One more time for the road: The Leeroy Jenkins video is ten years old.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
This week saw the tenth anniversary of one of the internet's most popular mainstays. A video whose fame was reliant on the kind of people the internet predominantly belonged to a decade ago: men in their early to mid-20s who were into MMORPGS. Yes, Leeroy Jenkins—the chicken-loving bro who (supposedly) ruined a raid on World of Warcraft by running, kamikaze-style, into the battle area early, much to the chagrin of a bag of nerdish, unimpressed paladins and warriors—somehow happened ten years ago.
In those ten years, the internet has moved on in ways we could never have predicted. For a start, the geeks have been pushed to the dim-lit back alleys of the web by football banter accounts, Facebook aunties, and everyone else in the Western world. The instantaneous sharing of information has become so succinct that traveling to hundreds of different websites for different videos and images is a thing of the past. We all only use about five websites now: Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, plus a news source that tallies with our own political sympathies. They all intertwine to pump the same things into your feed. Your friend shared it on Facebook? Someone's tweeted it as well. They might have also put it on Ello, but who the fuck is looking there?
Gone are the days when you'd have to go to eBaum's World, then to NewGrounds, then to LiquidGeneration, or YTMND, if you were so inclined. Back then, the content was dispersed through a hundred different channels, the internet was a Spaghetti Junction of pneumatic postal tubes delivering lolcats and "fail" videos to your creaky living room dial-up. Now we just sit back, covered in Mini Cheddar dust and globs of Frijj, waiting for something to trend.
Leeroy Jenkins never trended. It was never in the "Explore" section of Twitter, it wasn't in that sidebar on Facebook. It was never a "This Group Of WoW Players Go On A Raid, And You Won't Believe What Happens Next" article. Before that, a video going viral was dependent on whether we wanted it to or not. Millions of things will have been ignored, deemed not lulzy or important enough, but many break through. Flash cartoons, like Bananaphone, were once the prime example of a shareable meme video. When was the last time you got excited about a flash cartoon? When was the last time a crudely drawn character, whose voice is badly recorded on one of those old mics that look like a cross between the Pixar lamp and a creature from Prometheus, made it to the homepage of YouTube? This brand of shoddy yet heartfelt DIY creativity has long since died out, and is as likely to make a comeback as Britpop-themed chat rooms and paying for porn.
Why? There is simply too much money at stake now. As soon as an "internet creative" gets a sniff of success they're being sponsored, their clicks turn to pound coins and they end up in the editing suite of some TV studio before you can say "Shoop Da Whoop." The power of discernment has shifted away from us and towards the people who always had it anyway. Editors, businessmen, marketers—professionals whose job it is to make you watch stuff, as opposed to letting you watch it if you want to.
A bitter nostalgia for this lost and more democratic online era is felt in many corners of the net. Any aspect that hasn't become too showbiz feels the need to exile itself to the darker regions. 4Chan is still going, and reddit feels like its less evil bastard child: the Max Mosley to its Oswald. The lewdness, the danger, becomes rarer the more the culture is homogenised and simplified.
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There are still avenues for funny, weird things to grow organically. Six-second video creator Vine has given a generation of teenagers their opportunity to create things unfettered by big business influence, undisturbed by the question of whether it's WTF or LOL in Buzzfeed's Geiger counter of bullshit. Of course, the natural desire to be loved and shared is still there. There are still people singing, attention seeking, quirking. But there's a sense of freedom to it, and through its inherent spontaneity a lack of the kind of studied narcissism that pervades YouTube in the form of vloggers, and Instagram in the form of everything.
It used to be a surprise to have something go viral. Nowadays, it's an entitlement, an expectation. Leeroy Jenkins is a possibly made-up scenario that only a couple of people, by rights, should be amused by. It was dumped online. There was no social media team behind it, no #AtLeastIHaveChicken hashtag.
It increasingly feels like we're being robbed of our choice to decide whether things go viral or not. Given the world's current climate of constant abject horror in every waking corner, this may seem unimportant. But it's not. The internet has grown in the last decade from a fringe space occupied by WoW-players to the most prominent gallery spot in our culture. Leeroy Jenkins is a relic. It's a reminder that once upon a time the internet gave us the power to choose and make "famous" whatever we wanted to, before auto-playing LAD Bible Facebook videos, before branded content made you feel as small and patroniszd as every billboard and TV ad. In online terms, Leeroy Jenkins is a world heritage site; it deserves a blue plaque on the big memorial wall of the internet's lost souls.
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