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For 99 percent of human history, there was no such thing as talking to a person who wasn't in front of you. No phones, no instant communication from farther than shouting distance. If that doesn't absolutely blow your mind, you haven't thought it through -- the first man to ever wake up and realize that he had drunk dialed an ex-girlfriend the night before must have felt like he had been cursed with a destructive new form of black magic.

Likewise, we're about 20 years into widespread Internet use now, and it's easy to forget how many of the day-to-day anxieties we deal with are brand new to the species. For instance ...

Accidental-Sharing Panic

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You know what allows humans to live together in a society? Walls. The fact that we get to choose when other people can or can't hear what we're saying. But in the world of email, one pixel separates the button for, "send your buddy Steve this crude joke about the boss's body being made entirely of compressed farts" ...

... from the button that means, "send this crude joke to the entire company, including the aforementioned boss, and instantly destroy your entire life forever":

Microsoft Outlook is actually full of little landmines like this -- when you type in recipient names, it does that autocomplete thing, so if hypothetically you worked for a publication that starts with a "C," then any time you send an email to anyone whose name also starts with a "C," it immediately tries to autocomplete the recipient to the "Cracked - All" mailing list. Every time. As you know, five of our six most popular contributors are named Chad, so every time I want to reply to one of them with a candid message like "Jack O'Brien? More like Jerome O'Fartmonster!" the email software will try to trick me into sending it to the "Everyone Who Works Here" list.

You might say, "Well, that's what you get for saying mean things about your superiors over email, jackass!" but I, like most people, do most of my interaction with other human beings over some kind of computerized text -- email, instant messenger, text messaging, whatever (in fact, I telecommute to work, so almost all of my interaction with co-workers is done this way). So it's natural to eventually treat email the way you'd treat everyday conversation, including the venting, rumor sharing, and joking that all humans engage in as a necessary part of maintaining our sanity. It's just that now, we're one miniscule twitch of the finger away from broadcasting our ugliest thoughts to the world.

Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com
"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!"

What Was It Like Before the Internet?

Prior to 1995 or so, I can't imagine a circumstance in which an employee for a company could state some unpopular opinion or off-color joke to his co-worker and instead accidentally say it to all 5,000 employees of the company nationwide. Shit, it wasn't that long ago in human history when you couldn't speak to that large of an audience period (when Jesus spoke to the masses, the people in the back were only there because they heard there was free fish), let alone do it accidentally.

So the only way anybody living more than 20 years ago could have even known what accidental sharing panic felt like is if there was some bizarrely specific circumstance involving a public address system whose microphone was positioned really close to the water cooler, and somehow the mic got left in the on position.

Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images
"So I just shit directly in it. Man, am I glad that he'll never know."

And in the Future ...

Oh, look what every porn video site has now:

Via Tube8.com (NSFW)

Little "share" buttons that, with one touch, will tell your mother, grandmother, friends, family, co-workers, and everyone else you vaguely know what porn video you're watching. And if you think it's easy to accidentally hit something like that with your mouse, wait until we've all transitioned to tablets and are tapping these controls with our fat fingers. Not that it will take that much effort -- the future is a world where everything you read and watch is automatically shared on social networking unless you specifically tell it not to. In the future, preventing your personal secrets and preferences from being spilled into the world will be as futile as record labels trying to stop file sharing.

The Irresistible Impulse to Follow a Link Chain

Burke/Triolo Productions/Brand X

Or, as we have previously referred to it, Wikipedia freefall.

It works like this: Somebody at the bar insists that Keanu Reeves is actually 58 years old. You call bullshit, so you bring up his Wikipedia page, but while checking his age, you happen to read down and find out that Reeves' infant daughter and girlfriend both tragically died just a year apart while he was shooting the Matrix sequels. Fascinated, you wind up reading the whole entry and then clicking on the link to the Wiki page for the movie Constantine. Then you keep reading it because while there, you learn that series creator Alan Moore claims that the titular character twice approached him in real life, having somehow escaped the comics.

Having long forgotten what you originally came for, you now have to click on Alan Moore to see what other crazy things he has said/done and wind up reading about how he and his wife openly shared a female lover until his wife and the lover both left him, and also, he worships the Roman snake god Glycon. So of course you click on Glycon's Wiki page and see that it's an obscure 2,000-year-old religion still practiced in some parts of the world, but that the serpent deity "was supposedly a hand puppet" invented by a satirist. Then you click on the history of serpent worship and read that the blue-snake-curled-around-a-rod symbol you see on ambulances is a reference to a Greek god and that is the reason ancient hospitals used to have live snakes all over the floor ...

Then you blink, look up, and realize that 12 hours have passed.

Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com
Don't do it, Grandpa! You don't have that much time left to begin with!

What Was It Like Before the Internet?

How was this possible before somebody invented hyperlinking? I'm imagining that scene from The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf is trying to track down the origins of the One Ring and winds up in that library, grabbing ancient crumbling scrolls off the shelf, frantically reading one after another by candlelight ...

Wait, is this what those people who hung around in libraries were doing when I was a kid? Did they spot a reference in a book to some periodical, then sit down with the microfilm to look it up, then just get lost down the rabbit hole for the rest of the day, scrolling through old news articles? Then why were they always exposing themselves to me?

Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images
"Spoiler alert! You're about to find out what the human body turns into."

And in the Future ...

I don't want to sound all paranoid about Google Glass -- I look forward to the day when I can play browser games in my eyeglasses while my boring doctor drones on about why I have eye cancer. But holy shit is it going to be hard to have conversations once I know I can bring up Wikipedia with a twitch of my eyeball.

Somebody on the bus mentions quinoa and you think, "What's that?" and instantly make the Wiki page float in front of your face. Before you know it, four hours have passed, you're reading about the history of aircraft carriers and the bus is on the other side of the state. I'm picturing a world where people are just constantly nodding off like heroin addicts, going into trances and staring off into space, because two hours ago somebody referenced an actor or TV show they weren't familiar with, then they looked it up, and ... off they went.

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"Holy shit, you're supposed to be driving!"

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"Are They Talking About Me?" Social Media Anxiety

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The entire reason I wrote under a pseudonym when I started out (a name I thought up on the spot while registering on a movie forum in 1998 that now stars in its own movie) was because I didn't want co-workers reading an off-hand joke I made about the stinky guy at the office without a dozen of them saying, "Wait, is he talking about ME? Am I the stinky guy? WHY, THE NEXT TIME HE YAWNS, I SHALL FART INTO HIS MOUTH!"

But now that everyone is writing for the public on at least one social network, this sort of "Is this post actually about ME?" anxiety is something everybody will feel at one time or another. For instance, people tend to post cryptic Facebook updates, like "I just love it when people act like they're my friend while they're talking shit behind my back :-("

Ablestock.com/AbleStock.com/Getty Images
"Sitting there in their computer chair with their hand on their mouse."

You read it and think, well, that's not about me, I'm not talking shit! But then you think, "Yeah, but maybe she thinks I am! That's what 'behind my back' means, after all!" But since this is Facebook and not a private conversation, now you have comments from all 450 of her friends expressing sympathy, trying to guess who the traitor is, everyone piling on. And here's the thing: Even if you know their cryptic post is talking about you, since they didn't name you by name, you can't jump in and defend yourself -- it could turn out you're wrong, and then, perversely, you look like an egomaniac for assuming everything is about you.

What Was It Like Before the Internet?

The grapevine has always existed -- I'm sure that 30 years ago you'd find that your personal conflict with a supervisor had become juicy gossip in the mailroom. But it was just a dozen bored people looking for drama to get through the monotony. But now that everyone has an audience, the whole dispute happens for the audience's benefit. That's the difference.

Hemera Technologies/Photos.com
"You gonna put up with that shit? Call her a fat bitch! That'll show her!"

Your classmate Trevor wasn't confused about what would happen when he posted on Tumblr that "It's heartbreaking to find out one of your friends is cheating on one of your other friends, but you can't say anything." He knew that was juicy shit, and that it would get everyone talking. And you know how everyone acts crazier on reality shows when they know the camera is on them? That's what happens when personal drama becomes entertainment for a crowd, and the people involved in the drama know it ("Damn, she just went Omarosa on his ass!").

Before the Internet era, the only people I can imagine feeling this "Is that my dirty laundry that just went public there?" anxiety on a regular basis were, of course, old-school rappers. Every time a new diss track would come out, they'd have to think, "Am I the sucker MC he's talking about who thinks his rhymes are phat but who deserves an ass full of gat?" or, "Wait, does he see me as one of the haters from the block who didn't believe in him when he was growing up, but who's all on his jock now that he's blowing up?"

That's why it had to be refreshing when Tupac was so direct in "Hit 'Em Up,"* when he started the trend of naming his enemies openly (NSFW):

Unless there's two dudes out there named "Biggie" and/or "Mobb Deep," this is very clear feedback presented in a very direct way. I would have enjoyed having Tupac as a supervisor. But I digress.

*Side note: Can any lawyers out there let me know why it's legal to make explicit death threats as long as they're in rap-song form? At one point he actually says something to the effect of "This is not just a song, I am literally saying I am going to shoot Biggie Smalls to death."

And in the Future ...

I believe the day is coming when people will have front-facing cameras that can start live-streaming whatever they're doing, at any time, through either some advanced version of the aforementioned Google Glass or some future camera they can implant right into their goddamn eyeball.

Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images
"I'm hacking this fucker to shoot lasers. And then you're all going to pay."

Which means that in the future, you'll have an innocuous conversation with a co-worker only to find out later that he streamed the whole thing to his 8,000 followers under the title "LOL THIS DICKHEAD IS PRETENDING TO BE NICE TO ME AGAIN! LISTEN TO HIS BULLSHIT HA." There'll be a live chat window where everyone can post in real time about how awful you are, sharing humorous anecdotes about the time you tried to be nice to them, too.

And you'll always be the last to know.

The Confusion/Disgust/Arousal of Stumbling Upon Someone Else's Sexual Fetish


There are a few porn milestones every person has in their life. There's the first time they were aroused by a photo or movie (there's a reason Princess Leia's slave girl outfit brings back powerful memories for Comic Con goers). There's the first time they sought out full-on pornography and realized how plentiful it was. And then there's the first time they stumbled upon a fetish that terrified them ... and realized how incredibly common it was. Now, to be clear, I'm not talking about mild little tweaks to conventional porn -- a hot woman in tight leather can be a turn-on whether or not you have a "leather fetish." I'm talking about the first time you saw completely non-sexual, fully clothed media that clearly serve as someone else's wank material.

I specifically remember this one for me -- it was 1999, and I was searching Lycos for local volunteer opportunities when I stumbled across a massive library of sex videos. I clicked on one called "Sexy Catfight -- Liz vs. Vixxen!" and expected to see two mostly naked women "fighting" by pulling each other's clothes off until they finally succumbed to their own lust and started kissing. You know, a cat fight. What I saw instead were two fully clothed, muscular, linebacker-type women pretending to punch each other in the gut for several minutes until one of them held the other down, sat on her chest, and forced her to surrender the match. Viewers had rated it four stars out of five. It was so weird for me because it had all of the rhythm of porn -- you could see which parts were buildup and which part served as the "money shot" (the submission at the end). I knew exactly which parts a gut-punch fetishist was supposed to masturbate to.

Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com
"Time out! Sir, we're going to have to ask you to put your pants on and leave."

Of course, by now the market has evolved to the point that each fetish has its own sprawling community, full of subgenres, and you can't Google brownie recipes without running into five of them. You can take what you think is the weirdest possible fetish -- say, vorarephilia (getting sexually aroused at the thought of a large predator eating you) -- and find that on the Internet, this is so common that it's referred to by slang shorthand ("vore"). You can find one gallery after another after another after another after another -- and that's just on DeviantArt, and just the first two pages of a Google search. That's not even touching on places like Vore.net, where they start breaking it down into subgenres like "anal vore" (it's not what you think!).

Of course, any Internet user is numb to it at this point -- we can stumble across YouTube videos of fully clothed people popping balloons or stepping on brake pedals and be completely unsurprised by both the high hit counts and the commenters talking about how hard they climaxed while watching.

Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images
"Fuck yeah. Get the whole family in there and wash that dog. Wash him so clean. Mmmm."

What Was It Like Before the Internet?

I am old enough to be familiar with how porn worked in the pre-Internet era -- it was an almost entirely subscription magazine and Cinemax-based medium, unless you were brave enough to wander into the video store and march up to the counter with Bram Stoker's Crackula in hand, in full view of your neighbors, classmates, and church pastor. Due to economics or the conventions of the genre, they always kept fetishes within a few inches of the mainstream -- they might throw a bone to spanking fetishists, but it would be a beautiful naked woman spanking another beautiful naked woman. Anyone could enjoy it.

I can't imagine what a boon the Internet was for the weird fetish community -- how did these people even find each other before? It must have been like a glorious breath of fresh air to realize there were tens of thousands of other like-minded folk out there, enjoying the same weird boner. Good for them. I mean that.

Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images
"Oh my God, you too? I thought I was the only one!"

And in the Future ...

Remember what I said about how eventually everybody will have forward-facing cameras on their body somewhere? Already the porn community is full of "creepshots" galleries where people secretly photograph women at the mall bending over, etc. There's going to come a point where you'll be at the dog park, slowly feeding a sausage to your St. Bernard, and you'll think, "Wait, is this somebody's fetish? Are they recording me right now so that people can wank to it later on DogGobblers.com?"

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The Dread of Stumbling into a Hornet's Nest

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I'm talking about when you suddenly realize, out of the blue, that some completely benign topic, or very mild joke, is the subject of someone else's bitter, ongoing conflict. We covered a whole bunch of these before -- for instance, you can't show up in a public forum asking about tipping at restaurants, declawing cats, or circumcision without finding that you have accidentally taken one side in a long-running war where passions run high and both sides have long since abandoned rational discussion.

A while back, I was asked if for our next redesign Cracked should go with a serif font, or sans. I had never heard either of those nonsense words in my life, but they included samples, and basically serif fonts look more old-fashioned and fancy and sans serif fonts look more modern and computery (a "serif" is the little horizontal bit that makes letters look like they're wearing tiny shoes and hats). But in order to research this, I anonymously asked a message board full of webmasters which one was the best, and that's when I realized that serif lovers were at war with sans fans. If you search around the Internet, you'll find passionate arguments like this and this and this and this and this going around and around on the subject. Then you have this exhaustively researched article referencing more than 50 goddamned scientific studies on the subject of which font is more readable. Then you can go buy a "Sans Serifs Suck" T-shirt:

Via Tedbubble.com
Hear me. This is important.

Hey, how many males reading this had to, in the last year, Google the phrase "rape culture" because you were accused of being part of it, yet had no idea what it was?

What Was It Like Before the Internet?

Sure, we've all been in some social situation where we accidentally touched on a sore subject (say, you innocently ask the childless couple if they intend to have kids, only to realize that they've been bitterly arguing over the subject for three straight years). But that's not the same as suddenly finding that you've accidentally taken a side in a bitter debate spanning multiple nations and languages that has advanced to the point that people on the other side have a snide nickname for your group ("Oh, great, here comes another Serif Monkey with sans in her vagina!")

I think the closest you could come in pre-Internet days was in realizing that your arbitrary purchase had made you part of a brand loyalty war (as Brockway mentioned here, classic car makes are practically the subject of a blood feud). I remember being a teenager and going to a car audio place to have a CD player installed, only to have the guy behind the counter get visibly angry that I had bought a Sony.

Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images
"Get the fuck out of my store before I pour magma on your crotch!"

And in the Future ...

Regardless of where the technology goes, the trend is clearly moving in the direction of breaking down all walls between social networking and real life. And while today you might run into jackasses who insist on wearing their pet issue on their sleeve (or just a "Meat Is Murder!" T-shirt), I foresee a future where with one click of an app, people can see every single controversial opinion you hold pop up in a dialogue box on your chest. "Oh, this is the guy who supported Leno over Conan 10 years ago. I shall have no sex with this man!"

The Shock of Instant, Unintentional Fame

George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images

August, 2012. A random photo of a bunch of runners in a marathon is uploaded to Flickr. It is nothing more than one of probably 7 billion photos hosted on that site -- nothing remarkable or shocking or startling about it.

But one of the runners is looking directly at the camera and smiling in a very photogenic way, and somebody posts it to Reddit under the title "My friend calls him 'Ridiculously Photogenic Guy.'" That post gets an astounding 52,000 upvotes. Somebody tracks down the guy in the photo, Zeddie Little, who then does a Q-and-A on Reddit that gets 47,000 more upvotes and more than 8,000 questions or comments ... about that one random photo of him running.

Via Knowyourmeme.com
Hahaha! I get it!

He immediately becomes the subject of an incredibly popular meme. He gets covered by the mainstream press and is interviewed on Good Morning America. And the next week, everyone forgot about it and grabbed another random person and made him instantly famous.

For Little, it's no big deal in the grand scheme of things -- he likely didn't profit and doesn't appear to have been harmed by it, other than the fact that he'll still be getting recognized at parties as "Ridiculously Photogenic Guy" 10 years from now, even if he cures cancer. But then you combine this "instant fame" phenomenon with the "hornet's nest" element above, and you have a situation where any stupid thing said or done in view of the Internet now has the possibility of making you the worldwide Internet Villain of the Moment.

John Rowley/Photodisc/Getty Images
"Boo! Boo to your fame!"

So, a couple of silly teenage girls make racist jokes in a YouTube video they thought no one would watch and it inexplicably explodes into millions of views and a nationwide shitstorm of death threats, until they have to be pulled out of school. A low-level employee at Microsoft posts a tweet mocking gamers complaining about their next console to his 1,600 followers, at which point it erupts into a backlash spanning 60 different websites and becomes a viral meme, and finally Microsoft has to issue an official apology. The employee might have been fired over it. And again, we'll all forget about it a few days later and pick another punching bag.

This isn't defending anything those people said or did -- it's just that it's so random. For instance, teenagers are saying ignorant things at a rate of several million per second. That's the point of youth -- you do stupid things so you can learn from them and become an adult (you don't think I wrote a "Eugenics never got a fair shot!" essay in high school? Come on, we all go through that phase). But only now do we have this process where we just grab one stupid person at random and feed them into the internet's outrage machine.

Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images
Yeah, you should feel ashamed, you piece of shit.

What Was It Like Before the Internet?

It's true that unintentional fame or infamy has been a thing as long as mass media has been a thing. But once upon a time, it only happened due to your proximity to some extraordinary circumstance. Like Abraham Zapruder, the guy who happened to be holding the one video camera that captured the JFK assassination (he immediately sold the film for the modern equivalent of about $1.1 million, then was so traumatized by the aftermath that he never touched a camera again). Or Kato Kaelin, the random dude who happened to be staying at O.J. Simpson's guest house when Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife, and who became a celebrity during the sensational murder trial that followed, for reasons that to this day no one quite understands.

In other words, it used to be that you had to have some connection to an actual news story in order to get your 15 minutes of fame. Now, any random photo or thoughtless joke can fill your inbox with 10,000 death threats overnight.

Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images
And this is even coming from "rational, mature" adults.

And in the Future ...

I've lost track of how many people have gotten fired over some Twitter dust-up (a week before this was written, two other people were fired over a dick joke overheard in a public place and a subsequent Twitter post about it). There's a new controversy like this every other day, and every time, people ask, "Why does anybody still share anything on Twitter? When will they learn?"

But they could ask the same thing about the girls saying stupid shit into a webcam and uploading it for the world to see, or the criminal dipshits who upload videos of their crimes to the Internet and promptly get arrested after the shortest investigation in history. It's like people can't not share, even when they know there's a good chance it will ruin them.

Goodshoot RF/Goodshoot/Getty Images
"So constipated that my asshole is bleeding, but the bf wants 2 do anal. FML."

So will there be some point in the future where people say, "You know what? It's not worth it. I don't need the validation of hundreds of strangers if it means I can't speak my mind, or have to constantly worry that I'm going to be the subject of a witch hunt or go to jail. Not everybody needs to be famous, damn it!" And then maybe humanity will collectively withdraw from the spotlight, to appreciate walls and privacy once more? And realize that we don't stop existing just because we failed to document and publish every passing moment of our lives?

Eh, probably not.

For more wisdom from David Wong, check out How 'The Karate Kid' Ruined The Modern World and The 10 Most Important Things They Didn't Teach You In School, or watch his incredibly NSFW movie about penis monsters starring at least one Academy Award nominee.

If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Baffling Ways Famous Musicians Released Albums .

And stop by LinkSTORM to discover why soon emotions simply won't exist.

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