Tomorrow's World was is a classic BBC documentary series, which originally started all the way back in the 1960s. The show focused on futurism, looking at near-future tech innovations and potential emerging markets as a result. Bathed in the radiating hum of a cathode ray TV set, my parents had watched an episode that talked about how the internet would upend society as we know it. Personal computing would form the basis of many future economies, the show predicted, with every home connected via the world wide web. For the most part, the show would end up being correct.
My parents took a loan and picked up a beefy Windows 95 PC for us, with a whopping 700MB HDD, complete with 8MB of high-speed RAM. We even got on board with British Telecom's OpenReach early internet roll-out, complete with a noisy 28 kb/s modem. The whole world was right there at my fingertips, in all of its classic Web 1.0 glory. I recall being mocked for asking kids at school if they had an email address.
I didn't fully understand the power of the tools I had in front of me, and sadly, neither did the UK education system. British IT lessons back then revolved around Microsoft Word and MS Paint, teaching kids how to copy and paste text, or doodle ducks using a mouse cursor. Back then, if you wanted to know more about the potential a PC unlocks, you'd have to look elsewhere.
Back then, there was very little out there designed to educate kids specifically on coding, design, and so on. Luckily, there was one program that had the ability to teach kids the basics of programming, alongside graphic design, web development, and even the earliest forms of social media in one sublime package. That package was Flash, back then owned by Macromedia, later bought out by Adobe. Everything I learned through Flash is probably what led me here to Windows Central today, writing this for all you lovely people.
This is my tribute to Flash, and how the humble format changed my life forever.
Discovering Web 1.0 as a kid
The web was a simpler place back in the late 90s. There wasn't really any social media. There was no YouTube, no Netflix, no Disney+. There was a handful of websites that leveraged Flash to create content for kids, though.
One such website was Neopets.com, which still exists today. Back then, Neopets had a bunch of Flash-based games and services for kids. It was effectively like a Pokemon MMO for the web, with collectible magical pets, battling, trading systems, messaging, and other mini-games. The service was popular at my school among kids who'd rather slack off in IT lessons than learn, again, how to copy and paste.
I noticed that some kids' profiles on the site had unique styling that broke the website's layout, to give their small slice of the web a unique look. Neopets had a guide on how to use HTML to create unique profile formatting, and I was stunned to discover that its guide is still live to this day, largely unchanged. LissaExplains.com is another great resource I used to learn basic CSS concepts for framing websites.
It wasn't long after learning how to hack my Neopets profile that I realized I could apply the things I'd learned to make my own website, but what content would I have? How would I make the graphics?
Back then, entire websites were set up using Flash alone. These were mostly static brand pages that didn't need frequent content updates or strict SEO policies, but for a beginner, learning how to string "pages" together with clickable buttons was incredibly easy to do in Flash.
When not on Neopets, I frequented websites like Newgrounds.com, which remains the world's largest repository of Flash-based games and cartoons. Already in love with video games and inspired by Newgrounds and websites like Stickdeath.com (RIP), I set about creating my very own Flash "game," where you'd choose how to kill a stickman in various grisly ways.
Running a Flash-based website
My first cartoon "Stick Death Showcase," re-uploaded to YouTube, with 400K views.
Content portals based around Flash Player like Newgrounds and Stickdeath.com spawned an entire subculture of stickman-based cartoons, lovingly nicknamed stickdeath. Stickmen were simply easier to animate, particularly for those who didn't have expensive drawing tablets. While there were pretty great guides on HTML, I don't recall using any online help for learning to animate. It was simply a case of viewing cartoons frame-by-frame in a local Flash player, using the arrow keys to slowly scrub through the video, to learn how to animate on a trial-and-error basis.
The community around stickdeath and Newgrounds would spawn careers for all sorts of people. Rob DenBleyker and Dave McElfatrick were both stickdeath animators before creating the blockbuster webcomic and animated series Cyanide and Happiness, over at Explosm.net. Before becoming one of YouTube's biggest creative teams, Smosh was a Flash cartoon community. Others like Felix Massie, legendary in the community for icantcolourin, achieved professional success in the animation industry. The biggest and best, Newgrounds.com, exists to this day, with archives bursting with decades of cartoons from the early 00s and beyond. Its creator Tom Fulp would later make the smash hit indie Xbox game Castle Crashers.
Alas, as you might've guessed, I didn't make it as an animator. Some of my earliest cartoons like the Stick Death Showcase, Assorted Mishaps, and Excuse2Animate found their way onto YouTube, reuploaded by nostalgic stick death fans (cheers, by the way). But as adulthood set in, attention spans waned. Some of those cartoons took literally months of painstaking doodling to create, all using a trackball mouse. I found that my blog posts on my cartoon site often got more hits than my animations while taking a fragment of the time and effort to make.
Flash is dead, long live Flash
The last Flash cartoon I ever made, all the way back in 2007.
I didn't become a famous animator, but the skills I learned while mastering Flash have provided for me a skillset that has helped me find work that my crumbling inner-city school simply couldn't. I was a rough environment that wasn't fit for purpose. It was featured in BBC News for its rat infestation, asbestos problem, and overflowing classes, with upwards of 45 students per teacher. It has since been rebuilt, but that doesn't exactly help me or the class of '05.
School might have failed me, but the worldwide web didn't. Before joining Windows Central I worked as a general IT guy for a small group of charities, building websites and making graphics, using skills self-taught thanks to those early years inspired by Flash. Cartoons are a historically engaging medium for youngsters, and all of the ActionScript practices, graphic design skills, and web building knowledge required just came along naturally. Flash was the perfect tool for me, and many others who couldn't gel with mainstream education.
It might seem strange to be nostalgic for a web video type, but I feel like I owe so much of my career to that format. It would've felt stranger still to simply ignore its passing. Adobe Flash Player will officially die on December 31st, 2020, as Adobe ends the distribution of the format and its security updates.
The Adobe Flash creation tools already became Adobe Animate and focuses on modern formats and video, with the same rich animation tools of its predecessors. Web-based cartoons will live on in much more secure and efficient formats fit for the modern web. Either way, I for one won't forget the legacy of contributions Flash Player gave to the wider web, nor myself personally. Cheers Flash.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!