In 2002, Pew found that 9/11 had changed how the internet was used. More people were going online for breaking news, amateur non-news sites had become “conduits for information, commentary, and action,” and the internet had provided a “a virtual public space where grief, fear, anger, patriotism and even hatred could be shared.”
You can’t spend a moment on Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit today without glimpsing an argument over whatever the day’s crisis is, but, it was once considered notable that people would get angry on the internet. Users were realizing that the internet could provide immediate emotional gratification and, perhaps tellingly, Pew also saw a spike in online explanations of what Islam is. People needed a crash course in what, exactly, they were getting emotional about.
Every website had to respond to 9/11—thanks to the Wayback Machine, statements can be found from amazon.com to hustler.com, the latter of which offered an inspirational quote and a GIF of a rippling American flag below: “If you are an adult and want to see the HOTTEST NUDE HORNY BABES on the planet! CLICK HERE TO ENTER!” One of the most interesting responses to 9/11 online was on Newgrounds, the Flash games and animations hub. Not only does it have an unusually robust archive, but there’s a striking mix of intense anger, fear, and empathy, all surrounded by the relics of early web design.
The anti-Osama games and animations are a dizzying parade of Bin Laden and his cronies being mocked, punched, shot, blown up, and otherwise disposed of. Some call for mass slaughter while indulging in crude stereotypes about Islam and the Middle East, while others urge players to avoid civilian targets, separate the perpetrators from the innocent, or otherwise note that they’re “not racist,” just “angry.” The creators of “SNOOKIE VS. BIN LADEN” and “FART WARS - Osama and Bush fight it out to South Park's "Uncle F**ker!" weren’t really trying to say anything at all, but wanted to be there for the madness. All of these were wedged in-between ads for “Harry is a Potthead and the Sorcerer’s Stoned” t-shirts.
In 1995, a 17-year-old Tom Fulp launched Newgrounds as a hub for his flash games and animations. The ability to microwave a Furby or watch a Teletubby get high began to attract strong traffic and media attention and, by 1999, Newgrounds had a message board, was accepting fan submissions, and had enough ad revenue (and hosting expenses) to warrant a partnership with indie movie distributor Troma. By 2001, the user submissions and the community that sprung up around them were the crux of the site. Submissions were rolling in at an healthy rate and, after 9/11, that rate spiked: 15 animations survive from September 10, while 31 still exist from September 12 alone.
Newgrounds’ content then, like it still is today, was a mix of the ambitious, the deranged, and the unabashedly horny. Lauded indie game developers, including Fulp himself, have cut their teeth at Newgrounds, but it’s also been a place for edgy teenagers to dump shock content. After 9/11, all of those factors slammed together. The Wayback Machine’s snapshot from September 22, 2001 shows Newgrounds highlighting “A collection of users expressing sadness and hope over what happened in New York City” and “A collection of users expressing anger towards Osama Bin Laden, known US terrorist and likely suspect.” Fulp’s September 19 news post highlights the “tons of anti-Bin Laden tributes” rolling in, but also encourages users to “keep yourself informed about how the world works” before commenting. Above this plea, an ad teases access to “Anna K Sunbathing Topless.jpg” and “Britney’s Tit Pops Out.avi.” A sidebar polls users on whether Newgrounds should remove its auto-playing music.
Given 19 years of hindsight on the destructive quagmire that America’s military response would become, some of the cruder games—and the casual slurs and calls for war crimes in the comments—look even more hateful today. That nastiness could be found both elsewhere on the internet and spewing from TV networks and newspapers with far more influence and self-proclaimed maturity than Newgrounds, but Newgrounds’ response was creative and fast. Dizzyingly so. The average American had little knowledge of, or interest in, Islam and America’s relationship with the Middle East before 9/11, yet suddenly felt obligated to comment anyway, and Newgrounds churned out that commentary en masse.
It wasn’t all negative—a day after 9/11, animations were warning against hate crimes and declaring “we must NOT let anger control us.” But Newgrounds was a surreal preview of the whirling chaos created by the internet’s removal of all obstacles to immediate commentary no matter how ignorant or misinformed, a vortex that now feels like it gains strength daily.
“I think more than anything it was exhilarating to have a platform where people were creating and sharing multimedia to express their thoughts on current events, for better or worse," Fulp told me." There was nothing else like that on the web at the time.”
While it wasn’t necessarily a bonding moment—Fulp noted that Newgrounds, like the broader internet, was home to some “very polarized opinions surrounding the matter and the War on Terror that would follow”—everyone perhaps grew up a bit. “There were positives in some of the tributes and discussions; I think it was the beginning of a lot of us thinking more about what was going on in the world and how we got to where we were,” he said.
Fulp handled Newgrounds’ response about as well as a 23-year-old could reasonably be expected to. Six days after 9/11 he used the Newgrounds front page to share a viral letter by Afghani-American writer Tamim Ansary that cautioned against the unforeseen consequences of going to war, and the resulting user discussion was heated and riddled with inaccuracies, but earnest; a now familiar look for online discussions about emerging news stories.
The game Fulp created himself, "Bad Dudes vs. Bin Laden,” encourages players to vent their emotions and “kick Bin Laden’s ass,” but warns them against spreading that anger to Arab-Americans.
“The Bin Laden game is the sort of thing I wouldn't make nowadays but I feel the anger was justified at the time," Fulp said. "I think some people enjoyed beating up Bin Laden while others didn't care for the violence but appreciated the message of tolerance in the intro, which emphasized the anger was directed at Bin Laden as an individual.”
Fulp released the game just three days after 9/11, and Newgrounds’ rapid response did not go unnoticed. While Something Awful was already mocking the creations, Matthew Chase’s “Whack Osama” game was mentioned on CNN.
“Honestly, nowadays I'm kind of embarrassed at how lame it is,” Chase said. “I was working as a Flash developer at the time, but really wanted to make video games. Every now and then I'd make a little Flash game, and this was just another one. I threw [it] together over a couple days. It got waaaaay more attention than I ever expected; hundreds of thousands of views on both Newgrounds and my own website. I think the peak was getting a phone call from my father; he was in a Dunkin' Donuts and saw it on TV, as part of some CNN segment on Osama bin Laden novelty products.”
Mike Overbeck made a trio of anti-Taliban animations he admits “come off as pretty Islamophobic” today, but they were inspired by the need to do something to process his emotions.
“I remember feeling very sad, angry, and powerless,” Overbeck said. “I had graduated from college in 2000, and had just finished working on a Cartoon Network pilot. I had moved back home trying to figure out my next career move. The job market was terrible at the time. I made the videos because I had to make something to distract me and deal with the anxiety.”
Like Chase’s game, Overbeck’s work got attention. “Diplomacy,” an animation where soldiers disguised as “Kumbaya” singing peace activists trick and slaughter the Taliban, racked up over two million views, and responses came rolling in.
“Someone claiming to work at the Pentagon said they got a much needed belly laugh from my cartoons, "Overbeck said. “One person claimed to be from Al Qaeda and gave a list of planned attacks. None came to pass, but it was chilling to read, since I felt on edge, expecting more attacks to happen. There were too many responses to read, and I soon retired the AOL account associated with [my Newgrounds profile].”
The comments on these videos are often messy, with Overbeck reflecting “I don't recall much of my conversations in the forums on Newgrounds, but I can see how my work could have inspired anti-Islamic speech in the comments, which I don't condone.”
But while racist comments are unfortunately unremarkable online, what is surprising is boredom—by October 1, commenters were “tiring of all the WTC talk.” The internet can rush to talk about things, but it can also look to move on in a hurry too.
While the ugliest discussions are the most eye-catching today, a Newgrounds creator who goes by Mindhunter called the posts he saw “eye openers for people like myself who didn't follow politics.” Newgrounds was where some people learned that events like 9/11 aren’t born from vacuums. His own video, based on the news of a phone call being made from the WTC’s 83rd floor, has a somber tone but came from the same need to process and respond.
“It was very surreal, I was on the phone, the TV was on, and the sound was off. The first building had just been hit, and I thought I was watching a simulation. Like some ‘what-if ’ disaster video," Mindhunter said. “It wasn't until I turned on the volume [I] realized it was actual live news. I was about to go to a meeting downtown in New York. [After it was cancelled] all I could do was sit there and watch. One of the live news segments involved a man calling into the news from his floor, explaining what he was seeing, and the fear in his voice was just haunting. They lost the connection, I believe the building collapsed while he was still on the phone. The clip took me two days to make. I couldn’t sleep, so I was drawing images of what the guy witnessed in my head. Some people responded with praise while others said I was looking for attention. [But] I just wanted to honor the guy. You cope with things the way you know how.”
Some of the Newgrounds creators at the time would go on to become professionals (Chase is now a web developer, and Overbeck an animator), while others would merely produce content like “International Orgasms” or “Mammary Memory” before vanishing from the internet. Much of the 9/11 content would later be deleted by their makers, but some remain live, where both positive and negative comments still trickle in. But now the entire internet is just perpetually trying to cope with things, and the “virtual public space” has become a sprawling emotional morass of creativity, hatred, empathy, and despair, all expanding at a pace that makes the Newgrounds archive look quaint.