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All online media eventually becomes Homestuck
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Hello there! I’m traveling today so I’ve brought in someone to help with the newsletter. I’ll be at the Web Summit in Lisbon next week moderating a few panels. If you’re there, come say hi! While I’m making way through airport security, I’ve left you in the very capable hands of Adam Bumas. He’s a meme expert, internet culture analyst, and currently contributes to Meme Insider.
And he’s going to be telling you about his recent journey through one of the internet’s greatest works — the comic Homestuck. If you’ve never heard of Homestuck you may not be fully aware of exactly how influential this comic has been to pop culture at large. In fact, I’d argue, that, in many ways, the comic — and its completely organic, very rabid, and deeply online fandom — was what really kicked off our current era of everything-as-fandom media.
It was written by artist Andrew Hussie and started uploading issues in 2009. It wrapped up in 2016, clocking in at a whopping 8,000 pages and 800,000 words. It has been, as Adam will tell you in just a sec, compared to Ulysesses, both in terms of length and depth. When Adam told me he was going to try and read the whole thing this year, I asked him if he’d be up for writing about it for Garbage Day.
Hope you guys don’t mind the change of pace! I’ll be back with my regularly scheduled Garbage Weekend tomorrow. I’ll be talking about the When We Were Young emo Fyre Fest debacle and going through the Elon Musk Twitter stuff once the dust finally clears. If you want to check that out, hit the green button below!
All Of Online Media Began With Homestuck
At this point, Homestuck has practically become forbidden knowledge thanks to a combination of linkrot, overcomplexity and collective embarrassment. Homestuck was big enough online at its peak that its influence is still felt in fiction, fandom, and online life as a whole, but the actual story isn’t fully readable without a fan-made archive (a website for supplemental material went offline when the domain expired yesterday). As its effect grows, Homestuck itself has shrunk.
Other than “Ryan won’t”, that’s the biggest reason why I’ve spent the last six months consuming every piece of Homestuck media there is. You probably shouldn’t do the same, but in a way, you already are by being online today. Everything from the MCU to the Web3/NFT/Metaverse boom to QAnon has direct parallels to Homestuck and its following. An oft-quoted tweet says that “every so often someone accidentally invents homestuck again,” but it’s more accurate to say that as more of our media lives online, everything takes on more Homestuck-like qualities. In the same way several different creatures have all evolved into crabs, it’s proven to be the ideal form.
One of those ideal qualities is how hard it is to explain. Everything needs asterisks: Homestuck was a webcomic* by Andrew Hussie* that ran for over 8,000 pages* from 2009 to 2016*. The first two asterisks are there by design, since the story was designed to be collaborative and cross-media. Fans of the comic provided music to underscore the story, assisted Hussie in making Flash animations and browser games for crucial moments, and even controlled the characters à la Twitch Plays… (which began five years after Homestuck).
Thanks to all that, the plot is mostly irrelevant. The simplest way I can put it is that it’s about four kids who are friends online, who become trapped inside a video game. To survive, they have to not only win the game, but deal with another group of kids in the same situation who have been trolling them online, who turn out to be creatures actually called “trolls”.
The trolls’ simple design makes it easy to generate your own, exactly like NFTs.
That summary misses out on a lot, but it touches on all the major pillars of what Homestuck is actually about:
Funny little guys. The characterse all have silly gimmicks, simple designs, and clear-cut speech styles. Easy to pick a favorite or make your own.
Teen drama. They’re also kids, so most of the storytelling follows the lines of YA fiction: Mysteries, breakups, self-discovery, etc.
Systems. Most YA stories have systems (think Hogwarts houses), but this takes place in a game, so game abilities and leveling up matter too.
LOL, meta. The metaphorical-to-literal trolls are just one sliver of the very online and very comedic meta-narrative.
When I reduce it this much, it shows Homestuck is popular for pretty normal reasons: The music is catchy, the multimedia stuff is impressive, the memes are mostly still funny, and it’s easy to get invested in your favorite silly little YA character.
The problem is how much patience it takes to enjoy any of it, since what set Homestuck apart is the quantity. The simple stuff piles up over 8,000 pages, as teen drama becomes systematized by a funny little guy in a meta-narrative joke, and so on. It’s dense in the way most modern IP is dense, where retellings and Wikis turn simple stories into solid bricks of lore and setup for future lore.
The reason there’s so much is the release schedule. For the first two and a half years, the site updated multiple times every day, with no set schedule and virtually no breaks. (After its first pause longer than a week, its return literally broke the internet.) It combined the excitement of a water-cooler TV show with the compulsion of refreshing your feeds. An update could always come in the next moment, and if it didn’t, you’d have to find fans (who were just called “Homestucks”, in another piece of structural perfection) for discussion, speculation, and fan work to scratch the itch.
Since the story was written with fan contribution built in, it trained people to make fan work as a function of reading it, which brought more fanfic and OCs and cosplay, which brought more fans, who kept the cycle going until Homestuck fandom took over websites, conventions, and lives.
That cycle of maximum engagement is what made Homestuck the model for literally anything that people put online — at least until money problems and delays started making people leave around 2014. Still, carcinisation, that evolutionary destiny to eventually become a crab, had done its job. The fan support made it grabby, the elaborate plot gave it legs, the characters let it dig deep, and its online sensibility helped it brave the waters of internet culture.
Homestuck didn’t invent all of this, of course. A century ago, Charles Dickens revolutionized publishing with Pickwick Papers, stories that came out fast about silly guys with fun gimmicks (there was even fanfic and cosplay, as seen in Little Women). And Homestuck definitely won’t be the last, either, since Nona The Ninth, a Homestuck-inspired science fiction novel by BNF Tamsyn Muir, is currently on the Times’ bestseller list. In a sense, Homestuck can be found in anything we do online because it’s the source code for how media works now — unpredictable, addicting, immersive, and, perhaps most importantly, borderline impossible to explain to those who have not directly experienced it.
—by Adam Bumas
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OK, if You’re Really Jonesing For Some Twitter Discourse, Here’s A Podcast To Tide You Over
Ryan here again. I’m currently drinking a $17 IPA at Newark International Airport and trying to decide if I want to pay an additional $9 to get approximately eleven soggy potato chips with my $24 chicken sandwich.
This week on my podcast, my cohost Luke and I go over the very grim earnings reports from the big tech companies and talk about the long slow decline of Twitter. We also talk about stay-at-home girlfriends on TikTok. You can check that out here.
Ok, everyone, back tomorrow with your normally scheduled garbage. See you in Portugal!
***Any typos in this email are only on purpose if it’s the bits that I wrote***