Adobe / WIRED
My earliest memory of Flash was that it got me into trouble. I had heard about a website that hosted brutal games, including one particularly difficult shooter starring an audacious yellow alien. I soon discovered that this site, Newgrounds.com, brimmed with warped takes on American culture – within minutes, I had battered Osama Bin Laden and chainsawed my way through a string of office colleagues. The next day, I visited the site at a friend’s house, and we massacred a school. In the evening, his mum rang mine to ask why her son had been undressing Britney Spears.
On December 31, Flash dies. Adobe will stop updates and recommend you uninstall it. This end has been a long time coming – since June 2017, officially; unofficially, since April 2010, when Apple’s Steve Jobs announced that Flash would not run on the iPhone. Its legacy lives on in Adult Swim cartoons and zany mobile games. Toiling conservationists continue to convert and archive old Flash content before it is lost forever.
Flash’s death is, in many ways, incidental – there may even be an impulse to welcome it. For those of a certain age, the command “please install Flash Player” still provokes a tinge of irritation, as they remember how it came between them and that bopping badger video. But the software’s end is also a synecdoche of an aesthetic project years in the making. It’s a reminder of how the web has been cleaned up; how it has been transformed from a messy and amateur space into a glossy and corporate one.
Flash animations could be crude and childish; they could be profane and pornographic. They were politically incorrect, an ideology that sometimes bled into real life – the creator of Stick Assault is now a racist YouTuber. One member of Newgrounds posted two cartoons – “clown” and “target practice” – before shooting up his school.
But these are isolated examples among a generally harmless chaos. If there was a small share of depravity, it’s because Flash was so easy to use. What would have taken a studio of animators months to draw could be produced in just a few days, as Flash algorithmically generated the images between two keyframes. This led to its iconic lilting movement – “motion without cycles”, in the technical jargon – accompanied by the thick black outlines required to endure the poor resolutions of computer monitors.
The most memorable of these creations came from David Firth. Where Newgrounds was unquestionably American, Fat-Pie, Firth’s website, was intrinsically British. Salad Fingers, the creepy green humanoid with spinning digits, is his most famous character, but I watched every one of his night-terror creations, from eloquent locusts, to mass-murdering milkmen, to Burnt Face Man, the inept superhero who claimed that “crime is a shit that needs cleaning up”. His cartoons, often paired with music from Aphex Twin, obliquely reflected British society – Chris Morris’s satire without the politics. In the early 2000s, they looked how I felt.
The best animation, argues the film critic Richard Brody, captures “the spontaneity, the free-flowing imagination, and the uninhibited sense of fun at the heart of the medium”. Flash spread these instincts across the web. The worst Flash websites were a thing to behold – remember restaurant sites with pumping muzak and flying food? There seemed no one framework back then.
In this sense, Flash was a bridge between generations. Its creator, Jonathan Gay, explained that the web could have settled on a filmic experience, based on movies and television, rather than the textual, Twittersphere we accept now. Flash facilitated the personalisation associated with Web 1.0 relics like Geocities, with users encouraged to manually “code, design and manage” their website, in the words of the architecture critic Kate Wagner, a state of affairs replaced by the corporate, professionally designed web that we “cannot customise but must experience”. This new professional web is glossy, uniform and minimalist, typified by app stores, smartphones and Facebook. Participatory “portal” culture, which websites like Newgrounds kicked off, is supercharged, but personalisation is destroyed.
Some of this change was positive, argued Anastasia Satler, who co-authored the best book on Flash’s history. A new respect for accessibility has flourished. But a lot of it boils down to what Wagner calls “Website Eugenics”, where the democratic, anyone-can-edit ethos of the web is handcuffed by Big Tech. You can push the whole subversion of media narrative too far – (Flash was still controlled by a corporate giant; users were still mainly crafting scatological gags influenced by South Park) – but Flash provided a striking amount of freedom.
“Flash certainly was never perfect, but for a proprietary platform, Flash at its height offered us unprecedented tools for the production and distribution of an open interactive web,” writes Satler. “Its interface invited in amateurs who could play around with drawing tools; its programming environment was largely self-contained, and its content-neutral approach invited experimentation and controversial work.”
Apple claimed that Flash didn’t work: that it was a sluggish battery drain, ripe for hacking. Whether this was true or not, the move still amounted to a power grab by a man who hated the web’s amateurism. “The mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short,” wrote Jobs. It’s true – the Flash era web fell short in many areas where the modern web excels, not least in monetising addiction and surveillance. The web’s messiness represented a kind of amateur autonomy. Flash never stood a chance.
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
More great stories from WIRED
💉 Inside France’s plan to tackle vaccine hesitancy
🇸🇬 How Singapore beat Covid-19 with tech and contact tracing
📱 Want to take better pictures? These are the best phone cameras in 2020
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn