Neil Cicierega, Internet Person – XOXO Festival (2016)


[applause]>>Hi, I’m Neil Cicierega, and due to a bizarre set of circumstances, I have a creative career.
[laughter] So when people ask me what I do, I stutter
a lot and I’m like, I’m an artist or sometimes I say I’m a comedian or a musician or a filmmaker,
but none of those words properly conveys the fact that I spend pretty much all day on a
computer, like just making images and videos and music to amuse myself. But since I have
a giant screen, I can actually show you a few things that I have made that might convey
that so here’s — there we go. So I made an album of Smash Mouth-centric mashups called Mouth Sounds. [cheers] And its Smash Mouth-free followup, Mouth Silence. [laughter] I made a whole bunch of albums as Lemon Demon with a hit 2005 Flash animation called The
Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny. [applause] I made a horror blog called Windows 95 Tips, Tricks, and Tweaks.
[laughter] I made a comic called Ariel Needs Legs.
[cheers] I made a very popular video series called
Potter Puppet Pals, and some less popular videos, like It’s The World Wide Web.
[laughter] Bustin’.
[laughter] Mouth.
[laughter] And Brody Quest. [cheers] But it’s okay if you don’t
recognize any of this stuff, because whatever, it’s weird. But —
[laughter] But on our modern monetized internet, there’s
nothing too unusual about having the vague job description of content creator, but for
me I’ve actually been locked into this weird role for over 15 years, since I was an actual
child, a time before content. [laughter] Luckily, for this presentation, I happen to have uninterrupted backups of every hard drive
that I’ve ever owned since 1995. [applause]
Yeah! Never throw anything away. [laughter]
So this talk is going to be sort of a period piece. I’m going to talk about the Before
Times and I’m going to use just all this material that I still have kicking around and screencaps
from the Wayback Machine on Archive.org and I’m going to take you through it, so gather
‘round. Okay, thank you. [laughter]
And this is How To Be An “Internet Explorer” with Neil Cicierega.
[laughter] [applause]
So I can’t remember having fewer than two computers in my house. It was the early —
[laughter] It was the early ’90s, and I loved normal-kid
stuff, like drawing and reading and watching cartoons, but I was really weirdly captivated
by computers, even if it was just like a business computer with no games on it, I would load
up applications and just like figure out what they did. And I’d like open up the MS-DOS
text editor and I’d hold down alt and type in random numbers just to see the weird symbols
that would come out of this machine. So, to me, as a little tiny kid, even before there
was internet, the computer was like a glowing box of secrets. My dad has been a programmer
since the mid ’80s, so he made internal use software for companies, like databases and
point-of-sale systems. So there were always these computers in my house and he was always
fixing customers’ computers and I have all these memories of amber monochrome displays
and dot-matrix printers, and those chunky ‘90s laptops with the LCD screens that you’re
not supposed to poke but you poke anyway because it makes a rainbow.
[laughter] Now, still in the ’90s here, in second grade,
Goosebumps was huge with me and my schoolmates. [applause]
Yeah, give it up for Mr. R. L. Stein and the thing about these books was, you know, they
weren’t good, but they were just exciting to collect and anticipate next month’s book
and every book had a preview at the back that would spoil like a little bit like what’s
the next book’s title, what’s the first chapter, and everybody would be like, oh, yeah, ready
for that one. Well, one of my dad’s clients was a local bookstore, which meant he had
this entire ISBN database on his computer. So I was like, “Dad, can I use the ISBN database?”
And he’s like, “Sure, son,” so I typed in R. L. Stein and it happened to list not only
the next month’s book but the month after and the month after, because this guy just
cranked these books out and he had them lined up. So I brought this secret knowledge to
school and I don’t remember if anyone actually thought I was cool, but I felt really cool.
[laughter] Because it was like magic. I used a computer
to learn things no one else knew. Now, around this time, my parents noticed how into computers
I was and they got me something called Klik & Play, which was a game creation suite and
it didn’t involve any real coding, so it was easy enough for kids to learn but it was actually
pretty flexible if you were clever. And this software, as you can see came out in 1994,
but it actually has had a continuous stream of sequels and spinoffs and it still exists
as Fusion which was used for like Five Nights at Freddie’s. So suddenly I could make interactive
multimedia and this was like a lot of things to take in for a kid, because not only could
you make your own graphics, which I did poorly. [laughter]
But I mean it came with lots of stock sprites, sound effects and weird games to learn from
so I was in hog heaven and this was something I could do all day. So I started making all
these little games, or trying to, anyway, I never really finished any of them. But it
was just the first thing I would do after school is sink all my time into kind of making
games. Then in the mid ’90s, two things happened. One, my family got online. Prodigy, first,
and then AOL—America Online. I found out there was a Klik & Play community and I could
download other peoples’ games and potentially upload my games instead of just making them
for myself. So I was like, okay, I got that. Then something else happened that doesn’t
happen to most kids, and after fourth grade my parents decided to homeschool me and my
brother and my little sister, not for religious reasons and not because we were having trouble
in school or anything, but because — I don’t know. I think my parents just wanted to try
something different and my mom claims that she missed us during the day, but I know the
real reason. Who else was famously home-schooled in 1997?
[laughter] My parents wanted that MMMBop money.
[laughter] So this next part is going to sound iffier
still. See, I didn’t mind being taken out of school, because as it turned out homeschooling
in my house did not mean being tutored regularly, it didn’t mean having a curriculum to follow.
It meant one test a year to prove to the state that we weren’t, like, being taught nothing.
[laughter] And that test only really took a week or two
to prep. [laughter]
So I mean to be fair, my parents did, for a little
while, make me play JumpStart 5th Grade. [laughter]
But, for the most part, they just year-round encouraged me to teach myself whatever I wanted
to learn as long as I was learning something. So I wasted a lot of time making hundreds
of awful games that never went anywhere. I spent hours and hours every day making title
screens, cutscenes, maybe the first level. I really wanted to learn 3D so my wonderful
supportive parents got me some 3D software and I kind of learned that.
[laughter] But I continued trying for years and I wanted
to make puzzle games and action games. That one was actually kind of good.
[laughter] But I most dearly, in my heart of hearts,
wanted to make adventure games in the style of LucasArts, but I never had the follow-through
to make the kind of games that I wanted to make, although I did learn some skills in
the process of kind of making games. See, my dad, I keep mentioning my dad, but he was
just a big nerd like me and he was also a good guitarist and he always kept MIDI keyboards
and musical software in our house, so it was just around. And I really loved the idea of
my games, my awesome games that will totally come out, having custom soundtracks because
everyone else’s games just used the Final Fantasy MIDI files and stuff. And I was like,
no, this is all original content coming from me. So I used this program called Cakewalk.
And I learned how to make MIDI files for my hypothetical games and I was about ten and
my songs sounded like this. ♫ TERRIBLE MUSIC ♫ [laughter] [applause] I did get better but it turned out that I
loved making music and it was more instantly achievable than making an entire game so I
just made tons and tons of MIDI files and I started to think, why can’t I put my music
out there for people the way people put their games out there? But MIDI files did not have
a big listener community. [laughter]
But luckily, the new millennium was coming. MIDI files were becoming a thing of the past
and a new format arose. Originally developed by the US military for use in Desert Sto — no.
[laughter] MP3s, they were just there, and I kind of
— [laughter]
I transitioned from MIDI to MP3 by kind of making MIDI files and then adding bad techno
drums to them and somehow I discovered a website called MP3.com and this website was so high-tech,
you could upload your 128 kilobytes per second MP3s and put them on a profile and people
could listen to them all they want and you didn’t have to worry about, like, the server
crashing. And not only that they would burn these custom CDs with artwork
and they’d sell them to your fans if they bought them. So this was like Bandcamp, basically.
So, anyway, I picked the name Trapezoid because it was my favorite shape.
[laughter] I have this distinct memory of kindergarten
and someone was playing with the blocks, this is a circle, this is a square, this is a trapezoid,
and I was like, that’s not a shape! So anyway, I made three albums of hyperkinetic synth
instrumental music and I don’t think anybody bought any, but I didn’t care, because I was
a kid and I didn’t have to go to school and I could just make my beep boop music all day.
Here’s the serious part. It wasn’t all great. I was missing out on middle school. I didn’t
have a lot of social outlets, but it was the turn of the millennium and online communities
were kind of exploding, so I was posting a lot on forums and newsgroups and IRC chatrooms
and I had a chance to talk to other people who were fans of the things that I was fans
of and to link people to my music. I was part of a forum for LucasArts fans, obviously.
And I’d make remixes from the music from those games and I would post them so it would be
relevant to the forum and people would say nice encouraging things and that was kind
of it for my social life. So around this time there was also multimedia, Flash was becoming
a huge deal and you could use it to make incredible interactive websites.
[applause] I didn’t make that one. But you could also
use it to make silly animations that could be watched directly in browser. And this sounded
really good to me, so I pirated a copy of Flash. It’s 15 years ago, I don’t care.
And I messed around with it for a year, but I was not a talented animator at all and I
couldn’t come up with anything worthwhile until inspiration struck. I had a friend named
Jules, he was really into Japan. Everybody knows a Jules.
[laughter] One day he brought over this CD that he bought
at a mall kiosk. And the songs on it were from the Japanese version of Pokemon. And
there were these weird hilarious songs and I was not into nu metal like everybody else.
I was into this kind of music. And it was so funny and the voices were like all over
the place, and we would just listen to these songs and we wouldn’t know what was being
said in them so we’d make up our own interpretations and in-jokes. So I took it, I ripped the MP3s
and I loaded them into Flash because I wanted to capture the nonsensical fun that they had
inspired in me and my friend and I was a terrible animator, so I just picked various images
that I’d saved on my computer and I kind of made them dance around. It took an entire
two days to make two videos and the first one I called the Japanese Pokerap. ♫ MUSIC ♫ And the other kept its original title, Hyakugojyuuichi. ♫ MUSIC ♫ [laughter]
[applause] I know, right? So I put them up on a website
and dubbed them Animutations. I didn’t know about Newgrounds yet, so I only posted them
to maybe one forum and I went back to making music and games. Over the next month or so,
Hyakugojyuuichi got linked somewhere, maybe Metafilter or Fark.com, and suddenly it took
off and I was getting thousands of hits a day and my website crashed and I had to find
new hosting and I started getting emails and calls from news reporters.
[laughter] Because in 2001, this was newsworthy.
[laughter] They always made a note of my age. That became
a part of the mystique of the videos when people would link them. “Have you seen this
crazy animutation? A 14-year-old kid made it! Definitely watch it!”
[laughter] So I figured, okay, I better start making
more of these before I’m too old for it to be cute anymore.
[laughter] So I made about 20, and they became increasingly
complex and chaotic, and I would just like dig up all these weird songs, whether they
were Japanese or English or German and each featured like a cast of characters pulled
from pop culture or any interesting image that I came across in my everyday internet
surfing. And because it was an easy style to imitate, fans started finding their own
songs and making their own videos, and we called them “fanimutations” and there
were hundreds of them, some by actually good animators, and there was an email discussion
list and an IRC chatroom for animutations and it became its subcategory on Newgrounds.
And this whole movement kind of lasted from 2001 to 2004, when like real videos started
to become like a replacement for Flash. But like that’s a pretty good run, and for an
adolescent making something that is not only enjoyed by others, but inspires them to create
their own artwork was like, I don’t know what the right word is for it, but it like really
impressed on me and I didn’t have any schoolwork or a job to focus on. I didn’t have college
plans, so this became what I did. So it’s now 2016.
[laughter] And I don’t make Flash animations anymore,
but I do still make all sorts of silly videos and I still make music and for the first time
since the early 2000s, I’m working on a game again and hopefully I’ll finish this one.
But it’s really strange to realize that I have two decades of creative output and it’s
mostly still online, whether it’s good or cringeworthy or what. And it’s really strange
to think that kids today are practically born straight into this recording device that is
the internet and they’re discovering their creativity and putting it out there and it
might never go away. But I think that’s fine. I like that, I hope children continue to be
an important voice on the internet, because that kind of twitchy humor and DIY ethic that
children have is like the lifeblood of internet humor, and that’s why I think it’s important
to be nostalgic as much as you can, and stay in touch with who you were as a kid, and keep
all your old files. [laughter]
Because you want to keep those synapses alive so that it’s easier for you to remember
that feeling, that everything is hilarious and wonderful and new. So, thank you. [applause]

Danny Hutson

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