An ode to a truly magical time on the internet, where restraint was a mere suggestion and the algorithm was but a twinkle in our eye.
I can picture with perfect memory one night when I was five years old. My dad came home with a box of Domino’s Pizza, and a second-hand desktop computer. He thought that giving me a computer at a young age, as opposed to a gaming console, would better prepare me for the real world. He had no idea that janky old desktop would become one of the most important, constant within my formative years. Many years later, he told me he wonders if he made a mistake in buying me that old desktop; truthfully, I don’t know either. What I know for sure is that, for better or for worse, like many of you, the internet was my childhood. The content I’d watch on the internet in my youth shaped me in many ways – this is merely a fragment of the full picture.
With my own computer, and a connection to the internet my life had changed. I was exposed to a world much greater in scale than I had ever known before. My first foray into the internet was through things familiar to me as a kid, video games and animations. For someone who couldn’t afford to play all of the expensive, blockbuster video games – the internet had to offer an endless library of free, easy to access games on websites like Miniclip and CoolMathsGames. I must’ve spent thousands of hours on these pages, it was a wonderful feeling being able to find free entertainment at any time I wanted.
My favourite site was Newgrounds, it contained user created content mostly geared towards teenagers. It was edgier, cooler, without the careful consideration of influence that comes with entertainment made specifically for kids. Newgrounds was not explicitly marketed towards children. However, it was easy for a kid to stumble upon it, as on the surface it didn’t appear too different from other, more sanitised websites with games and cartoons on them. Much like a parent might once have seen their child watching South Park and mistakenly thought that it’s just another kids show, without my parents knowledge I was exposed to certain things that would be considered… inappropriate.
Some of you might remember The Torture Game. If you’re not familiar with it, you basically have an arsenal of tools to brutalise this hanging mannequin person, complete with low-resolution crappy blood effects that were standard in the Flash games of the time. There’s a old, sensationalised Fox News report about The Torture Game with the headline, “Does online video game teach kids how to torture?” And while it’s been a long-debated discussion on whether video games do indeed cause violence, I think it’s fair to say that while it wasn’t likely to cause a kid to go out and kill someone, it could very well have caused desensitisation.
Violent and shocking content was incredibly easy to come across at the time. It was often used to troll unsuspecting people by sending them a misleading link. Do any of these ring a bell: BME Pain Olympics, 2 Girls 1 Cup, 1 Man 1 Jar (If you haven’t seen them already – don’t). Internet trolls, likely teenagers, had no concern who they were traumatising when sending out a link to one of these shock sites. Websites like Liveleak (RIP to a real one!), Rotten.com, and Bestgore had thousands of videos of real and violent deaths available for anyone to see. The effect of being exposed to graphic scenes of gore, mutilation, and fucked-up pornography was numbing. If you were to show me someone getting their head sawed off nowadays, I would just shrug, maybe I’d even laugh – and that’s probably not a good thing.
Of course, not everything was so dark, a lot of the content we had was just plain stupid. Have you tried going back and watching the YouTube videos you watched when you were seven? Try watching Fred, or Smosh, or Ray William Johnson – be amazed at how “Doin’ Your Mom!” was once the pinnacle of comedy. Undoubtedly, our tastes have changed since then. What was truly unique was that these early YouTube icons were independent creators, not manufactured by Disney or Nickelodeon, the time period we grew up in was the first to allow such creators to find a mainstream audience. I think that an essential aspect of the content we grew up with was its independence, its homemade charm – a lot of us to this day hold a distaste for corporations and I would posit that this is in some way linked with the content we consumed as kids.
A few years ago I volunteered to help with an event at a primary school and when I went to it everything I heard from the children was just verbatim punchlines from internet memes: Dabbing, Fortnite, Pepe Peepee Poopoo Pewdiepie Piss-shit. There was no modicum of original thought. It seemed absurd, but I realised it was the same for us, just with different memes: we’d joke about Minecraft, and Nyan-Cat, saying DERP! and quoting rage comics, not much better really. Gen Z was the first to grow alongside Meme Culture. Memes of course have been around for a while but they only really started to become widely-accessible in the mid 2000s. The memes of the time were more basic in their structure, more earnest; yet they still hold a place within our consciousness, with memes like Doge and the trollface returning in newer forms.
So much of our culture has become based around memetics. Repetition, references and quotes, in-jokes that reference older in-jokes ironically. Seeing how this abstract immaterial thing we have called the internet was seeping into real life at that primary school really put into perspective how much influence the content we consume affects us on a deep, subconscious level. The media we watch growing up stays with us, relegated to memory in the recesses of our minds – it’s as much a part of our development as our childhood friends and teachers, but it’s something that most of us think very little of.
The content we were exposed to was unique, there wasn’t so much of an ulterior motive to anything that people put out there, little opportunity to make money. The media of the early internet was largely experimental, born out of basements and college dorm rooms, made by individuals who saw potential in the format of new media that was the internet. They likely didn’t even consider the fact that they could have played a role in shaping a generation of young minds.
I wonder what the implications are for future generations. Generation Alpha are growing up in a much more sanitised version of the internet, content for children is now highly regulated by sites like YouTube and parents are (supposedly) more aware of what can be found online. Now that people are a lot more aware of how to use the internet to make money and influence people, I would be wary of the content being put out for children today. Although for the most part, the internet is (supposedly) much safer now than it used to be, though the occasional Elsagate gives one pause.
What happens when you give a young mind unadulterated access to an infinite source of information, impartial, and without any filter or concern for their safety? The answer: it’s hard to tell at this point. Even in 2021, we are still grappling with the massive change in the collective pathos of our culture that came with the widespread adoption of the internet. The implications are massive and the full effects on us as the first generation of the digital age will take a lot of time to completely digest. If there’s one thing I can say for certain: for the love of God, be a responsible parent. Please pay attention to what’s on your children’s screens, one generation getting exposed to the gore algorithm is enough.