A Node Your Homework Production
American Studies 202, “Popular Culture in the United States, 1945 to the Present”, Spring 2003, Cornell University

Something Wonderful
New Independent Metacultural Communities on the World Wide Web

In recent years, there has been a growing field of independently produced and created websites geared towards adolescents and young adults, and taking as their subject the culture they inhabit. The topics these pages are dedicated to vary somewhat, which makes it difficult to apply a clear label to them as a whole. They include video games, a popular topic, general misanthropy, almost as much so, with Something Awful the most recognized name in the field, popular culture and children’s entertainment of the 1980s, as with X-Entertainment, pornography, news, and new media art. Almost all deal with popular culture in one form or another, and if not produced in America, the focus tends to be on its consumption by Americans, with other nationalities usually treated as foreign or strange. Though disparate in subject matter, they are united by a greatly overlapping readership, informal bonds between creators, and a common esthetic and cultural purpose. These sites are truly products of their online medium, unlike larger, more well-funded internet darlings like Slate and Salon, which essentially mimic a format dating back to the growth of published periodicals in the late 19th century, or “e-zines” which mirror their xeroxed counterparts, a form of paper publishing only one or two generations younger than that. These sites, in contrast, are made possible, and made necessary, by the culture-warping influences of recently developed technology.

*See attached appendix for a (non-exhaustive) list of some of these and related sites.

A visitor to the main page any of these sites will find newly created content or links to same located most prominently. This content, usually written reviews, essays, or brief histories, is produced by a stable of authors and creators associated with each site, although “freelance” material is sometimes also featured. The sites may include sections dedicated to specific topics; these, archives of older material, contact information, links to other websites, and features like forums (which will be addressed in greater detail later) are accessible using links located along the sides of the page. Advertising banners are common on all edges of any page, the revenue from these being central to the site’s business model. Not all sites do or are intended to make a profit, and those that do usually do so only marginally. Other sites are often maintained as a labor of love by their creators, and may disintegrate in the face of significant financial pressure.

Reading this content, the reader will begin to notice a few common themes and stylistic traits. One of the more striking is the liberal use of references to obscure or specialized branches of knowledge and popular culture assumed among the sites’ readership. Looking at the general trends of such references, it can be inferred that readers are expected to have a greater-than-average familiarity with computers and technology, video games, popular culture of the 1980s, and the Japanese illustrated entertainment of manga and anime, including hentai pornography. Altogether, this amounts to the assumption that readers are somewhat “geeky” males in their teens to mid-20s, which is a pretty fair approximation of the sites’ demographics. It will be interesting to see if those sites surviving many years will maintain this demographic or stay with this particular generation as it ages.

The offhand way in which these references are made, with understanding assumed, creates a sense of common background and group identity among readers - readers, too, watched the same television shows as children, or deal with the same technologies in day-to-day life, or enjoy the same entertainment in their free time, much the same as the other several thousand readers. Thus, readers are brought to identify as part of a broader whole, a fundamental need of humanity that may be underfulfilled among those, like the typical reader, most exposed to the culturally fragmenting effects of the internet, which empowers the individual and encourages the development of communities tailored around narrow interests.

In tandem with this focusing on interests common to and embraced by all readers is a parallel tendency to dwell on those things rejected by all. Stileproject, alongside a large amount of heterosexual male-targeted pornography, hosts a significant number of images intended to discomfit or repulse the target demographic, including scatological pornography, disfigured or grossly obese bodies, death, and dismemberment. Many video-game themed sites of this nature give a disproportionate amount of attention to poorly translated games, or to games generally considered of low quality or as part of niche genres, especially those rare outside of Japan like dating simulations. The majority of Something Awful’s content fits this mold, the key example being their “Awful Link of the Day”, which directs readers to a website chosen as particularly laughable or pathetic. The creators of the sites chosen for this purpose often display intense and undisguised passion for obscure subjects, or those marked with low-status or unrefined connotations. Something Awful’s favorite targets, animus towards whom is shared widely on the internet, seem to be furries, those with interests in anthropomorphic animals that at extremes may go so far as to become part of self-image and sexual practices.

Despite the oft-repeated statements by writers of distaste, at the least, for such topics and those who deal with them without the insulation of an ironic distance, they recur with quite some frequency, and for good reason, beyond the irresistible call of the disgusting heard most clearly by young males. As the reference to a shared background helped to create an “us”, the groups and people singled out in this manner form the corresponding “them”, which readers can identify themselves against and feel clearly superior to, further reinforcing group identity and solidarity. The selection of increasingly obscure subcultures to be singled out in this manner can be seen as a reaction to the growing acceptance and tolerance of minority cultures that has characterized recent American history, and to the oft-cited effect of the internet as facilitating this process by exposing computer users to the entire breadth of human experience - those groups most often targeted are often those for whom the internet has been a significant boon, making community and communication feasible despite the lack of a critical mass in any geographic location. It is a reassertion of the fundamental need for an “other”, and that other’s fundamental role in maintaining a coherent culture.

Looking further at these sites’ contents and style, readers will notice that the use of a personal voice is common, with writers frequently referring to themselves and their thoughts about the subject, writing, and the readers themselves. Simultaneously, they maintain a significant degree of distance from the content - open contempt, mockery, or revulsion, often severely exaggerated, are fairly common, and the employment of a nostalgic tone can serve to remove in time the author from the subject. It is not unknown for writers, especially when dealing with the “other” material mentioned above, to claim unfamiliarity with the subject matter, or asserting that they gave up on it part way through. While creating bonds with readers, who it is assumed would behave in a similar manner, this removes the author from his subject, and allows him to address topics without engaging in deep or critical analysis, substituting instead descriptions of his own impressions of and experiences with the material.

Most authors write under pseudonyms of varying opaqueness, and the employment of these handles does some to move the reader’s conception of the author away from that of a concrete and real person, and allows the abovementioned exaggeration to seem less out of place. Something Awful in fact uses fictional authors like cranky old man Cliff Yablonski and self-promoting young “hacker” Jeff K. These authors, be they fictional or not, are often built up as characters, with backgrounds, histories, and particular gimmicks. Websites may come to be defined nearly as much by the nature of their authors as by the subject of their writing. At the extreme, Drew Curtis’ prominent attachment of his name to Fark.com, which contains little original content by him or anyone else, and Jay Stile’s naming of his Stileproject represent attempts to create an unbreakable connection between the sites and their creators. This may be a compensatory step, as those two sites are perhaps those where the direct hand of the creators can be seen the least. Despite the use of false names, which might be expected to muffle the glory that comes with being widely read and recognized, many of these sites’ readers aspire to join the authors’ ranks and attempt to write for the sites, the sites in this case generating their own content from within.

The making of the author into a near-fictional figure, or use of actual fictional writers, the lack of authorial distancing, and the framing of subjects less in terms of themselves then on the effect they have on the author is very suggestive of influence from the New and gonzo journalism of the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, the hostility of authors and their seeming contempt or removal from their subject matter can be seen as a reaction to the overfamiliarity and the blending of text and author, message and medium, seen in that tradition and in other media trends of recent eras, such as televised local “action news” and the rise of celebrity/paparazzi journalism.

Though rich, this top-down distributed content is only half of such websites, the other half constituted of the bulletin-board “forums”. The forums are usually only tenuously related to the subject matter of the sites themselves, and more than separate parts of a whole, often seem to have more of a symbiotic relationship with the site proper. Despite this, forums are often considered integral to a popular site, and are prominently noted on each page.

Sites use a variety of popular or proprietary systems, but most function identically. The forums are divided into several sections or “boards” by subject matter, and in some cases, subsections within those. Within boards, “threads” are started by users, in which they or any user can post messages. Within threads, the full text of messages, which may include hyperlinks or images, are viewable in chronological order of posting, and threads often contain long back-and-forth discussions of comments from many users. Every post is identified with the pseudonym of its poster, and often one or more images chosen by the user to identify himself. Many forums also append that user’s number of posts, which tends to draw attention to longtime users and those who post often. Moderators, usually drawn from among those affiliated with the site or from high-profile forum users, have the power to edit and delete posts or threads and ban individual users, although policies on this differ and are often a significant source of tension and griping among users.

The lack of direct relationships between forums and the rest of sites, and the manner in which forums are designed so as to promote personal conversation and a strong sense of posters’ identities tends to indicate that the forums primarily exist in service of a sense of community. This sense of community, and identification with a forum, is often very strong. Many forum users maintain accounts for several sites’ forums - on most sites, registration is simple, free, and anonymous. (Something Awful, which currently charges a one-time fee for the ability to post to and read the entirety of the forums, is a notable exception, and the manner in which this has become a fundamental part of the site’s business model is testament to the popularity and drawing power of these features.) However, despite a significant overlap in forum membership, many users tend to identify with one primary site, reading and posting to it most often, purchasing branded merchandise, “invading” and attempting to disrupt or mock other forums, attending gatherings of forum users in geographical, “real” space, and communicating and forming friendships with other users through other media like online diaries and instant messaging. In part, this reflects the significant extent to which users adopt and internalize the site as part of their identities. In part, it is reflective of pragmatics and a desire for community and status - it is easiest to become well known and gain stature in the eyes of other forum users by dedicating one’s efforts to one forum and maximizing posts and exposure among one particular group.

Many forum posts are of a mundane nature, focusing on those aspects of everyday life common in all human communications. More particular to the forums are links to other websites or creative works, many of which might be considered as outsider and/or “found” art. Animutations, a collection of fast-paced cartoons made from parts of pop-culture images and usually set to Japanese music, is the canonical example of the first category, product of a home-schooled 15-year-old with basic Flash animation tools. The second category is fairly broad, including pictures with unusual juxtapositions, images and texts into which it is possible to read unintended subtext, and the creations of others which might be judged by readers pathetic or of amazingly low quality. The tones of mockery in this latter category to some extent mirror that of the sites themselves, and indeed some sites’ primary content, like the Awful Link of the Day, recommended by readers, could be considered to fall into such a category. In this way the forums serve as a decentralized clearinghouse, if such a thing can exist, aggregating and filtering the content of the internet for presentation to readers, a vital task, given the decentralization of knowledge and creative control inherent in medium.

This focus on discovered content does not, however, mean that the forums contain no new content. The most well-known and representative creative works made for forums are Photoshopped pictures, created by forum members using the photo-editing program to digitally alter pictures and graphics for humorous purposes. Most renowned in the Something Awful forums, they have become common in many forums.

These pictures often center around themes, with multiple creators creating images dealing with the same subjects or based on the same original image, usually being references to inside jokes or subjects suggested by a forum member or site editor. Most commonly, the humor is derived from the removal of images or concepts from their original context or their placement in another setting - the incredibly popular “All your base are belong to us” and “World Trade Center tourist” series of altered photographs, which for the most part originated in the Something Awful forums and eventually garnered mentions in Time Magazine and national news shows, respectively, are perfect examples of this. In contrast to the alteration and reappropriation of images identified with the “culture jamming” movement, these photomanipulations tend to be apolitical, and even when dealing with images of war, religion, political movements, or prominent government figures, while often mocking, individual pictures tend to be ideologically void, excepting the implicit disrespect and violation of boundaries common to all such images.

Rather than remaining bound in the forums, these user-created works are increasingly appropriated by the site proper and incorporated as a formal element, again serving as internally generated content. Something Awful posts collections of the best such pictures from the forums, as chosen by editors, on a weekly or more frequent basis, and this has become one of the site’s most popular features. Fark, otherwise mostly a collection of links to news and external pages deemed interesting, is known for its invitations to readers to alter provided pictures, and the “creative contest” site Worth1000 promotes its Photoshop competitions above all else.

This idea of online content produced by and for its consumers is not a new one, forming the basis of many failed first-wave online commercial ventures. More recently, some sites have found success, or at least sustainability, with these models. In the somewhat scholarly realms, shared-database projects like Everything2, Wikipedia, and h2g2 rely on users to collect, format, and present information to others, while at a level of more direct relationships, commentable online diary sites like Livejournal and the “webcam” pages maintained (mostly) by teenage girls act in a similar fashion. Much recently has been made in the online and mainstream media about “blogs”, which mostly share form and origins with online diaries but tend to focus more on news, commentary, and events external to the author. Sharing with forums the dynamic by which a mass of individuals discovering and pointing others to online content creates a richer cultural landscape, many have hailed blogs as presaging a revolution in journalism by enabling news consumers to produce and distribute their own descriptions and interpretations of the events of the day. The development and success of these forms could be a result of the maturity of the world wide web, now nearing a decade of popular use and enjoying near-complete American penetration, as a medium, with the making possible of decentralized, “distributed” models of development and transmission of cultural product as its “killer app” contribution to culture. American cultural historian Michael Kammen described mass culture as specifically not “participatory and interactive”, but offered the possibility that computers would change this; these websites are representative of just such changes.

In content, these websites reflect and respond to trends in culture and the way it has represented in media in the modern age, and offer a glimpse of possible new functions and dynamics of media in the internet age. In nature, by creating both a sense of broad community in which readers can belong and participate and a conception of “us” and “them” in an environment where both had been in decline, they fill in a gap in the culture and perform an important social function. Both aspects reflect the specific historical and technological context in which these sites have come into being, and establish their claim as an important part of the cultural dynamic.

Appendix: Selected Websites

Something Awful



Old Man Murray




Ecchi Attack

College Humor

Zany Video Game Quotes