A History of Digital Media in 17 Artifacts: Part 1
You may stop to wonder as you recline from an intense bout of post-Zoom disassociation, how we arrived at this fever dream of inter-screen liminality. So here are the first of 17 yearly curiosities that helped make the digital plumbing of our shared device-based malaise.
Whilst the Last Days of Rome that predated the 2008 financial crash may now be re-remembered for hedonistic Indie Sleaze, political activism at the time was largely channeled into battles about digital rights and rapidly deteriorating khaki misadventurism.
Founded in Iceland in 2006, the Wikileaks website plays out the final act of Nordic desktop utopianism spearheaded by The Pirate Bay in 2003. More famous for ripping off mp3s of Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River, the pirates became a political party based on anti-copyright and freedom of information. Its founder Svartholm Warg collaborated on Julian Assange’s video release of the 2007 Collateral Murder US airstrike that gave Wikileaks its gruesome viral hit.
The pioneers of outlaw digital content are, so far, in retreat, dealing with multiple jail terms for hacking, fraud and computer intrusion, whilst major tech platforms discovered the elixir of convenience and introductory subscription models in return for far higher levels of regulation and public passivity.
The Premium-Rate Phone Number (2007)
It might seem hard to imagine in today’s permacrisis that one of the biggest stories of 2007 was the scandal surrounding TV phone-in competitions operated by a real rogue’s gallery including Ant and Dec, Konnie Huq, and Richard and Judy’s suspiciously easy item You Say, We Pay.
Premium rate telephone numbers (PRS) mushroomed in the 1990s as a revenue stream from football transfer news to extortionate sex chat, and were forerunners to privately consumed online content. By the millennium they were primarily used as voting systems for increasingly democratized TV formats such as Big Brother, The X Factor and Zoe Ball’s Soapstar Superstar.
The scandal revealed paying callers often had no chance of winning or influencing the vote, and was a heavy blow to the controlled studio environment for an industry that was increasingly panicked by the internet. It responded by incrementally handing over their editorials to online-sourced content like Alex Zane’s Rude Tube – an experience akin to watching a stranger territorially play YouTube videos at a disintegrating post-Hawley Arms after party.
The story of the outlier music identification app begins with the same text messaging revenue model as the Big Brother eviction nights, and finally blossoms in 2008 on the App Store, by-passing the desktop internet completely.
The original Shazam that launched in 2002 was at once charmingly lo-fi and years ahead of its time, with users holding their phone to the radio and receiving track details via SMS for 50p a whirl. It was not until 2016 that the app turned a profit, eventually being bought out by Apple in 2017 to feed into its music streaming platform.
Shazam was not a conduit of convenience, but minted a new kind of techno-thrill all of its own – gratifying knowledge that would have been previously lost to the ether. Yet, is the ‘loss of loss itself’, according to Capitalist Realism’s Mark Fisher, the internet’s main musical legacy, with its inability to ever forget? In other words, recognisable as our current era of a permanently available, exhausting Now.
In 2003 the Washington Post heralded ‘The Age of Random’. Early internet exposure facilitated wild combinations – a Millennial cohort had the digital means to splice generations of pop culture together through Family Guy to 2ManyDJs. ‘Random’ was social currency – when Ja’ime King in Summer Heights High declared public schools to be ‘random’ – she was making a classic teenage assertion that there is the dominant logic of the in-group, and the disruptive, opposing randomness of the outsider.
ChatRoulette was random culture’s final stand, its Waterloo, linking disparate webcams together via your buccaneering browser. When the chaos unleashed by 17-year-old Andrey Ternovskiy quite predictably brought a tidal wave of exhibitionist penises, it was assured the Age of Random could not survive the next decade.
Whilst algorithmically curated matching would facilitate the systemic piping of 21st century dating, Twitter and the other main highways of the mobile internet of everywhere were providing constant meaningless encounters – ‘random’ could no longer be a novelty in a relentless online world that it was increasingly difficult to withdraw from. Pretty ‘random’, right? Whatever, grandad!
The iPhone 4 (2010)
At the turn of the next decade, the power once held by the paparazzi to hound Britney Spears into crisis was in decline. Celebrity bin raiders like Perez Hilton and Darren Lyons manipulated our perception of the A-list Adonis through sensational tabloid photography, though the mohawked latter perhaps exposed his own dysmorphia by installing a surgical six pack that fooled no one.
The fourth iteration of the iPhone featured its first front-facing camera, and along with new self-publishing platforms like Instagram, began to hand control back to selfie-empowered celebs. Web 2.0, breadcrumbed with often bitty ad revenue, created broadly conservative spaces filled with a generation of sunny marketers and intimate product placement.
2010 also coincided with the launch of The Times paywall – a push back against Alan Rusbridger’s digitally-free content vision from a skeptical Murdoch press, who, about to be hit by the phone-hacking scandal, were furtively cupping their assets.
The original mobile-first messenger, BBM launched in 2005 but peaked in the national consciousness during the 2011 Riots when nearly 40% of British teens had a Blackberry. It was free and untraceable, and created a wildfire of neo-medieval mayhem with the ability to broadcast to large groups in a single incendiary message.
2011 also coincided with the launch of WiFi-compatible Smart TVs and newly-affordable widescreen LCD models – all sitting ducks to Britain’s marauding tea leaf. Meanwhile, Blackberry Messenger’s private nature was a forerunner to WhatsApp’s success, which eventually outpaced competitors through its global appeal, ad-less interface and end-to-end encryption – and ironically, in part, a response to data scandals that its new owner Facebook was involved in.
Tinder, now a decade young, was beaten off by Grindr to first offer GPS-based rutting, and it was not really until their own 2013 Summer of Love that the straights really got in on the action.
Like Shazam, it provided a new sensation, a rejection-dodging dopamine dump of mutual attraction – a mobile and inclusive successor to Mark Zuckerberg’s snide campus game FaceMash. A further shuffle on from the desktop, it sidestepped OKCupid’s grueling keyboard-orientated profile and questionnaire courtship.
Like OKCupid, it began as a Goldilocks zone for likeminded students, but it became a hulking meat phonebook, outflanked by nicher apps who could maintain a sense of exclusivity. Desperately offering a rigged stack of unobtainable stunners and bewildering premium options, Tinder became online’s late night kebab shop of last resort dating options.
Vine, TikTok’s unemployed older brother, sprouted and withered like some suspiciously discounted grapes after its January 2013 launch. Born into an already hyper-competitive creator market, it failed to offer sustainable monetisation and by October 2016 it had shut down – a month after TikTok first launched.
Within its short lifespan, the six-second video loops still managed to develop their own comedic grammar – set up, pay off and get out – and the app’s graduate japists, Logan Paul and Dapper Laughs, popularised a taste for broad-beated, blokey comedy reminiscent of tailend variety.
Elsewhere, Brian ‘Limmy’ Limond’s Fast Show-style impressionist shorts age better, as compilations on longer-tailed platforms. But perhaps Vine’s mountain of forgotten archive expose digital content’s lasting ephemerality – how much really of what we sweat over online, will be remembered even in a few breaths time?
Part Two coming soon