Happy New Year to you all, my slowly growing little tribe of subscribers. Thank you kindly for your nice comments about previous editions of this sporadic missive. Today I am reminiscing about Flash and hunting down the purest and most wholesome pockets of the current day Internet. I started writing this in mid December when talk of advent calendars was actually relevant, but maybe if I can get it out by Twelfth Night, it will still be just about festive....
At Christmas I find myself susceptible to a level of twee that I wouldn't countenance at any other time of year. And so, in this uncynical mood, when the annual Jacquie Lawson Advent Calendar arrives at the beginning of December it gives me genuine daily joy and even brings the occasional tear to my eye. For those unfamiliar with the work of Jacquie Lawson (JL from here on), she specialises in cutesy animated e-cards, often featuring animal escapades (particularly with her own labrador, Chudleigh). The illustration and animation style is distinctive, soft and gentle, and as far as I can tell, never changes.
The unironic wholesomeness feels quite out of place in much of the modern internet, which I like to believe Lawson is completely unaware of; ignoring social media, oblivious to the "discourse", just plugging away out there making festive cartoons about robins. This year's calendar was so good and wholesome that it made me want to go in search of a more Wholesome Internet in general, of which, more in the next section.
In the meantime, though, JL's work is clearly forged in the fires of the now sadly retired Adobe Flash. It had to be, because that was what was available in 2000 when she started making them. But also, there is just something about the style that is very Flash, that persists even though she is now making them in other tools. And it makes me miss Flash terribly, so it got me thinking about my own history with it*.
From the late 1990s (and mostly the early 2000s), the availability of Macromedia (before it was bought by Adobe) Flash as a piece of software, the relative ease of programming animation and interactivity in Actionscript and the ability to play the resulting file over the internet lead to a boom in online cartoons. People could post their own work and reach audiences directly (although portals like Newgrounds popped up to collect them in one place, and sites like BoingBoing or B3ta were instrumental in sharing them). It was a good time to be on the internet.
The ones I remember most strongly/fondly were Homestar Runner and its spin-off (?) Strongbad's Emails (e.g. I love you, 2000 Mike and Matt Chapman, remarkably, keeping the old URLs alive as well), of COURSE Weebl and Bob by Jonti Picking (the first episode, Pie, 2002) who did loads of this stuff including the immortal Badger song (2003). And I suspect many of us Old Internet People still have the disturbing Salad Fingers haunting some part of our brain (David Firth, 2004).
There was a definite trend towards extremely silly surrealist nonsense, witness the bafflingly popular Peanut Butter Jelly Time (Ryan Gancenia Etrata and Kevin Flynn under the screen names RalphWiggum and Comrade Flynn, 2002), and cartoon gore, as in the superior Happy Tree Friends (Episode #1: Spin Fun Knowing Ya, by Aubrey Ankrum, Rhode Montijo, and Kenn Navarro, 1999 onwards, thank you to @julianrod for the reminder).
I thought I'd seen it all, but when I asked for memories of early 2000s Flash animations on Twitter, I got a surprising response with many that had entirely passed me by (also, sidebar, nice to see that Twitter still has its uses...). Too many to list them all here but thank you to everyone who replied, definitely worth having a look through for other people's favourites.
I have my own history with Flash. I learnt how to create basic interactives with it, and used it almost entirely to make stupid e-cards for my family. They have no internet presence, thankfully. I also built one iteration of my personal website in it, which is also long since gone, absolutely for the best (leaving aside my very naff design work, the accessibility was shocking). I was working with it as late as 2011 (when we created High Tea and then Axon for Wellcome Collection), at which point casual Flash gaming was still a big deal. Just a short time after this it would be almost entirely superceded by mobile gaming, and eventually the Flash player was phased out before being completely sunset by Adobe. Thank goodness for emulators, keeping all of the above alive. I bow down to the tireless work of people creating emulators and preserving all of that Flash history
So, back to Jacquie Lawson and my search for similarly lovely stuff on the Wholesome Internet. Where is the corner of the web "untainted" by snark and irony? Does it exist? (Should it? We've come a long way since the early 2000s. It may feel like all the critique and debate has become wearing, but obviously it has also raised awareness of, for example, discrimination, or the harm that online behaviour can cause. So if a part of the internet is to be deemed "wholesome" for me it shouldn't mean that it entirely disregards this, even JL is, for example, clearly being careful about representing a diverse range of people in her advent calendar. I'm sure there is a counter view here about "wholesome" crossing over uncomfortably with "reactionary" but I'm not here for it right now ;) ).
If you search for "Wholesome Internet", it is certainly a known concept. Wholesome Memes are abundant if you are looking for them, for example. But none of these things seem to capture the sense of pureness that I find in JL's work, of someone creating stuff to please people without apparently worrying about whether it might be cool.
It would be tempting to think that the purest things on the internet would be cute animal videos. However, whenever I see a pet or wildlife doing something amusing on camera, there is nearly always a comment below explaining that this "funny" behaviour is actually a sign of fear or coercion. Cross species friendships seem reliably adorable (I'm assuming nobody ate each other off camera in this clip of a cat adopting baby otters, for example). But I still had to find that on Twitter, which is very much not wholesome on balance.
There are various "good news" only websites out there, but I actually find them fairly depressing, as they usually contain many reminders of the bad that still exists in contrast. Witness this Future Crunch round up that starts off by talking about efforts to abolish the death penalty.
Weirdly, I actually find the most regular source of wholesome content to be my Instagram feed, carefully curated to be exclusively friends, food, gardening, adventure cats and animal rescue, mountains, local businesses and, er, tornado chasing. I'm aware that goes against findings that suggest it is the worst social media site for one's mental health, but generally my Insta scrolling brings me nothing but joy. And of those, possibly the purest of them all are Dean and Nala of 1bike1world, a charismatic and adventurous rescue cat and her Scottish cyclist rescuer, who are just good and happy and charming at all times and moreover apparently marching to the beat of their own drum, without concern for trends or advertising.
And yet, there are horrors lurking not that far away on Instagram too, and it isn't really the same vibe as the Jacquie Lawson Sussex Village Advent Calendar so I don't feel it counts as the Wholesome Internet either. So where is it? Where do I get my fix of unironic (but not problematic) twee for the rest of the year? All suggestions welcome, and a couple more possibilities in the links below.
Things that I have been reading and thinking about. Inclusion doesn’t necessarily mean full endorsement.
Someone recreated Ceefax! Maybe this is the Wholesome Internet?
I love it when people find new uses for existing tools, as in this piece on "Folk Interfaces". Is THIS the Wholesome Internet?
I asked about use of keyboard shortcuts on Twitter a while back and was surprised to see even in this tech savvy group that there were refuseniks (or those unaware). How do people manage without them? It turns out I am in a tiny minority: "90 Percent of People Don't Know How to Use CTRL+F".
A grim lesson on why you should consequence scan for new products to make sure they cannot be used for harm: how the Apple AirTag became a gift to stalkers.
Really very interested to see where this work on Community Tech goes (not unrelated to Folk Interfaces above).
Somebody sent me this (thanks Trev) and it dropped me straight down a Midjourney AI art movie mashups rabbit hole, wow. "Jodorowsky's TRON" (the HANDS though, yikes).
Influencer zombies. Which makes me grateful I spend so little time on Tiktok, to be quite honest.
I am very much enjoying Wordiply but also the "making of" article which is a really nice example of the game design process: a mixture of research, inspiration, trial and error, testing, set backs and successes. Are word games the Wholesome Internet??
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed it, please do share it with others. And if you didn’t, I welcome constructive feedback!