictable and occasionally detrimental to their own causes due to the fluid choice of targets and tactics. Every action the group takes, however, seems to stimulate a healthy discussion about living in a digital world. Change does not come without some skill and and at some cost.
Take Away: The boundary between digital and physical is blurry.
Based in New York City-based, this prank collective “causes scenes” in public places. Charlie Todd created Improv Everywhere in 2001, involving tens of thousands of agents with over 100 missions. Their most enduring mission is the MP3 Experiment, now in its tenth year and scheduled for July 14. There is even a documentary on the movement that was screened at the 2013 South By Southwest conference.
What makes Todd’s work so delightful is how the videos documenting each mission focus on the bystanders. Provoking looks of befuddlement and joy is his motivation to gather dozens of people in a store or park and disrupt the normal context of the space. Personally, my favorite bit of IE public theatre is the human moebius, a 5-minute script for seven agents that looped back on itself in a Starbucks.
Take Away: Spaces are a creative material.
Although the search for the first website is eluding archivists, some digital librarians had the foresight back in 1996 to start capturing the evolving state of the World Wide Web. The Internet Wayback Machine is a “four-dimensional search engine” that lets people browse back to past versions of over 240 billion web pages. The name of the site is a reference to a segment on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show where a dog genius and his pet boy use the WABAC time machine to explore famous events in history. WABAC will likely make an appearance in the 2014 film, with Ty Burrell voicing Mr. Peabody (the dog).
Archiving the Internet remains a source of contention for some, who see efforts like Alexa Internet’s project as a violation of copyright. Archive pages have been introduced as legal evidence with mixed success—Patent law accepts search results as validation for public availability. Since dynamic pages often require form submissions to see the data, the ever-changing nature of the Web dooms the Wayback Machine to incompleteness. The tool’s value is dependent on the chance that what you seek was captured at the right moment in time.
Take Away: Change is a hidden value worth curating.
Snopes is a website investigating a broad interpretation of “urban legend” that includes misinformation, rumors, and celebrity gossip. It relies on referenced evidence to make a case about the validity of a topic. David and Barbara Mikkelson—who met in the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup—created the website as a free resource in 1995 and fund the effort with their own money, supplemented by advertising revenue. The name of the site owes to a family of unpleasant characters created by writer William Faulkner.
With a mission of debunking mistruths flowing around the Internet, Snopes itself has been scrutinized by other fact-checking resources. Accusations of liberal bias can be dismissed through such external validation of their conclusions, and the Mikkelson’s methodology is widely considered to be thorough and apolitical. Questioning their own work and biases is an action that fits with their desire to improve the world’s critical thinking.
Take Away: Information you encounter is always improved with scrutiny.
I Can Has Cheezburger
Ben Huh’s goal is to give everyone five minutes of happiness each day. That’s the time it takes to peruse a few cat photos and topical images on the CEO’s websites. I Can Has Cheezburger? was created in 2007 by Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebesami, and Huh is credited with mainstreaming memes into a profitable business venture. In addition to the lolcats repository, the Cheezburger empire now includes Rocketboom’s Know Your Meme resource and the FAIL blog, as well as a handful of books and a reality TV show.
ICHC is criticized for profiting off of the creative contributions of users, a common refrain for social media sites like Facebook, too. As one the top 1000 websites in the world, it has great influence on what gets passed around the Internet. Huh considers his sites more of a playground than a meme generator like 4chan, and likens the 4chan /b/ board to splitting the atom. “It is incredibly powerful, yet you don’t know if it is going to be used for good or bad,” Huh told ReadWrite. “Is it going to be a nuclear weapon, or is it going to be used for nuclear energy? No one really knows.”
Take Away: Collectively, we make our own fun on the Internet.
Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist and programmer, started scanning his stick figure drawings to post on the Internet on 2005. The name of his site, xkcd, came from a random IM screen name Munroe used, intentionally avoiding meaning and pronunciation. The comics use simple drawings to reflect topical and techie themes of computing, math, science and insights from his personal life. For the past year, Munroe has also posted a weekly What-If blog answering a hypothetical question with real science and math.
A three-times-a-week ritual for many geeks, Munroe’s work is available under Creative Commons, allowing it to propagate freely across the Internet. His art has shown up in countless presentations, on shirts, in blogs, and on my son’s desktop wallpaper. Munroe is the Internet’s philosopher, as well an experimenter who has used the digital form of comics to play with wide variances in sizes, publish a slowly updating comic, and hide a puzzle that led readers to a signing of his 2010 book.
Take Away: Thoughtful geeks can be both clever and profound.
Long before 4chan and Cheezburger were generating their own memes, a 3D-rendered baby was seen dancing on many computers around the world. It originated as a test file for Autodesk’s Character Studio 3D animation software, and was the byproduct of quite a bit of research on motion and physics by the developers. Baby Cha Cha made the rounds as an early viral video in 1996, moving to the beginning of Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling.” Lost in that popularity are the advances in modeling and animation that the baby signified.
Memes are made when ideas migrate to different forms and adapt to new contexts. Thanks to Compuserve, animated GIFs, and royalty-free distribution, the baby made its way to television in the first season of Ally McBeal. The baby’s association with “Hooked on a Feeling” was made and cemented on the show, using Vonda Shepard’s cover. The original sk_baby.max animation file provided a material for many mods to the original work, including drunken baby, samurai baby, and rasta baby. Even now, it continues to be referenced in other forms of media, including The Simpsons and Millennium.
Take Away: Starting a meme takes one email with an interesting attachment.
The 1987 video of singer Rick Astley dancing to his “Never Gonna Give You Up” hit has some 68 million views, at last check. Most of those originated when someone sent the video link to a friend or family member on the pretext that it led to an important document. This bait-and-switch technique may have lost its effectiveness when YouTube added advertisements to the start of popular videos, but “Rick Rolling” certainly revived Astley’s career.
In true meme fashion, rickrolling is a derivative of an earlier practice on 4chan called duckrolling. Instead of Rick Astley, a link would arrive at a picture of a duck on wheels. The first rickrolls came in 2007 from links purporting to be to a trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV video game. By the following year, an estimated 18 million people had been rickrolled, helped in large part by YouTube’s own involvement as an April Fool’s Day prank. Later that year, Astley sang the song from the Cartoon Network float in the Macy’s parade.
Take Away: We’re no strangers to love.
Star Wars Kid
Back in 2003, a video featuring a heavy-set teenager wielding a golfball retriever as an imaginary-lightsaber made the rounds on file sharing networks. One billion views later, the performance still serves as a reminder about the double-edged sword that is digital networking. Ghyslain Raza was the Canadian teenager with the moves, but it was not his intent to share the video, made on the set of a high school production studio. That decision was made by three classmates who found the video in the equipment five months later and released it to the Internet. Within weeks, Raza’s footage had been treated with CGI effects to add the light saber glow and sounds, but the propagation of the video was mostly motivated by communal laughter at the teen’s expense.
The Internet moved just as quickly to make up for the cyberbullying with a crowdsourced donation of over $4,000 and a new iPod. Raza’s family sued the classmates for $250,000, eventually settling out of court. It took ten years of therapy and suicide watches before Raza was able to recover enough for an interview. References continue to be found in pop culture, such as Arrested Development and The Colbert Report, proving Internet infamy is forever.
Take Away: Be intentional about what you document and publish.
Another classic viral hit also features a heavy-set young man performing on video. In this case, the video was released by its creator in late 2004 as an ode to the culture of Newgrounds, a Flash animation community. Videographer Gary Brolsma lip synced to a Moldovan pop song on Newgrounds, but subsequent migration to other platforms made it viral. Eventually, Brolsma accepted his Internet fame by revisiting the work.
As Indiana University’s Jeff Bardzell found in his research of amateur multimedia, Brolsma’s low-quality production is embedded with a sophisticated knowledge of his intended audience:
The video drops in seemingly random images, which are in fact references to other amateur animations from several similar communities. Using such images is a means of demonstrating one’s membership in other communities, as is the viewer’s understanding the references and their significance. The song, his dancing, and some of the memes he quotes all became memes in later animations.
Take Away: Creativity always builds off of existing ideas.
What moments are on your shortlist, and what lessons do they teach us?