3 Ways 90s Internet Changed Everything
The 1990s were an intensely specific historical moment – the Cold War had just ended, everybody had landlines, and pre-internet peoples took to local forests to harvest their precious smut. This week, Cracked's taking a look back at those artifacts of Nineties culture and how they shaped our present. Check out part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.
The world wide web went from 26 websites in 1992 to over a million in 1997, and a huge number of those were about (in the parlance of that era) "freaking nerd crap." Sure, the internet has had a profound impact on the way human beings live and work and relate to each other, but let's focus on what's really important here: the fact that it also reshaped entertainment. And it didn't just change the way we consume it; it also changed the media itself in multiple ways. For instance ...
In The '90s, Fans Finally Had A DIRECT Effect On Pop Culture
We live in an age when, mere seconds after watching the latest episode of your favorite show, you can grab a device, open an app, and let the creators know exactly how much you think they suck. Truly, a golden era for fandom. But such expedience of communication is a relatively recent development. Back in the '80s, you had to yell your insults/praises into the void and hope the wind carried them to the intended recipients' ears (or, you know, write and mail a physical letter, but who has time for that).
In those days, the general approach of popular media toward fans was "shut up and watch it (and buy the merch, please!)." The creators were unreachable gods we could only glimpse at through the fog of promotional interviews; you were at the mercy of whatever Johnny Carson decided to ask them. The sudden popularity of the internet in the '90s changed that -- shows like Babylon 5 had Usenet groups and other online discussion avenues where fans could interact with the creators and directly alter the content of the stories. Other massively popular multimedia franchises wouldn't even exist today if the early web hadn't given them a push. If their shorts hadn't become some of the internet's first viral videos, Matt Stone and Trey Parker would still be trying to finance Orgazmo 2 and killing it at their local community theater.
The web allowed obsessive fan projects to grow into venerable entertainment industry institutions. IMDb started as a list of hot actresses by Usenet posters, while Rotten Tomatoes began as one man's personal quest to collect Jackie Chan movie reviews. It's like the internet was repaying its debt to the geeks that made it possible -- after all, AOL evolved from a game download service for the freaking Atari 2600, and the Netscape browser was almost an online network for the Nintendo 64 before its creators changed their minds. Which is probably for the best, because those first browsers were clunky enough without an N64 controller involved.
Music fans rejoiced, too, as they finally found a way to connect to their idols that didn't put them at risk of catching venereal diseases. When the band Marillion couldn't secure the money for a tour in 1997, they asked the internet to pitch in and basically invented online crowdfunding. The next year, David Bowie launched his own ISP service that allowed fans to chat with him and watch livestreamed concerts ... at stuttery 1998 resolutions, but still. In many ways, the internet grew and improved to accommodate the needs of fans spamming F5 to get their next fix. And that's especially true when it comes to one highly influential industry in particular ...
Porn Didn't Just Become Easier To Find, But Also More Democratic
It's been well established that the desire to watch people porking has been behind some of the greatest technological innovations of the past decades, from home video to digital cameras to online streaming. The internet as we know it owes a tremendous debt to porn, and vice-versa, but the sociological implications of cyber-smut go beyond that. It's not just that it's way easier for dudes to crank it -- importantly, it's easier for everyone.
During the '90s internet boom, the adult entertainment industry made the startling discovery that, holy crap, women like to get off too. Now that anyone could safely (pop-up windows aside) and anonymously access this stuff, there was an explosive increase in female-oriented porn films and sex toys. That safety was a game-changer for the women in front of the camera, too. In 1996, 19-year-old Jennifer Ringley installed a webcam in her dorm room and set up a site called JenniCam that would post regular pictures of whatever she happened to be doing, be it brushing her teeth or having sex with her boyfriend or chilling at the computer. Occasionally, she'd do a strip tease for the camera. Millions of people started tuning in, and within a couple of years, she was getting hit on by Dave Letterman on national TV.
Once the paywalled version of JenniCam (her "only fans" section, if you will) turned out to be a success, hundreds of copycat sites started popping up, mostly focused on the "stripping" part. The ability to perform sex work from home has been hugely beneficial to both sides of the transaction. On the one hand, it had a "democratizing" effect on the porn business, in that everyone from a college student to a soccer mom can get in on the action -- simultaneously, if they want. And on the other, it gave porn consumers access to more intimate (even in the emotional sense) and more ... specific content. Like, if you just like to watch naked ladies sitting there doing their taxes in the nude, you can get that now. No need to go to a seedy theater and sit through hours of explicit penetration in the hopes that you'll get a few seconds of naked tax form-filling, as all of our grandparents had to do.
The internet also opened up a whole world of written erotica, from the thousands of stories sent to Usenet groups in the early '90s to the millions currently posted on the web (and those are just the "Sonic gets pregnant" ones). One of the first sites for erotic stories was Nifty.org, which allowed LGBT people to read a wide variety of tales specifically catering to their sexual preference instead of having to settle for mentally changing all the "shes" to "hes" on Penthouse letters. And, once again, the impact goes beyond "it's easier to jerk off now." The LGBT community eagerly used online bulletin boards for dating, because asking out a member of your same gender through a computer is far less likely to get you killed. Just having access to online spaces has proved tremendously influential in the way LGBT youths (and especially transgender ones) explore and present their identity. In other words: we have far less people living miserable, closeted lives in complete isolation. (Hey, at least if you're sad now, you're sad with 500 other people who share your specific brand of depression!)
But you'll probably agree with us that the single most important innovation born out of the '90s was ...
The '90s Planted The Seeds For Today's Weird AF Internet Humor
One fateful day in 1998, a Canadian art student posted a bunch of animated GIFs of dancing ham(p)sters accompanied by a short snippet of corny music, and the internet lost it.
The "Hamster Dance" was licensed for a TV ad, spawned an official novelty single (plus an also-successful unofficial one), and eventually a whole bunch of albums in the same annoyingly catchy style. The even older dancing baby GIF meme had a similar trajectory: from being posted online in 1996 to showing up in an episode of Ally McBeal in 1998 to dozens more media appearances, including in a very "how do you do, fellow kids" Delta Airlines safety video from 2015.
Contrast that with ... well, we'd name the most popular meme going on right now but it'll already be long buried and forgotten by the time you read this sentence. Internet memes used to get months or even years of airtime, but now they're lucky if they last a week before being deemed "cringe" and thus unrepeatable. And yet, during that short span, they get more exposure than Shakespeare's work got in his lifetime. The process of sharing these memes has gone from "I'll e-mail this two second GIF to my twenty contacts and hope it doesn't fill their inbox" to "I'll just show this 4K video to thousands of strangers within seconds." And that might help explain why internet humor is so weird now.
You see, part of the very nature of memes is the fact that they mutate upon being shared -- someone retelling a joke might change part of it to better fit their local culture, or to avoid pissing off the specific person they're telling it to, or simply because they thought of something funnier (or something extremely lame they consider funnier). The internet dramatically speeds up this process. The same joke could easily go off and mutate on hundreds of different directions at the same time, each of which will set off more mutations of their own, and then the most successful modifications will be incorporated back into the baseline meme. And if Pokemon has taught us anything it's that, if you go around evolving stuff willy-nilly, things are inevitably gonna get bizarre.
The internet has also increased the diversity of topics that can be touched by massively shared jokes -- for instance, extremely dark humor used to be relegated to hushed tones during teenage sleepovers, but now it has a global audience and thus a chance to mutate into new forms. More types of jokes, shared by more people, across more places and cultures, equals more unique and unprecedented results. That's why internet humor is so baffling to anyone who isn't in on it, "it" being the endless stream of random information we're exposed to just by being an active part of social media. Now, what does that have to do with the topic of this article, the '90s? Uhhh ... stonks!
Top Image: Scholastic