It’s 2012. Nerds are in, and Internet memes can actually make you famous IRL. But way back in 2000, things were different. YouTube didn’t exist, and a video had to be sent around as an email attachment. (Remember RealPlayer?) Your mom yelled at you for tying up the phone line, and GeoCities plastered banners all over your creations.

At ROFLCon, the past was well-represented during a recent presentation by Eric Wu of Eric Conveys an Emotion (founded in 1998); Zblofu of Zombocom; and Jonti Picking of Weebl’s Stuff. They were all online in the ’90s, but things really exploded in 2000.

revisiting old memes

With Eric Conveys an Emotion, Wu shot still photos of himself conveying requested emotions, gradually growing more complicated, from sad to conveying sarcastic respect for an authority figure.

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Eric Wu

During the presentation, the crowd groaned as we revisited hamsterdance.com and saw how commercialized the once-pure GIF-overloaded page has become. But its spirit lives on at sites like omfgdogs.com.

Then we turned to Weebl, who’s created an unreal amount of animated GIFs on Weebl’s Stuff. We got to revisit one of the Weebl classics, Badger Badger.

Next up was Zombocom. According to BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza, the event moderator, Zombocom perfectly represents the experience on the Internet in 2000: content solely consisting of Flash animations, a permanent loading circle, and a repeating sound clip perpetually welcoming users to Zombocom.

how they got started

Wu came to the internet via AOL, like many of us in the 1990s. He started his site over a summer in college, complete with a Jackie Chan image gallery and movie reviews. A friend encouraged him to post faces and solicit emotion requests. A few months in, people who were not his friends started sending requests. He obliged. “I always said I would stop when it stopped being fun. And I haven’t updated since 2006, so …” Weebl similarly reflected on his beginnings on the Internet with AOL.

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Zblofu started Zombocom as a test. At the time, SpunkyTown was a company of 50 or so people paid with venture funding to do nothing but create Flash animations.

where they are now

Wu went to Silicon Valley and worked for Yahoo for six years. He’s now a general manager of an ice cream shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he’s experimenting with a Nyancat flavor: cream cheese ice cream with a swirl of raspberry and chunks of poptart and rainbow sprinkles. He’s also working on a new project: He’s looking for a huge dataset of faces occupying different emotions to use as an educational tool for helping people with Asperger’s and autism.

Weebl continues to make funny animations.

Zblofu makes music and works for a calendar company, which ironically, only takes six months a year. “I don’t even want to go into calendars …” Beschizza asked: “What goes into making a calendar?” “Not much,” Zblofu replied.

What’s changed online since 2000?

The Internet has “definitely become more social,” Wu said. According to Weebl: “Back then, everyone had personal websites. But now, the destinations are always the same: Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, etc.” Zblofu agreed: “There are basically only five websites out there … I miss the individual creativity.”

Beschizza sees lower barriers to entry to producing content online. The technical and financial barriers are lower — you can just go to YouTube. This allows the culture to become more centralized in these privately owned repositories of content.

We’re talking about monetization now. Back in the day, website owners sold ad space in order to pay for their own hosting costs. Independent websites found themselves in the unwelcome position of hiring an ad sales person rather than rely on pennies from AdSense.

As the conversation waned, we returned to omfgdogs.com — because you can’t go wrong with animated dogs and rainbows. As Wu said, “I like cool cats and dogs. Every night I trade cat and dog pictures.”

Q&A

The following is an edited transcript of the question-and-answer session that ensued.

Q: What’s the average visitor time on Zombocom?

Zblofu: A pretty long time. Some people would just leave it on 24 hours a day.

Who’s the voice behind Zombocom?

Zblofu: That’s the one thing I’m not allowed to talk about.

Speaking to the idea of past, present, future, do you think what you were known for then would have been successful today? If our online environment is more saturated today, how do you stand out?

Picking: I think if you knew the answer to that you’d be very rich.

Wu: Very funny, immediately understood. If I did it today, it’d be much more social. The requests would go to a big list, and the best face would win.

Why are we just finding out who’s behind Zombocom?

Zblofu: [The ROFLCon organizers] are the first people who called, so I said, “Sure.” My name is on the WhoIs.

Do you like pancakes?

Picking: Yes.

Which creation is your favorite?

Picking: Walk in the woods.

Did anyone ever take Zombocom seriously and think there’d eventually be a real site there?

Zblofu: I did. [There are people who study this sort of thing and have over-analyzed it and written papers on it.]

Who do you wish was on this panel?

Wu: The Homestar Runner guys. I looked them up on Wikipedia, and they’re working on Yo Gabba Gabba. Superbad. Not the movie, but the site.

If I buy you a beer later, will you sing one of your Weebl songs?

Picking: If you make it a whiskey, then yeah. [Sings “Kenya.” The crowd goes wild.]

Harvard student Lexi Ross contributed to this post. A longer version of this post can be found on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.