— William Gibson, 1995
I sometimes suspect that we're seeing something in the Internet as significant as the birth of cities. It's something that profound and with that sort of infinite possibilities. It's really something new; it's a new kind of civilization.
— @dril, 2012*I. Early Days1999 was a bad time to be in the website business. The dot-com bust was hurtling toward the internet with the speed and certitude of the Chicxulub asteroid. Five trillion dollars were about to evaporate, caught in a constellation of collapsing venture capital-backed stars like Pets.com—Amazon if Amazon only sold cat food—and Broadcast.com, which was just radio on the internet. It was, therefore, a good time to be a cynic. "The internet makes you stupid" has been the motto of SomethingAwful.com since Richard Kyanka, 40, registered the domain in 1999.
who the fuck is scraeming "LOG OFF" at my house. show yourself, coward. i will never log off
Kyanka: Then I got fired because I made fun of my boss's niece, who he put in charge as a manager for some reason. I told her I had to spend more time editing her articles than writing my own.Bowen: After he got fired from GameSpy, his desire to keep writing articles didn't go away, but now he was free of having to be Quake-specific or having to specifically focus on gaming. He could pretty much write about everything.Kyanka: "Something Awful" was a catchphrase that I used to use. As in, "Wow, that Del Taco burrito sure is something awful." One day I said, "I should really register that as a website." My friend said, "What are you going to put there?" I said, "I don't know, I just really want to register it. So I did, and I moved my original site I had on Tripod.com since back in 1996 called RK Central and put the stuff on [SA], which included my old ICQ pranks and things like that.
"This, of course, was back when fucking anime pillows was fresh and new."
"Dr." David Thorpe, former SA admin and music critic (@arr): Early on it was pretty much Rich writing the site. It was his personal vehicle for writing humor stuff. Humor focused on internet culture, video game stuff. He had the Jeff K character, who was a parody of a really shitty teenager who was just getting on the internet for the first time, being really adamant about all of his shitty opinions. I think there were a lot things that people who were pretty heavy internet users at the time responded pretty heavily to.Kyanka: People would submit work to me and my whole criteria was if it made me laugh I would let them be a writer. I have never run Something Awful like…what is that stupid-ass site? BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is essentially McDonald's. They're giving people a cheap and easy way to just go there and see the 12—Wait, I'm sorry, it has to be an odd number, usually—the 13 wackiest kittens or the 15 top epic lul fails that you've gotta see to believe or whatever like that. People want to see that. They're just giving people what they want, and I've never been interested in that. I've been interested in giving people what I want, basically, because I feel like I don't understand a large portion, like 99 percent of people, and so the only thing that I can do is be true to myself and give what I feel is funny
"It was before social networking. It was before Twitter, before Facebook, before Reddit. It was kind of unique."
Kyanka: I find Twitter's situation to be of their own making. They never concretely set out a set of rules. When I first started the forums, I wrote four pages of rules and a catch-all at the end: If there's something else we don't like, we're going to ban you. We have every right to ban you and that's it. With Twitter, they never defined anything. They never said what's allowed, what isn't allowed, what will happen. They just kind of floated around. If something got really out of hand they would get rid of it, but since they had no concrete rules, they had no active moderation, people didn't know what was or what wasn't allowed. They dug their own grave and now they're way too far into it to dig out.
"He said he was going to kill himself if he wasn't made a moderator. But I know for a fact he didn't kill himself because he tried to register another account after that."
Hendren: People saw it kind of as an exclusive place. One of the reasons for that was Rich implemented certain hacks, or I guess he changed the code himself to the forums that would allow us to banish people just from the pink forum. So if somebody was trying really, really hard to be funny and just falling flat on their face we would basically kick them out. If somebody was really not funny we would just get rid of them. Like Andy Milonakis. We just booted him. Before he was famous, he tried really, really hard to be funny in there and we just weren't having it. There was kind of an air of exclusivity about it. It wasn't impossible to get over that hurdle, but it did deter a lot and it kept the quality high, I think, for a number of years.
"It became so insular that nobody else could really enter it. When it became about the memes, and that's essentially what they were, that's when I left and gave up."
Kyanka: I don't really necessarily believe it was Reddit. I think it's a combination of things, and I haven't really kept up with the current trends. I don't have an official app, we're still working on the mobile version, stuff like that. If you look at any given Reddit post it's junk. I've got nothing against Reddit, I don't think Reddit has cut into my business model at all, but Reddit is just shit floating to the top. We're trying to keep the Redditors out. With Reddit, there's no barrier to entry. Anybody can create a Reddit account, anybody could, up until a few years ago when we shut down their child porn forums, anybody could post child porn there, until we started a crusade to get those shut down.Boruff: I think ultimately it was just that a lot of the early people were leaving. They had moved on with their lives. You get a new crowd in, and they have different tastes, different interests. And in some ways we thought the people that were there then weren't as good as the ones we had before, but also it was probably the case that we were kind of burned out and were mad it wasn't the same as it had been.Thorpe: There were definitely more humor sites on the internet as time went on. Humor got a lot more meme focused as time went on, which Something Awful was always really, really against. You would get banned if you did any meme shit, and certainly on the front page nobody would dare do any of that shit, like LOLCats was popular for 10 minutes. It never capitalized on any of that stuff, which it probably could have and made a ton of money. But as soon as something became recognizable as a meme, it was forbidden. Anyone who's from there is probably going to have an aversion to any kind of internet meme or catchphrase forever, probably, because it was such a huge part of the culture. Everybody considered that the death of all humor and original thought.Hendren: As most of us moved to Twitter or whatever we kind of brought the community with us. It wasn't that Something Awful was bad, it was just easier for us to congregate here instead of there. We'd already established who was funny and who wasn't and we still know that to a pretty good degree. Most of us still follow each other and still talk to each other on Twitter. I'm in a group DM with most of the same guys I've been talking to for the past 12 years now. The community isn't dead, it was just moved, mostly.Boruff: On Twitter, it's much easier to share an idiotic thought or whatever joke comes to your mind than an internet forum. The social aspects can be achieved through Facebook. And Reddit's more popular. I think they certainly took users away, but I think Something Awful would have declined on its own, anyway.Thorpe: It was pretty gradual and for a bunch of reasons. When you have a day job it becomes harder to mess around on a pink internet forum where people are posting horrible pictures occasionally without warning. I think that's why a lot of people slowly went to places like Twitter that you could have open in a web browser at work. And you know just having more a life, more relationships and social obligations and stuff you don't spend your nights on the internet anymore. I think people even gravitated toward other weird little places, I think people went to Digg and then Reddit, or they went to 4chan and then Twitter. There are just way, way, way more options in terms of socializing on the internet.Thorpe: Another perspective is that it is still fairly popular as a community by the standards of the internet then but the use and cultural force of the internet now is so gigantic now that it's sort of dwarfed by things like Twitter.Boruff: Not that it's dead or it can't be saved or there's no life still left in it, but it reached its peak.Hendren: Cultures will change and subgenres of communities will come and go, that's always going to happen. At some point people get a little tired of the old thing. Something Awful did grow a little long in the tooth.Kyanka: You can't reverse time and go back. You have to slowly indoctrinate the culture again and let people know that this is not just for shitposting, it's a place for actual discussion. Everything on the internet is so liquid and you can barely keep up with stuff. All I can do is just try to keep the forums running and the people there happy because that's my biggest priority right now. It's kind of a reclamation project for me.*Of those I talked to for this article, only Kyanka still contributes to SA today. He's recently vowed to return his attention to moderating the forums after a decade of absence. He's hopeful his presence can return the site to its glory days. Thorpe lives in San Francisco and works for a mobile game developer. Hendren also lives in California, where he works for a cybersecurity firm. Bowen lives in New York and works in publishing. He and Kyanka still talk. Boruff, a copywriter by trade, recently wrote his last article for the site after 15 years.Subscribe to pluspluspodcast , Motherboard's new show about the people and machines that are building our future.
"All I can do is just try to keep the forums running and the people there happy because that's my biggest priority right now. It's kind of a reclamation project for me."