In its heyday, You're The Man Now Dog (YTMND) rode the cresting wave of early mainstream online communities, alongside its brethren like 4chan, Something Awful and Newgrounds. The site allowed anyone to pair a gif (animated or not) with looping sound, to be voted on and shared by other users. At its peak, YTMND had four million monthly users. Image: YTMND, Jim Cooke
Today, YTMND lies in digital ruin. Propped up for so long by the crumbling architecture of Adobe Flash, its estimated 1.1 million user-created audiovisual collages of varying quality -- like Picard Song, Tom Jones Alarm Clock and Batman's Bomb -- have long been rendered mute by modern browsers. And in all likelihood, even these silent pages will soon be gone.
The site's creator, Max Goldberg, fled the spotlight years ago. "I… am wary of meeting people from the internet, especially about YTMND," Goldberg first told me over email back in February.
It's hard to imagine, but in 2004, a well-timed looping sound file accompanied by a gif -- the form of every YTMND -- was funny and exciting. Gif creation was uncommon, and a major service pairing looped video and sound wouldn't be successfully tackled again until Vine in 2012. For people growing up alongside the internet, YTMND was a way to take ownership over a tiny sliver of the great big interactive digital space we were learning to inhabit.
Its contemporaries all still exist in one form or another, as do behemoths Facebook and Reddit, which were founded around the same time. But YTMND's bright colours denude a depleted user base. The site's last admin post is dated 9 April 2014. How did such a beloved site quietly disappear?
Seven months after the initial emails, I finally convinced Goldberg to talk to me about the website that was my introduction to internet culture.
"It's kind of crazy how much time I spent on something that I sometimes didn't understand and sometimes hated," he said over the phone. "It was really just kind of a programming project and it got big from there."
The success of YTMND was a complete accident. Goldberg moved to New York and began camping on domains during the initial dot com boom, which led him to buy yourethemannowdog.com, a name he openly hates, with an acronym he describes as "so fucking clunky". It's hard to disagree, but that first parking page -- which eventually featured a tiled image of Sean Connery, his looped "You're the man now, dog!" soundbite from the forgettable 2000 film Finding Forrester and hideous word art -- became popular in spite of itself. People would visit for its novelty, or pull annoying stunts like setting it as the browser homepage for every computer at their school. Traffic poured in, to the point where Goldberg began buying domains of the popular misspellings.
Goldberg's creation became the template other users followed when making their own YTMNDs, and in the mid 2000s the site had birthed or helped popularise a number of early memes: Dramatic readings, Chacarron Macarron, NEDM (and LOLcats by extension) and what is love, among others, became memorable staples of the site.
"When I first started YTMND it was getting so much traffic I couldn't afford to host it and a hosting company offered to host it for free until I made money," Goldberg said, "So I hosted it for a year and at great cost to them."
Goldberg laid the seeds of YTMND's destruction when he decided to build a legitimate community around its very popular parking page, allowing users to upload and vote on their own creations.
The immediate tension between Goldberg and his own community tightened as the site grew to an unmanageable size. He ran the site with techno-libertarian views on free speech, similar to those that led to 4chan being dubbed "the worst place on the internet". Part of that was for practical reasons: In his telling, no one besides Goldberg ever worked at YTMND, and the chore of moderating the entire site's content fell on his shoulders. Though there were numerous unpaid and dedicated "moderators" who flagged questionable content and users; he "never gave anyone the power to actually delete stuff", though the mods were able to mark sites as NSFW.
Of course, relatively unlimited freedom tends to attract the exact arseholes who readily abuse it. "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 1 October 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.
Abusive behaviour by users is still rampant across platforms. Massive hacks of nude photos like The Fappening, the bigoted attacks on Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones and regular doxing and swatting of low-profile individuals have failed to kill Reddit, Twitter or 4Chan, respectively. The site's users may have been consistently toxic, but that's not what brought down YTMND.
With offensive content came the difficulties of making money off the site, an issue Goldberg would discuss often with Christopher Poole, 4Chan founder and current Google employee. "I'm trying to sell ads to someone and they're seeing Ridin' Spinnaz, which is two gays guys having sex with an animated gif of a penis spinning around -- it's on the top views that day. It's a lot harder," Goldberg laughed. Sales weren't his strength or interest, and he was never able to persuade anyone with business savvy to join him. So in addition to coding and moderation, advertising fell under his reluctant purview.
Community monetisation is a struggle, even for sites whose staff consists of more than one guy coding from his apartment. Many sites that rely on user content merely stumble forward, scraping by on meagre ad dollars and donations. Even the rare examples of sales are no less heartening. Tumblr, bought by Yahoo for $US1.1 billion ($1.4 billion), is a particularly telling example. Three years on, its value has been written down by $US700 million ($924 million).
And yet, Goldberg managed to maintain a profitable online community, until a few months ago. The site does have residual visitors, some of whom still submit new content and view the ads.
"I think the people who are still using it regularly are like people with mental problems," Goldberg said of the users who, until recently, have kept YTMND in the black. "There're still people trying to cause drama on there, trolling and that kind of stuff… The only reason I could see that would motivate them to do that is if you were a little bit crazy."
What truly killed YTMND was that it became a pain in the arse.
After years managing thousands of often abusive users while trying to keep the site up to date and profitable on his own, Goldberg developed piriformis syndrome. "I would just sit and write code for 16 hours a day and not leave often enough. I got a nerve impingement in my arse and it just hurt sitting down, so I needed to change my lifestyle," Goldberg said. "Part of that was working on YTMND less."
By the time he decided to step away, the upkeep on the site had long ago eclipsed desirable levels of involvement, and as he tells it, his health was the last straw. Now that the site is no longer able to fund its own hosting fees in ad revenue, it's likely to shut down. "Besides being a time capsule I don't really see a reason for it to continue to exist... It seems like the internet has moved on," he pauses, sounding overwhelmed. "And I've moved on too. I don't have much interest in the site beyond it being good memories."
Goldberg's concept for an image-sharing service called Spoff never panned out after YTMND. Much like the situation he was stepping away from, no one seemed willing to partner with him. He's been freelancing as a developer, with intermittent attempts to update his most visible contribution to web culture. Almost all his personal information that isn't immediately relevant to securing more freelance work has been scrubbed from the internet. His Instagram is difficult to find and largely consists of landscapes in foreign countries.
A Wikipedia search for "Max Goldberg" redirects to the entry for the page that made him an unwilling steward of early internet culture. "It really has to become a labour of love," he sighs, "but I never really wanted YTMND to be my opus."
You will be missed -- http://t.co/mpwB0zvX9m
— Max Goldberg (@YTMND) April 1, 2014