It’s 2003 and you’ve gone to your mate’s house after school. Their mum says you’re allowed to go on the computer for one hour, but then she has to make a phone call. You press the big grey ‘ON’ button and hear the machine whirr into action. The AOL bells chime like a greeting. The dial tone screeches through the speakers. You’re online. And then one of you types something into Ask Jeeves, waits and clicks... “Badger, badger, badger / Badger, badger, badger / Badger, badger, badger / Badger, badger, badger / Mushroom, mushroom.” You laugh so hard you piss yourself a little bit. Fanta streams from both nostrils. “Snaaaaake, snaaaaaaake.”
If you’re in your mid-twenties to early thirties, there’s a high chance you remember the “Badgers” animation by Johnathon Picking – and by extension, that short-lived and specific era of being online. For those older than us, the internet was like an alien contraption, used for nothing other than setting up Yahoo! email addresses which would be checked once a day. For those younger than us, the internet has only ever been what it is now: a constant, watchful presence, inextricable from everyday life. But we were somewhere in between, for a moment at least. We remember a time before social media and one-click purchases, while also seeming immediately at ease with the internet in general. And what did a lot of us use it for back then? Random videos. Of badgers and llamas and cartoon unicorns called Charlie.
In the early-mid 2000s, humour websites like Albino Blacksheep and Newgrounds among others experienced a huge spike in search popularity (the former peaked in 2005 according to Google Trends, while the latter did in 2006). You could play games on those sites, but mainly people went on there to watch rudimentary flash animations, which were always absurd in humour, and occasionally offensive. One of the biggest “viral” videos of 2004 was a song which went “Llama, llama, cheesecake, llama / Tablet, brick, potato, llama” over some photos of different llamas. Before then, around 2002, kids were watching Weebl and Bob, a cartoon about some eggs that really liked pie (the show would later be acquired by MTV). These videos were about being as random as possible, for whatever reason, and people on the internet loved them.
To truly understand the popularity of these videos though, it's helpful to zoom back and glance at the internet as a timeline. In 2005 for instance, when Jason Steele's animation Charlie the Unicorn came out (eventually becoming so big it had it's own line of merchandise), YouTube had only just been created. Facebook was one year away from becoming public. Instagram was five years from fruition. Netflix was still a subscription service for DVD sales and rental by mail. In other words, there wasn't actually that much to do online if you were a bored teenager – other than chat to your crushes on MSN and illegally download Linkin Park tracks off LimeWire. And so, a large portion of our time online was spent simply seeking entertainment. Websites would be recommended by friends, passed on through IT classrooms, building almost organic followings in the process.
Picking, speaking to me from his home in Bristol, describes this era of the internet in a similar way. “The internet was a lot more 'spread out'. No YouTube, No Reddit, just lots of sites with their own audiences finding things that they enjoyed and wanted to share,” he explains, “Rob Manuel from B3ta [a popular online message board from the early 2000s] called viral clips ‘Social Ammunition’; Something to show your friends to work your social standing. Passing the best ones around the school PC room gave you some kudos.” According to Picking, this was a particularly fun time to be an animator: “You had to time to work on your craft, make mistakes and learn what made you tick. There was also a closer connection to your audience as most sites like mine had their own forums, which made communicating directly and getting to know people much easier.”
But what about all the randomness? Why were these viral videos tied up with a sort of absurd, stoner surrealism? Some have pointed to this style as being particular to our generation. In 2017, Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruening described “millennial humour” – almost indistinct from internet humour – as “a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left.” Bruening might have been referring to more recent examples, like Bojack Horseman or the advent of memes, but you could argue that these early vids were a blueprint, or at least an indication of what was to come. Because what is “Badgers” if not an inside joke on the internet, and what is an inside joke on the internet, if not a meme?
Others have argued that our generation's affinity with the absurd and nihilistic is a “response to a world that has stopped making sense”, as Rachel Aroesti put it in The Guardian earlier this year. She continued: “this return to ridiculousness feels refreshing and necessary: by turning up the volume of the chaos of modern life to ear-splitting levels, millennial comedy has found a way to cut through the noise.” In essence, randomness reigns when the world around us feels meaningless. We experience a constant onslaught of data, with no way to make sense of it – so we don't. Maybe that early era of internet humour marked the first glimmering seeds of what is the norm today. Or as Aroesti words it: “a straightforward silliness, machine-tooled to pierce the panic-inducing online news cycle.”
But also, it might not be that deep. Kids and teenagers have always liked silly shit that makes no sense. Just take a look any popular clip on TikTok today, and it's obvious nothing much has changed in the past 15 years. At the time of writing, a sausage dog in a cowboy hat is trending on TikTok while “Old Town Road” plays in the background. So is this unicorn made of balloons walking a tiny fluffy dog. Picking echoes this sentiment. “The need to make short, immediate gags to keep people watching kind of drove that [prior] style,” he says, “To a certain extent, you saw that again with things like Vine.”
When I take a look at those old websites today – ones like Albino Black Sheep or Newgrounds – the videos seem rudimentary and not very funny. In all honesty, I have no idea why “The Llama Song” etc was so popular at the time, or why me and my friends kept watching it after school on someone's square grey machine. Sometimes cultural moments defy explanation. Sometimes they just are. And that truly is the definition of random.