One of the World Wide Web’s most influential platforms has gone dark. With little fanfare, YTMND vanished over the weekend; trying to visit the site now yields only connection timeouts and database errors.
YTMND’s origins stem from a gag website set up by creator Max Goldberg in 2001. The site, yourethemannowdog.com, featured an infinitely repeating picture of Sean Connery along with WordArt text proclaiming, “YOURE THE MAN NOW DOG.COM.” Audio of Connery reciting the phrase in his Scottish accent (ripped from the film Finding Forrester) played on a loop. The site’s popularity soon led to copycats, and eventually Goldberg created a centralized platform for them, YTMND.com. It might be difficult for you to fathom now, but when YTMND launched in 2004, it was one of the earliest websites that allowed users to easily merge visuals and audio and present them to users. YouTube would not launch for another couple of years, and web browsers had not yet adopted open standards for multimedia.
The limitations of the form — all YTMNDs were composed of a single image file, a single audio file, and maybe a text overlay — helped lead to the development of what we now know as “internet humor.” That is, humor that is often random or nonsensical and motivated by an intention to troll and confuse anyone who’s not in on the joke. It also led to a flowering of creativity, given that it was not particularly easy to create animated GIFs in 2004 or remix music or edit audio.
Many YTMND fads relied on remixing both the visuals and audio of a popular trend, like an old clip of the Night at the Roxbury guys bopping their heads to Haddaway’s “What Is Love” or Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air extolling the virtues of “pillowy mounds of mashed potatoes.”
Other classic posts include the dramatic reading of a breakup letter, which spawned a whole web-content genre of its own, and the electronic remix of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
The appeal of YTMND was in part that it made a quasi-video experience possible through a web browser. One of its most popular creations, Tom Cruise Kills Oprah, was an approximation of a popular viral video traveling around at the time. The 15-second clip shows Tom Cruise proclaiming his love for Katie Holmes on Oprah, except that when he grabs Oprah’s hands, lightning shoots out of them and into her body. Instead of the original audio, Cruise is dubbed with the laugh of Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine.
Like many early internet communities, it was full of misanthropes and racist trolls. As Gizmodo reported in 2016, Goldberg “ran the site with techno-libertarian views on free speech” similar to those prevalent on 4chan.
“People would upload child porn and make death threats and people uploaded other people’s addresses,” Goldberg said. “Even if you’re doing it as a full-time job, when there’s 300,000 people actively using the site it’s hard as a one-man operation.” This was especially true of the site’s forums, though it became increasingly true of the site as a whole. An archive of the original Wikipedia entry for YTMND reads, “By October 1st, 2004, the forums, in Max Goldberg’s own words, had become the next ‘STORMFRONT, a stomping ground for SS men in training.’” That quote is no longer sourceable to any particular forum post.
Just as 4chan became a breeding ground for both lolcats and the alt-right, YTMND experienced a similar dynamic. Despite its relatively significant popularity and influence, its grimier parts made it tough for Goldberg to monetize the site and bring in enough revenue to render its upkeep worth the trouble. Eventually, Goldberg stopped maintaining YTMND and the ship sank. Goldberg hasn’t really said anything publicly (his disdain for the site is clear in that Gizmodo piece), though he did retweet the Internet Archive’s Jason Scott, who posted that YTMND had been archived in full last year.
In retrospect, what was nice about YTMND was that it existed in a time before “content monetization” was a thing people cared about, and that lack of incentive made YTMND less of a horse race and more of a large-scale collaboration. Now, of course, large platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are full of “creators” trying to “monetize” their “brand.” This is not in itself a problem, but it’s made riding trend waves an omnipresent, never-ending competition. YTMND was people trying to put their own spin on jokes, for no reason other than that it made them laugh. It was full of what the Verge described as “technical memes,” whose appeal is drawn “not from aesthetic pleasure, but a workmanlike commitment to an arbitrary premise.” The existence of such an elaborate joke is, in itself, the joke.
There’s a YTMND I always think about whenever I remember the site (less and less frequently); it was called “Abyss family polaroids” and lived at the URL abyssvacation92.ytmnd.com. As Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” plays, a series of Polaroids pile up onscreen, depicting humdrum memories — a basketball-team photo, a yearbook superlative, a dog walk. In all of the photos, however, the subject is not a person but an enormous hole in the ground, the abyss. (You can watch it on the Internet Archive, and if the audio isn’t working, just open “Holiday Road” in another browser tab.)
Its inspiration was a looping GIF made by another YTMND user, Bob-the-Builder, ripped from a clip of the documentary Planet Earth. According to the YTMND wiki, the “Into the Abyss” clip spawned its own fad:
In just a week, many spinoffs developed from Into The Abyss, enough to be recognized as a small fad for the time being. Although the creation of spinoffs on Bob-the-Builder’s past Planet Earth loops have died out within a week themselves, Into The Abyss appears to have won over YTMND’s audiences in general.
“abyssvacation92” is so funny to me. I have no idea why. It’s just a perfect combo of ideas: a family of negative-space objects living in human society as if it were completely normal, looking back on old family photos as Lindsey Buckingham sets the mood. In just a few frames, it creates an entire world. It’s perfect. I will never forget it.
A closing anecdote: This morning, I put on Vampire Weekend’s newest album on Spotify, and as the music played on my phone, an animated version of the album art pulsed in the background of the interface, looping infinitely. YTMND may be gone, a figment and mystery to the next generation of internet users, but its influence lives on.