One of the earliest and most influential meme culture websites, You’re The Man Now Dog, went dark over the weekend. It’s since returned with a maintenance page, but the near-death experience has been enough to bring visitors into a site-run Discord chat to briefly relive the internet as it was — a wild, overgrown garden of things that were entertaining and horrifying in just about equal measure.
The site’s apparent demise was inevitable, even if it’s not quite final. YTMND had been in decline for years, having slowly lost its place in the internet pantheon, just like the rest of its peers from the old internet. Many of them have struggled for years to monetize their large and often quite toxic user bases. The web, too, has changed; creators of internet culture can expect to make some money from their contributions now, and as the internet transitioned between web 1.0 and 2.0, social media centralized society’s experience of what going online was.
The site, named after a throwaway line in a Sean Connery movie, was founded in 2004. Developer Max Goldberg registered the domain name ytmnd.com and made it into a place to share gifs — which, at the time, were uncommon and difficult to make — paired with looping sound files. It became one of the first mainstream internet communities, something akin to 4chan or Something Awful, its peers. The site quickly became one of the dominant purveyors of internet culture; it was a place where memes flourished and spread, all before people called them that. The most popular YTMNDs passed into early meme culture — the Picard song and this Batman thing started there. (It also hosted a very popular copy of the original hamster dance.)
Before the apparent shutdown, the Internet Archive had preserved a copy of the site’s 787GB of data. (You can browse the site as it was through the Wayback Machine; although, as with most cultural products created by anonymous users, a lot of the offerings are at least somewhat offensive.) The site, however, started disappearing long before then — the last admin post was made in 2014, and the site had been bleeding users for years as its popularity waned and social media became the place where memes were created and spread. In 2016, Gizmodo published a story featuring an interview with Goldberg about the site’s impending death. “Besides being a time capsule I don’t really see a reason for it to continue to exist... It seems like the internet has moved on,” Golberg wrote in an email. “And I’ve moved on too. I don’t have much interest in the site beyond it being good memories.”
Those good memories are part of the web’s cultural history, but they’re not something people often need to revisit. “People are very strange with their cultural institutions,” says Jason Scott, an archivist at the Internet Archive, when I reach him by phone. “They’re happy to know it’s there, out there, but they don’t make it a part of their lives.”
So can I delete it now?— Max Goldberg (@YTMND) August 29, 2018
That’s partly because the internet itself has changed. As more people came online, and the web became less a place for nerds and social misfits, and as the internet became more centralized because of platforms like Facebook and Twitter, community-first sites like YTMND became less and less important. The locus of online culture had shifted to places that were predicated on massive, unchecked growth and propped up by millions in venture capital. “We’re so driven by websites that have to make a million dollars in their IPO, that people seem to have been surprised that there are websites that are literally just run, like sideline hobbies,” says Scott. Creators — the people who would have made YTMNDs back in the early 2000s — also now have more places than ever to post what they make, and they get paid for it, to boot.
After a community drifts away, there’s a point where the work needed to maintain one of these hobby sites becomes not worth the effort. “So it just goes into this ghost ship approach where a few people still use it, a lot of people remember it, but it’s not doing anything. It’s the bar everybody remembers, but nobody goes to because they all have kids now.”
YTMND withered because we all moved on. The hosting costs had become burdensome; moderating the anarchic community had stopped being worth it after most of its users had left. “I don’t like to see sites go down,” says Scott. “But I’m happy that we could gather it.” YTMND’s effective disappearance means another era of the internet has ended, the time where a website didn’t have to be anything but a weird, fun diversion — where a project didn’t have to grow at 10x speeds, or make enough money for investors after an IPO.
People seem to have a hard time with that idea now, says Scott; the idea that, well, of course it went down, YTMND didn’t make any money is insidious because it means that places on the internet should have to justify their existence materially, in terms of capital. “And so, to me, I’m sad to see it go,” he finishes.
Of course, as a hobby, Goldberg could bring YTMND back any time he wants. “If [Goldberg] was to flip the switch back on again and be like, ‘fine, you bastards, I put up a GoFundMe or a Patreon,” he can just do that, says Scott. After two days offline, that seems to be what he’s done.
Even so, I’m still sad. YTMND was my first experience with what online culture was, and it showed me what the internet could be. Which is to say: anarchic, obtuse, wildly creative, and just plain weird. Nobody was in it for the money, and people came there to be entertained — to have fun, away from all the chaos in the world. I mean, can you imagine? Better yet: Can you remember?
Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that the Hamster Dance started on YTMND; in fact it predates the site. YTMND hosted a very popular copy of the original. The article has been updated to clarify that.