7 (Nearly) Lost Wonders of the World Wide Web
Defying all odds, the original Space Jam, a silly romp about a super-star athlete playing basketball with cartoon characters, became a cultural artifact. The theme song by Quad City DJs is instantly recognizable and imminently memeable. The nonsensical story also proved to be fertile ground for creativity, giving the world Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden, which creates a whole dystopian future where basketball is banned in the wake of the movie's events.
For nostalgic reasons, I have long enjoyed periodically visiting the outdated yet earnest web design of the original spacejam dot com. A landing page with unique icons arranged in a circle, a navigation bar on the left-hand side, low-resolution cast and crew pictures included as a bonus. Red and yellow text on a repeated background that may well be some old clip art, loud, noisy backgrounds, and unpretentious copy. Even as a modern visitor, you could almost hear the beeps and hisses of a dial-up modem just by looking at it ...
... that is until the release of the new movie led Warner Brothers to modernize the domain into a link for the new movie, "treating" you to a trailer which shows off all the other media properties beyond Looney Tunes they plan to shoehorn in, as though Ready Player One hadn't just made us see the Iron Giant in a context entirely contrary to the messaging and storytelling that made people actually like the character.
The new site is slick. On brand. Utterly boring.
Fortunately, somebody realized what a cultural touchstone the old site was, and you can still find the original by either clicking on the movie logo or bypassing it entirely and visiting SpaceJam.com/1996/.
This sort of a consideration is all too rare in a world where the internet is constantly changing and ever more concentrated. Google is where more than 90% of all internet searches happen, and the modern internet is drastically different from what children of the '90s grew up with.
Many of those changes, like the increased speed, are welcome. But we are losing beloved pieces of internet culture and community in the process. Inspired by the near loss of a beloved piece of internet heritage, I now present the Space Jam site and six fellow antiques, 7 Lost Wonders of the Web. Some of them are gone forever, some have been preserved through archiving services like the Wayback Machine hosted by the Internet Archive, and some have been resurrected. But all of them played a part in building our modern internet ...
Even the educated stupid remember Time Cube, the incredibly long and hard to read website created by self-proclaimed "Wisest Human" and retired electrician Otis Eugene Ray. The long stream-of-consciousness rant about the nature of life and the fact that the day is indisputably separated into four simultaneous cubic days was for most incomprehensible.
Ray's theories garnered a fair bit of attention in nerdy circles, where his site and references to it became something of a meme. The site's popularity led to Ray being invited to give a couple of guest lectures on how Time Cube works exactly, including one at MIT.
Sadly, Ray passed away in 2015, and the domain expired in 2016. There is still an accessible archive, fortunately, and some other sites still dedicated to spreading the word of time cubism. But it seems that this chapter of internet history will fade into obscurity now that most rants about unprovable theories are presented in the format of snarky YouTube videos or TikToks.
Homestarrunner, and Flash
Anybody attending a school with a computer lab in the early 2000s almost certainly played (or at least tried to circumvent a firewall to play) a game that ran on Flash. That is almost two decades of content built with the humble tool, including some of the very first pieces of viral content to ever spread across the web, which is no longer playable or watchable in its original format.
The launch point for many careers was a little program called Macromedia Flash. A reasonably easy to acquire and use software, Flash gave an entire generation of animators and game designers the tools to craft uncountable numbers of little animations and games on sites like Newgrounds, Armor Games, Kongregate, Miniclip, the defunct Bonus.com, and Weebls-stuff. It was also a key tool in creating "Ulysses of the Internet" Homestuck.
The quietly influential Homestarrunner also ran on Flash, launching both a modest media empire and the careers of Matt and Mike Chapman, known today for contributions to Gravity Falls¸ Yo Gabba-gabba! and a host of other off-beat programming. Preservation efforts have been underway for flash properties for some while, which is good news for anybody who spent their middle school years hooked on the shenanigans of a terrific athlete and a luchador who can type while wearing boxing gloves can still be found and appreciated. But the original and experience of waiting five minutes for a two-minute cartoon to load on a site chockfull of Easter eggs and interactivity will be harder to replicate.
Club Penguin, And Other Dead Games
Though made with Flash, Club Penguin was lost to us even before Adobe pulled the plug. Once a beloved MMO in the mold of Webkinz or Neopets aimed at the 6-to-14-year-old demographic, Club Penguin was a hangout spot for users who could use the in-game chat to talk with users around the world in a (hopefully) safe environment. While the fact that finding ways to circumvent the strict profanity filters was considered one of the chief forms of entertainment and users attempting to speed run getting banned in the leadup to the site's permanent closure in 2017 casts some doubt on how safe it was for a preteen, there are plenty of people with fond memories of their time waddling around playing minigames.
Disney bought Club Penguin in 2007. In addition to making money off the paid subscribers, it also used the Club as a marketing tool, putting out promotional materials for upcoming properties as limited edition items or providing themed events. Other Massively Multiplayer Online games in the Disney portfolio, ToonTown, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, and Pixie Hollow, all had dedicated fan bases that went so far as to relaunch versions of the game without official support, though the House of Mouse responded about how you would expect to those attempts.
While the loss of MMO games is especially sad because their death often represents the loss of a realized world and the dissolution of a community, the loss of video games that rely on internet access to run is a growing problem not limited to server-intensive games. Delisted Games has a list of over 1000 digital games which are no longer playable, and machinima creator Ross Scott has been raising the alarm about how companies are rendering games people paid for inoperable for some time at Dead Game News.
In the 2000 film Finding Forester, Sean Connery exclaims, "You're the man now, dog!" as Jamal Wallace writes on a typewriter. "Punch the keys, for god's sake!"
Max Goldberg, a 19-year-old programmer, found this funny and created something transformative. Looping audio, a tiled background, and five words of text done up in what looks like Word Art launched a career and a format. Ytmnd.com became a clearing house of funny, bizarre, fascinating, and frequently offensive content. From a single joke in 2001 came two decades of memes, lore, and (low brow) culture.
The site, however, went into a decline around 2016, and Goldberg contemplated shutting it down. Preserving the wonderful weirdness YTMND was made a priority of the Internet Archive, which endeavored to save the entire site as it existed in 2018, which was fortunate given a brief outage in 2019 before a relaunch in 2020, just in time for the pandemic to hit and trap a bunch of people inside with their computers and boredom.
The resurrected site loads faster but updates less frequently than in its heyday. Still, it serves as a fascinating time capsule of the internet at its strangest.
GeoCities / Yahoo Answers
Do you Yahoo? Probably not. Once one of the leading search engines on the internet, Yahoo had only a 1.47% market share when it came to global searches as of February 2021. Bing did that research.
This isn't surprising, Google has dominated the search engine game for years, but Yahoo played a big part in creating key aspects of the internet and its culture. Yahoo Answers just died, and with it, a part of many misspent youths and a key content source for the podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me.
But Answers is just the latest in the series of losses that have come from the decline of Yahoo. I'm speaking of GeoCities, the web hosting service that made it possible for millions of people without high-end hardware or the money for monthly hosting fees to stake out a plot on the internet. Anybody could create a small web page and use the tools available to create their own website. These were often full of odd design choices and look nothing like the slick template-made options hawked by podcasters and YouTubers today but had all the more charm for it.
Bizarre GIFs, nonsensical navigation, and very occasionally a flash of brilliance made it a place full of discovery, with a bit of an air of the Wild West. Sites like this are part of why students of my generation remember being forced to include actual books from the library in their bibliographies. Unhinged conspiracy theories in the late '90s and early '00s often spread through the loose groupings of themes GeoCities sites were organized around. Today, that stuff just comes from your uncle's Facebook.
When the service shut down in 2009, many sites were lost forever, though over 100,000 archived pages can be found on Oocities.org.
Technically, LiveJournal never died. The site is still up, and much of the content is still accessible. But it has in large part lost the community that made it a noteworthy space for creativity ad collaboration. You can explore it and begin to see how it gave the internet both reams of fanfiction and one of its darkest episodes.
LiveJournal skewed female in its userbase, with over half of users identifying as women when the site conducted polling of its roughly 2 million active users in 2012. Among their number was a prominent LGBT community. That changed in 2017 when the site was bought by a Russian firm. While the majority of users on the English-speaking site would ostensibly see no major differences in how the website behaved, fears quickly spread about the implications of becoming subject to Russian law.
Russian law imposes criminal penalties on discussing almost anything pertaining to queer identity or sexuality with minors and labels blogs above a certain traffic threshold media outlets subject to additional regulation. The website changed its Terms of Service to emphasize that it adheres to Russian Law and the mass exodus began in full force.
As a result, the English language version of LiveJournal lost some of its most prolific users, and many communities dried up completely. There are no reports of anybody outside of Russia being prosecuted under those laws, but the fear was enough to silence many vibrant voices. Ironically the microblogging site Tumblr is where many LiveJournal users wound up, until a 2018 ban on explicit content which included "female-presenting nipples" pushed many right back out into the cold, hard world to search for another internet home.
You can find further attempts at humor by Justin McGown on Twitter at @quartz_movement.