Internet Culture – Everything / Nothing
02.13.2012
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This image is an internet artifact about Everything/Nothing culture, cam culture, and cam girl culture (YM Magazine, publication information unknown). But, of course, this article only focuses on one aspect of the life style – the openness. I say “of course” here, because at that time it was a rather shocking thing to do – tell potential strangers and “fake” friends about your personal life on the internet. Facebook, however, has transformed that shock into a banal yawn. Nevertheless, this was at one point the moral panic for the parents and friends of a particular set of internet-people. Blogging was barely a thing. There were no content management systems you could just log into and make pretty and use easily. Writing about your life, openly and honestly, for a stranger to read about was a hugely subversive process. Luckily, the internet was at a point in its development where this attracted more like-minded individuals to each other than the serial killers from Lifetime Original Movies.

Liking the internet used to be a mark of shame. Having friends on the internet used to be worse – you could tell no one about it, you had to lie to other people about them, and people were concerned about your attachment to the non-reality of the computer. “My friend said something really funny today” to a meatspace human being would be a clever cover for “My friend updated their LiveJournal with a hilarious story.” Daring to meet that person was also something that required several lies. Why were you traveling to Indiana? How did you know this person? How were you friends with someone in Indiana? It took me years before I was comfortable with telling my parents I had met people off the internet, and that the majority of my now-real-life friends were from there. However, even if you were able to confess that you spent a lot of time on the internet, it was still impossible to admit that you were a blogger, or had a website, a journal, or a cam.

The internet had become/was becoming a real place. (Especially if you believe that it was not one already).

Contextualizing this panic is difficult. There was shock and confusion by the mainstream press that the internet was becoming something and someplace for more than just the nerdiest of nerds in their basements. There was more to it than that. This image is not just about describing a hot new trend for teens, it is a rudimentary glimpse at a particular and now forgotten internet subculture/subgenre. I use subgenre here on purpose. As much as there was a community to this, there was also a style. Often, the community had no particular market of connection other than we were all hanging out.

There was the community of people – some of the brightest and funniest individuals I have known online. A community of like-minded people who were complete strangers, but could now talk in real time (thanks to long forgotten programs like IRC and ICQ), people who had figured out how to do long-form writing online for cheap or free, and for the first time could actually see each other. This was the Everything/Nothing scene – E/N for short.

This moniker was a description of the overall content of posts that was created by these people, covering topics from Everything to Nothing. These were people who actually owned domains of their internet handles (or other non-corporate things that were names of communities). They churned out creative, truthful, earnest, hilarious, and communal content and strove to stand out on beautiful (aesthetically or technologically) websites – central hubs for individual or crew identities. These people were some of the first (culturally) internet literate, and demonstrated a shift of people caring about the online just as much as the off.

[I don’t include BBS in this, simply because it was structurally a very different concept than how we know the internet now, even if there are remarkable similarities.]

Almost all of these websites are dead, so they are impossible to link to. The people have aged and left handles behind. IRC rooms are now ghost towns, if the servers even exist. Radical bloggers now have jobs and families – or at least nicer apartments. Some may have even been able to sell of domains for some cash. Some were even celebrities, for a while. “You know so-and-so? You met them??” Others even appeared on TV (TechTV, before it became G4).

The programmers were uniquely talented. They created so much because there was so little to work with and we all wanted/needed more – technology that is now common places, corporate, and integrated into the lives of millions. The writers – so much creative content and each post fueling the fire for more work from everyone else. Blogs are almost at the point where the entire concept seems outdated and quaint. Anonymous identities are dead. Chat protocols are laughable (I did have students giggle and mock, “Who uses AIM anymore??” during a lecture).

The article above also alludes to the concept of caming. To explain the process now, and I have tried to people younger to me, is to sound like a grandparent. A webcam would take a static image of a person (320×240 resolution, the only way to go) – limited in environment, as the webcam generally was tied to a PC/desk, and one could upload this image to an FTP (not Photobucket, a Facebook gallery, or Imgur). This would image would constantly be called the same thing (cam.jpg, for example), in order to remain on an individual’s page or a community’s portal – collections of multiplce cam images from multiple users on display. Uploading a new image would refresh the old and something new could be seen. Programs were developed to do this automatically, and could add a limited amount of language to the images. Often a time/date stamp, a URL (as cam images were linked around to many portals), and sometimes a comment of some sort – a funny thought, a remark about their day, a song lyric, etc. If you were awake at night, you could hang out at a portal and a particular IRC room and chat with people while watching them be goofballs on their frozen cam images. If the portal was particularly good, the page would automatically refresh itself to ensure new images, and be coded so that the most recent/current images were displayed before the old ones from inactive users.

This is a link to a cam portal that is relatively close to the past. Some of the code is a bit more fresh, but it is right on.

Like I said, sort of a boring explanation of an outdated concept. However, this was completely radical for the internet and its denizens. We could actually see each other – not just scans of old photos, or poor quality digital camera pictures (if you were able to afford one of these…), but semi-live images of people being people. You could express your identity through a 320×240 jpg. The bonding grew by being able to know each other on a more intimate level. We were not just words or nicks, we were people.

Caming was sort of like Twitter, in a way. Limited means of expression – a single, small still image, limited text on said image. You could custom build a portal to share who/what you wanted – sort of like a retweet of someone else. You could re-mix/retweet (crude photoshops) someone and re-share it on your URL. There was even a sort of Follow Friday, particularly with cam signs – Your Name on a Post-it. I would argue that the processes are very similar. (More on caming and TwitPic a bit further down…).

But, more important than that, caming was a part of your online identity (if you did it). As I mentioned, it was the first time we could really see each other online in a semi-live context. We had proof of who we were, as we had pictures that could refresh of us at any given time. Our physical bodies were intimately tied to our digital identities in a way that previously did not happen. We weren’t just words on a screen or a nickname. Our lives weren’t just technological engagements. We were our nicknames, our websites, our posts, our content, our bodies, our jpgs, ourselves. The intimacy of the digital connected to the offline and vice versa. There wasn’t a difference to us/them. It was all the same and we had made it that way.

This aspect of the internet is gone now. I am not a curmudgeonly old man complaining about how the youth does not get it, because they have their own thing to get. However, for the most part, we had to grow up with the internet and develop it as we developed ourselves. Now everything is just here. We wanted to be creative and had to develop the technology to do so. So many things that the scene developed (and never took credit for, never tried to make money from) are standard place for young people (Stickam, Twitter, Twitpic…). These concepts more or less existed in somewhat crude (but less crude than you would think) forms 8-10 years ago. We had to be creative to be creative.

Currently, every output on the internet for creativity is a corporate owned entity with a privacy policy (even something like Canv.as or Reddit) (and there are exceptions like Dump.fm). Of course youth culture will develop their own things (and have) as the need arises. They will create (and have) amazing things with what has already existed for them. They will use and are using corporate products in similarly subversive and transgressive ways. The old people just will not see it right away. They never do.

[Theory based on a statement in above paragraph: Anonymous as transgression through hacking - Internet scenes were previously able to create things for themselves, develop tech, and develop scripts/apps/etc. Everything is corporate controlled and made now, so there is no output for that energy. Therefore, they seek to rebel against the enforced limitations, even if they are not conscious of previous openness…]

I recently fell back into the E/N scene through a private Facebook group and watching everyone talk about our internet histories and what was accomplished has been very inspiring.

This is a fantastic presentation from NotACon 2005 by StephTheGeek – a staple in E/N and camgirl cultures. While caming was a huge part of the E/N culture, camgirls were equally important. They were often the face of cool for a particular community – “So-and-So is on this site’s cam portal? It must be awesome…”. It became a culture of its own, providing intimacy, openness, community, and sexuality. And it wasn’t as heteronormative as one might think. Also, note how much of this presentation is NOT about sexuality. It was not really about breaking ground in that aspect of life as it was a logical extension of the openness of the overall culture. Some people were just willing to go that bit more and it was not a big deal. It was their life. It was all a part of who they were. (This would be a place to start talking about Foucault…).

I made this joke on twitter, but I am actually sort of serious about it, “camgirls used to all be awesome web coders because dudes had not yet figured out how to exploit nerdy looking women for money as a fetish.” The camgirl scene (not every camgirl was involved with nudity and not every E/N woman with a webcam was a camgirl. Camgirls were all sizes, ages, and races and there were camboys) had such an immense sense of sexual empowerment to it all – in brotalk that means there was a decent amount of nudity at times. These women were in control of their sexuality and willing and proud to display it for themselves, friends, and the community(ies) on the internet (Note: I did not say they were willing to display FOR the internet, as that lacks agency (and the internet was much smaller back then…). They were also fully in control of the means of production. Often these women were very talented webcoders and graphic designers. They created some of the best looking and surprisingly advanced websites around. If you watch all of the very interesting video above (and I recommend it), you will hear a lot of the tech talk, which is in of itself rather interesting. For example, you will hear Stephthegeek describe a pre-Twitpic version of Twitpic as a common part of her blog life a year before Twitter was even invented and three before Twitpic launched. Being a “professional” camgirl was barely for profit. Sure, people made some money and got some Amazon gifts, but that never seemed like the point. (Though maybe you could spot the scene’s decline when it did…).

The image above focuses on a woman and is right to do so. They were not only central to the Everything/Nothing scene, but very often the driving force. While so much of this was about putting yourself out there, women were often the ones who were actually brave enough to do so. And of course men would often gawk and drool, but it was often an attraction based on respect (of their site, of their code, of their writing, etc) – even if most of us were assholes.

I miss this homebrew sense community – people who found each other by chance or luck, without the help of a search box or a ReTweet. I miss how things were not always tied to my name and where I live. I miss not having to Accept a corporate statement to participate. I miss how the internet used to be. We all wanted to be there, we all wanted to contribute. Overwhelmingly, what people have missed the most, according to the Facebook Group’s catch-up thread, is the creativity. Did it just die, or did it move elsewhere? The answer is both, really. We do not have to be as creative in some senses, but we still are in others, and in new ways as well. We are still subversive and transgressive.

The internet used to be a global concept. I had friends in New York, California, Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, Indiana, Washington, Canada, England, Germany, Japan, and various other locations. I could travel and know someone somewhere. What we have now on the internet is something different. Facebook changed the digital landscape from being global to being interconnected localities. You know longer found strangers and befriend people, you are just more linked with the ones you already know. Do teens now have a sense of exploration when they think of the internet? Do they discover new things and new people, or is it all carefully controlled? Maybe it is just easier to find people? Well, there are probably those strange few who venture out and discover others, but I wonder if it is anywhere near the same extent.

I might muse on this some more later, but I encourage any feedback.

There is a lot more to be said about all of this. I am barely scratching the surface.

Perhaps next will be my history of pre-social networking indie kid websites?

 

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There are 5 Responses
Adam G Monday, February 13, 2012

Great read. It’s surprising how little I see about ‘the history of the internet’ on the internet! Perhaps to us it seems mundane, but give it fifty years and everyone will be wishing it was better documented.

Adam Wartski Monday, February 13, 2012

I too miss the internet the way it used to be. I’m 23 now and I remember the sheer awesomeness of discovering it when I was about 8-10 years old. It’s matured sure….but it’s no where near as fun.
I remember just how much unique content was out there (not EVEN including the porn) and how enthralled I was by the web.
Now, the standard is to open your laptop and the first page you visit (or some people I know have it as their homepage) is Facebook.
When I first learned of the internet, my mind saw it as the cyberpunk world I love. It was meant to be the way Hackers, Ghost In The Shell, Johnny Mnemonic and countless other sci-fi films and animes showed it. Perhaps that is just a tech restraint now, reaching the level of the last two examples, but I don’t think I’ll even enjoy it the way I used to.
FWIW, it was reading up on Goatse’s history that actually brought me to this page.

fonebookhead Monday, February 13, 2012

the goats.cx documentary type thing brought me here too!!
I remember 2 sec re-fresh cams!
I am 28 I miss the internet via 1996. when yahoo mail was the only free email with 1mb. excite lycos anyone?
yahoo mail was also the 1st unlimited email space too.
haha. when you could buy switch blades for 10 bucks on ebay and how to build a potato cannon from various sites available, in a day lots of good times and data learned on the internet. now its like look at my pic on facebook. spend money buy things.. its no longer sharing ideas its all ads one way or another.. boring.

henry Monday, February 13, 2012

Great piece – erudite, sparks memories and questions – thanks.

Bill B Monday, February 13, 2012

Fantastic read. I have already recommended it to a bunch of friends who remember how it used to be. Thank you for succinctly putting it in one place.