Ten years ago today, a small Flash animation firm based in Los Angeles uploaded a video to its website. The three-minute cartoon parodied the year’s presidential election and borrowed the tune of an American folk song.
Perhaps it was the summer Friday-ness, that imminent post-Independence Day weekend feeling, or maybe folks were vaguely on edge in that election-year way and looking for something to watch. It’s hard to say. But links to the video jumped from email inbox to Friendster message, and, in the words of the two brothers behind the video, the little web server hosting the video “spontaneously combusted.”
The video was This Land, the primary digital spoof of the Kerry-Bush election.
After their server crashed, the two brothers behind the video—Evan and Greg Spiridellis—moved it to a web video distributor, AtomFilms. According to a USA Today report, the video got more than 1 million “hits” in 24 hours. The brothers received all the trappings of mainstream American microfame: They were on the morning shows and named people of the year. A national newspaper compared them to Jesus. They boasted that their video was seen on every continent and on the ISS.
Before Twitter existed, before Facebook allowed more than college students to join its network, the brothers made new media that went viral.
But what I’m struck by, watching the video now—beyond how did we ever survive the 2000s?!—is how much harder it would be for something like this to find success now. By which I don’t mean a parody video about a national election: We’re drowning in those now, and an unusually good one (or even a mediocre one with high production values) could make its way from Politics Twitter to Buzzfeed to a thousand Facebook-optimized aggregators.
No, no: An animated video could never find this success now. There aren’t any actors in This Land—just images and photographs being moved across a screen. Kerry and Bush open and close their mouths marionette-style. A cylinder moving up and some gray circles at the bottom represents a nuclear missile. It’s all very rudimentary. That’s part of its charm.
And that was part of the charm of the whole mid-2000s boom in web animation. Beyond Jib-Jab, there was Homestar Runner and Making Fiends, independent animation series whose creators made a living off their alternate distribution channels and merchandising. There were clearing houses for this stuff, like the foul Ebaums World, which must have been the first entry on American middle school block lists.
These series originated from a fluke of Internet technologies. In the early 2000s, most computers could play moving images on the web only with the help of the Macromedia Flash player. While Flash did allow for live-action video, it pixelated the frames to the point of incomprehensibility. Instead, most creators opted to use the vector animations the software’s editor could create. For a couple years, if you wanted to make cinema on the web, you did it with Flash animations.
Besides, live-action video files took up a ton of space and processing power. Who wanted to spend the time uploading and downloading them? Who wanted to host them?
As it turned out: YouTube. The service was founded in 2005, and it created a home for live-action videos right as the technology was making it feasible.
But Flash really perished in 2007, when the just-released iPhone eschewed the plugin. Its entire lifetime, Flash had been notoriously power-intensive and crashy Internet—neither an asset for a tiny computer with a limited battery. The iPhone solved this problem by prohibiting its installation at all.
For a couple years, Android allowed users to install Flash, but it never worked well. In 2012, Flash discontinued its smartphone player. Many users now can’t even be counted to play interactive Flash videos at all.
And the creative system around that software has collapsed, too. AtomFilms was purchased by MTV, then folded into Comedy Central. Making Fiends was brought to Nickelodeon’s website in 2004, then turned into a television series on that network in 2006. It lasted six episodes. Homestar Runner had a single new update this year, but before that had laid dormant for four years. The only firm that’s still around, it seems, is JibJab, which still makes videos and e-cards.
It's funny. If, in a decade or two, a high school history teacher trots out this film in front of her class, the attentive Generation Z-ers might not grasp that its animation was obligatory. For a few years, the only way you could make these things was to animate them. Primitive, niche, and animated: This was web video.
A decade later, and our sister publication Quartz is arguing that now, “media”—all media, from books to news to TV to cinema—“are best understood as competition for attention on screens connected to the internet.”