HomestarRunner: Still DotCom

A Statement of Significance

Homestar Runner

Introduction

The story of homestarrunner.com and the story on homestarrunner.com are both delightfully innocent. The former is a charming tale of a couple of Georgia college buddies caught up in the 1996 Olympic fever, drawing kids books, and imitating local tv commercials before ever going near a computer that became about two brothers sticking to their guns. The latter, as encapsulated in the website’s intro, is the tale of an earnest, energetic, if often missing the mark hero in primary colors, and his sarcastic character foil. These would-be archetypes are surrounded by a supporting cast endearing in their eccentricities – loyalties and rivalries abound, speech impediments and character flaws.

 

The World of HomeStar

Strong Bad

The site featured cartoons with a regular cast: armless Homestar, his equally armless, guitar-playing sometimes girlfriend Marzipan, globular best friend PomPom, hip-hop loving Coach Z, concession stand-running Bubbs, the gluttonous King of Town, the exactly what it sounds like Poopsmith, and finally the aptly named Strong Sad, Strong Mad, and Strong Bad with his sidekick the Cheat.

The cartoons featured this main cast heavily and were generally stand alone. The site featured games and downloadable content like desktop wallpapers and sound effects to customize your AOL Instant Messenger. But, as the into pointed out, the site’s break away hit was the Strong Bad Emails. In this segment, fans could email the character and the character would pick emails to respond to – sort of. Early favorites like “Theme Party” had the sender asking for theme suggestions for a frat party and Strong Bad suggesting that the theme of the party be “Frat Party.” Part of the fun was how far off topic the email would diverge, how ludicrous it would become. From this meandering came Trogdor the Burninator (fun fact, Google Docs, corrected my misspelling of Burninator because Google knows what’s up), Strong Bad Techno, and Teen Girl Squad, which became an independent feature on the site. In addition to its own internal world of jokes, characters, and plot devices, the site heavily featured pop culture references from the 70s-90s, especially in the form of the annual Halloween costumes.

Halloween 2015 Back Row: PomPom, the Poopsmith, the King of Town, Strong Mad Middle Row: Bubbs, Strong Sad Front Row: Homsar, the Cheat, Strong Bad, Homestar, Marzipan, and Coach Z

The Intended

From 2000 to 2009, homestarrunner.com was a regulrary maintained website. The site never advertised, nor took in advertising; supporting itself through merchandise sales and expanding solely by word of mouth largely before the explosion of social media. The key audience was high school and college students ten years ago, the members of generation nostalgia;  group for whom the integration of the 70s-90s pop culture references would resonate most clearly with their own life experiences.  As with the preservation of other popular cultural icons, homestarrunner.com would be a valuable candidate for preservation because it spread so far without being dictated to the people who liked it by a network or publisher like other mass media. It was not created through a marketing machine, but by a couple of guys making what they thought was funny.

This is one of the great equalizers of the internet and the entire basis of YouTube – that anyone can put their content on the web for the whole world to enjoy, the best material will rise to the surface, the creators will be acknowledge and achieve fame and fortune. It is, in a sense, an easy version of the American dream (and it does ignore that there are now multiple television shows dedicated to making fun of the internet like @midnight on Comedy Central).

Nevertheless, the fans who supported the site, who bought enough merchandise to keep the project running for years, are the same fans who are making stained glass windows and keeping a subreddit active, editing a dedicated HR wiki, and following the Twitter feeds. Granted, many of the fans, like the creators, have gone on to focus on other things as their interests had developed, but like any beloved childhood accessory, what it meant at the time is fundamental to the shaping of who we are now.

Above all it is this first group for whom preservation is undertaken because it is for this group that the site was saved from the death of Flash, see more below, and for this group primarily that the site continues to be updated. No less arbitrators of cool than Rolling Stone magazine are on board, promoting the return of the ever innocent Homestar.

The second main group of people interested in the conservation of homestar runner would be internet historians who would be interested in tracking the growth and spread of a social phenomenon before social media. In addition to the site, however, conservation efforts would need to include materials relating to the site’s popularity and spread through the zeitgeist – mentions on mainstream television shows, appearances in other works, and as an early success in internet memes. The meme, the spreadable idea, is more what the site is becoming remembered for already, the snippets that haven’t quite died away – Trogdor especially.

Homestar began its ascent before social media and continued more or less independently of the craze. Those scholars would perhaps be interested in tracking the decline of homestar runner against the social media explosion looking for a corollary between the two; to determine if such word-of-mouth sites were no longer truly sustainable in a post-Facebook world when they should have been infinitely more accessible.

The Cheat. The Cheat is the Best.

The third group of people who would be interested in the preservation of the site would be computer and internet technical preservationists who would be interested in the mechanics of how the site was built and maintained in the Flash animation environment and the subsequent transition away from Flash. The site dealt with the Flash transition in it’s own way, not ignoring that it was dealing with a significant problem and humorously dropping lines of broken code from the sky onto the main characters as the ever-frustrated Strong Bad attempted to explain the horror of the situation of the death of Flash in an entirely Flash-based world to the optimistically-oblivious Homestar. Both tech news outlets the Verge.com and Geek.com ran entire stories on HomestarRunner and the death of Flash.

The final group of people who would be especially interested in the preservation of homestarrunner would be cartoon and television historians who, because of the later work of the creators, the Brother Chaps, on other popular children’s shows such as the highly regarded Gravity Falls and Yo Gabba Gabba. Historians of popular media would be especially interested in capturing this early work to contextualize the later work of two prominent auteurs, however out of the mainstream the early career-making work might have been. 

All the cast that there might have ever been…

5 Replies to “HomestarRunner: Still DotCom”

  1. I know you were hesitant to use HomestarRunner as your project, but I think it’s fantastic. Just going back to the website made me happy *lol*. But seriously- I think it offers a lot of material for preservation and you clearly made a case as to why it’s important to preserve.

    Did you think about reaching out to the Reddit/Twitter users to see why/what they think is important about HomestarRunner as far as preservation? I was surprised at how friendly and helpful the Polandball mods were when I asked about digi preservation.

  2. I think the appeal to the documentation of “death of Flash” can especially make a strong case with your statement of significance. The self-referencial frustration towards the Flash ailment is a fascinating record in itself–fantastic! This makes me wonder what were the norms of 404 and/or error messages back then? Today we see: “Oh Snap!” of a personified file icon, the image of broken Google robot, and the insultingly general reference to “Dave” etc.

  3. You provide a nice backstory about the site and the content. I think one of the aspects of this that is particularly interesting is the moment in time from which it ran, a lot changed about the web between 2000 and 2009 and in that context this is really a piece of popular culture that played a role in shaping the web as a medium. I think you’ve nicely identified some key stakeholder groups here and that is going to be helpful in pinning down what parts of the site matter to different potential use cases.

    I would also note, that aside from these as published works, there is likely considerable potential value in what you might imagine as the “archive” of homestar runner. As a comparison, the Library of Congress collects comics in the Serials division, but it also has a significant collection of original artwork for comics (like Dick Tracey) in the Prints and Photographs division. In this case, I could imagine situations where future researchers might be interested in studying not the finished .swf files of the videos but the original flash project files that one could study to understand how the actual individual pieces were composed and how that changed over time. As you might imagine, that kind of approach would require approaching the creators and looking at if they would be open to giving their archive to some sort of repository. (Or making it openly available on the web.)

    Have you taken a look at the extent to which the site works over time in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine? That would likely be useful in sorting out some of the key things you would want to make sure you could capture of it.

  4. This is a great project. I’m sure you’re still trying to figure out if you will try to save it all or just focus on one aspect. Then there’s everything that is produced outside of the website too. I think video game historians would also be interested due to the number of games and the fact that most of them are homages to early video game culture. As we have seen in our readings the player experience is important and going to the users as Allison mentioned seems like a good idea to get at this.

    Side note: it looks like the creators also have their own analog HomestarRunner archive (https://twitter.com/StrongBadActual/status/710932898736570368?lang=en) – the materiality of Homestar?

  5. The independent Flash-based cartoon is a great field of web culture, and what I think is especially interesting here is that the whole “franchise” has spread out to lots of distributed locations, like subreddits and wikis, which are now defining the objecthood of HR. The challenge will be to document this practice outside of HR’s home location.

    In contrast to Trevor I don’t think the source Flash files should be prioritized, since, from my experience, they won’t be representative of the creation process; rather they’d mirror typical workflows of Flash production as defined by the authoring tool itself. Instead, a hard disk image of the creators’ computer, or at least the “working directory” with material outside of the Flash authoring tool might be able to show the hand of the artist. Single files usually never provide enough of a context.

    A file is not a meaningful unit of preservation!!1

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