Monday, February 27, 2012

Once Upon a Time on the Internet

I follow three websites. There are plenty of websites I read for one reason or another - webcomics, news, video, video games - but there are only three websites I actually follow in the sense that the website itself is such an immersive experience that it can't simply be dipped into, it must be explored.

The most recent addition is Cracked, which trades in pop culture, humor and forgotten obscurities, which I picked up on last year. The second is The Onion, the online arm of a national satirical newspaper, which I've read since 2006.

And that leaves the last one - the beautifully, ecstatically, ridiculously bewildering mess that is Something Awful, where "The Internet Makes You Stupid."

I was introduced to Something Awful in 2003. It defies description now as it defies description then, but the description being defied has changed over the years, sort of like the transformation, under heat and pressure, of coal to slightly more compact coal. This is what the site looked like in early 2003 (specifically March 26, 2003):

And here's what it looks like today, February 27, 2012 (without the ads engaged):

Since it showcases such a wide variety of material, the logical analogy for Something Awful is a television station, but I can't think of any kind of programming block that corresponds. It's sort of like a public-access channel run by middle schoolers inside the Twilight Zone, except the twist is that you've actually dreamed the whole thing and the dreams are coming from inside the house.

How do you classify, say, today's feature article, PC-COP!, in which "International strengthman Hyurgi Tigerwoods endorses his cousin's new PC accelerator and anti-virus software, PC-COP"? In the off-chance that the link doesn't work or you don't have the time to explore, the synopsis is that a Russian Internet huckster, who has previously sourced some of the finest Soviet castoffs for American buyers, is now pitching a poorly cloaked piece of spyware that costs $9.99 per week.

What the hell kind of category do you file THAT under? Going through the archives, it turns out I'm not the only one with this trouble:

From SA founder Rich "Lowtax" Kyanka: "Tee hee. Check out the description of Something Awful over at Backbeat Media (thanks to Kerplunk for notifying me of this):

Something Awful is a news, information, and entertainment site for the PC gaming community. The site features news, columns, reviews, chat rooms, and forums dealing with PC games and game related products. SA's often comic, satirical spin on the gaming industry has built an extremely loyal community of site enthusiasts that continues to grow by the day.

"Poor guys. I can just imagine the meeting when they were trying to come up with an accurate description of this site.

" Backbeat Person #1: Hmmm, so what are we going to write about Something Awful? I mean, our other sites like Firewire World and The Mac Observer are easy to explain; they're about Firewire and Macs. What's Something Awful about?
"Backbeat Person #2: I have no clue (pulling up Something Awful on their computer). He has some 1,000 word diatribe on the front page detailing how he thinks his ass stopped growing around junior high school and now he thinks it's getting larger again.
"Backbeat Person #1: Dear Lord. Oh well, click around the site a bit and see what else is on there.
"Backbeat Person #2: Some person named "Jeff K." is calling all his readers "fagots" and writing death threats to game designers.
"Backbeat Person #1: (kills himself)"

"Jeff K." doesn't update anymore, but he's far from the last fake character to speak through the site, as Hyurgi Tigerwoods (actually long-time writer Zack Parsons) can attest. Joining the ranks of the the active and forgotten are cantankerous bastard Cliff Yablonski, fake lawyer Leonard J. Crabs, a heavily fictionalized version of Levi Johnston, Roamin' Dad and more. I don't even like all of this stuff - some of it is bewildering and some of it is offensive - but I've been reading for nine years now and I still can't tell you what I'm looking at. And it takes talent to keep a person bewildered that long.

Mind you, I was thirteen when I started reading this stuff, but I'm still amazed at least every other day by what they come up with. I was devestated when I figured out that Leonard Crabs wasn't a real attorney, but it's okay because he lives on in each of us. Also I probably shouldn't have been reading this stuff when I was 13, but there's nothing to do about it now.

Despite trading on humor, some of the site's best stuff is the really esoteric material Zack Parsons comes up with. He has a deft hand in comedy - as his participation in site projects Fashion SWAT and WTF, D&D!? shows - but his real strength comes in science fiction.

I first took notice of this in a bizarre serial called "That Insidious Beast," which attempts to shake the reader with each new installment by changing formats, narrators and subject matter at a blistering pace. The grainy picture that emerges, of "a world not quite our own," is one of the most beautifully disturbing things I've ever seen.

Parsons is now working on a book called Liminal States, which appears to be even more terrifyingly indescribable than "That Insidious Beast." The title itself is ominous because it doesn't say a damn thing; a "liminal state," as best I can tell, is a period of transition. A change.

I've already seen once that a man who can make something hilarious yet impossible to describe can also take away the "hilarious" part and leave the indescribable behind. Despite the immersiveness of the Internet, and the gregariousness of SA in general, all his science fiction stories make you feel like you're walking home on a rainy day and you've found something by the side of the road - something you're not sure you should touch...

As effuse as I've just been, I don't believe I've ever written about Something Awful before, though I tend to read the Hyurgi Tigerwoods installments out loud to my fiancee. The only thing stopping me from dropping the $10 and joining their forum is that they don't take kindly to furries. I don't actually consider myself a furry, but considering the webcomic I write for, it's a distinction that would be understandably hard to make.

And also I don't have $10 right now.

But when I do, I'm going to snap up a copy of Liminal States. No ebook for me, thanks; I'll take the paperback copy so I can shove it in between Earth Abides and Night Slaves.

I spend enough time around technology as it is. After all, the internet makes you stupid.

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