Motherboard recently published a comprehensive oral history of the Something Awful forums, and it’s an essential look into how the internet came to be what it is today. If that makes you cringe, you’re not alone: Many of the principle figures interviewed express a sense of ambivalence over the ways that what they created has seeped into the larger culture of the internet, where the elitist smartasses of the SA forums can’t be counted on to do quality control.
Writer Taylor Wofford interviews Something Awful founder Rich Kyanka as well as many of the site’s moderators and administrators, detailing the way the forums grew out of PC gaming before becoming their own source for, well, whatever Kyanka found funny. Fortunately, he had good taste. A shocking number of wide-spread memes originated there, as did the seeds for sites like 4chan, Reddit, and Buzzfeed, all of which are shit all over by the people interviewed here. Memes themselves are the source of endless derision, as they represent recycled jokes to a group that believed in following a constantly shifting line of provocation, stupidity, and elitism. People who tried to match that in-group’s wit but couldn’t hang were mocked mercilessly, including, apparently, a pre-fame Andy Milonakis. The people who clicked, though, have been endlessly influential in defining the sardonic humor tastes of the internet. For example:
The piece serves as much as a story of Something Awful’s birth, glory days, and slow decline as it does the story of the internet’s colonization. It also details the very tangible, troubling ways these online communities effect their inhabitants in the real world. As Kevin Bowen, a longtime site admin, says,
After I ran the forums for a year, I think I put myself on probation so I couldn’t read them for at least a week or maybe a month. And then I made a conscious effort not to get involved with it. There are plenty of people that just read the forums casually but there’s also a bunch of people for whom it’s a significant part of their lives and they’re deeply involved in everything going on. Once you go too far down that rabbit hole I think at some point you need to step back because it’s not real life and even if you do know the people in real life it doesn’t really change the fact that you’re getting emotionally invested in internet forum posts, 40 percent of which are just trolls.
Later, site founder Kyanka details the stress it took on his own life:
I stepped away from the forums in 2005. I was getting death threats. I’ve had people say they’re going to rape my seven-year-old daughter and throw her off of a bridge. I’m used to people saying that they’re going to kill me because I run a comedy website. I said, “Fine, I wash my hands of this, I’m just going to concentrate on family and things like that.” I just got so sick of it that I pretty much stopped writing and I got into a depression funk that I’m still in. I’m not exactly sure what you call a writer who doesn’t write for a decade.
The whole article is essential reading, going into the notorious “Fuck You And Die” subforums, the important role played by people who like to fuck anime pillows on the internet, and the eventual migration of the site’s smartest, funniest users to Twitter, which, as we all know, is now a blissfully moderated Xanadu of thoughtful content and cutting-edge wit.