The return of Subservient Chicken

My childhood basement was stuck firmly in the 70's: dark faux wood paneling; harvest gold speckled linoleum — the real kind, cold and smooth; monolithic This End Up crate furniture with nubby beige fabric. Even the air felt brown.

It was the place I escaped to, to escape to the internet, magical yet pedestrian.

And it was there I felt myself transported when I first experienced Pinkydoll.

Gang gang
Gang gang
*lick lick* Mmm ice cream so good
Yeehaw yes you got me feelin like a cowgirl

*lick lick* Mmm ice cream so good
Balloon! *pop pop pop pop*
Gang gang
Gang gang

My first thought was, What the fuck is this?

My second thought was, It's Subservient Chicken.

Picture it: It's 2004 and you're staring at your CRT screen, surfing the internet (yeah, that's right, I said it). You see a simple web page. Black. There's a video stream there, of a windowless room, low-ceilinged, stocked with anonymous motel furniture… and in that room there's a man in a chicken costume — the face too real, feathers bedraggled — posing, waiting. You feel like a voyeur.

And then there's a text box.

It beckons… you can type in it, anything you want.

What do you want the chicken to do?

Poorly compressed screenshot of a man in a chicken costume, with the arms sticking out of the wings and garters holding up the feet. He's in a small room, windowless, with a low ceiling, beige carpet, red sofa, Ikea lamp and old CRT TV on a stand. It's bizarre.

The Subservient Chicken was ready & waiting to fulfill your request.

Make a wish — moonwalk, throw a pillow, do a pushup, turn off the lights, pick your nose — and Subservient Chicken would make it come true.

(And when you inevitably went too far, he'd come close — uncomfortably close — and shake a finger at you. Tsk tsk!)

It was creepy; it was incredible. It felt… personal. It felt real.

It wasn't, though. Of course it wasn't. The site got millions of visitors within days… it would've taken thousands of chickens. Nobody has that kind of budget.

Soon it became clear that Subservient Chicken was nothing but a simple script and a few hundred recorded clips and a long list of matching keywords. A minimum viable fake-out. Clever as hell.

But, even knowing how the trick was done, the illusion was overpowering. It still felt real. And it was still intoxicating.

The Subservient Chicken wasn't a person, you see, even when you believed the thing was really live. The resistance you'd feel to ordering an actual human being to moonwalk, throw a pillow, or pick their nose? Gone. Mediated away by the costume, the setting, the lighting. The mise-en-scène transported the Subservient Chicken to a fantasy world where the experience felt real, but your actions didn't. Real, but without the trappings of reality, like a moral aversion to making someone feel used.

Only the pure experience of power remained.

The mind-altering, giddy joy of sending a message out to the internet — the universe — and watching it become real. Magic.

Which brings us to the so-called NPC streamers.

Instead of something fake pretending to be real, they're someone real pretending to be fake.

For some reason, this creeps people out. The overwhelming response to the viral clips has been: What? Ew. Ew!

Maybe it's because I experienced the Subservient Chicken at an early age, or maybe it's because, even before then, I cut my teeth on an anonymous internet full of avatars and roleplayers, where nobody knew you were a dog (or not a dog, as it may be), but I don't find their NPC schtick disturbing, and I don't find the actors to be creepy.  

It doesn't bother me that these women are pretending to be artificial as performance; so do silver statue street buskers and pop-and-lock dancers. It doesn't bother me that they're doing silly human tricks for pay. I know some people consider the uncanny job of NPC streamer to be demeaning, but is there really a difference between "Gang gang" and "Would you like fries with that?" You can argue that neither job should exist, but you can't reasonably single out the one getting paid bank from the comfort of her own home. Trading scripted phrases and faked emotions for money is the basis of a lot of what you'd call legitimate work.

So, to me, the work and the workers say nothing about the world. It's cyberpunk meets service work. What could be more inevitable?

But the buyers… them I wonder about.

Even two decades later, I remember that electrifying feeling of demanding something and seeing it appear.

Yet Subservient Chicken was, ultimately, unreal. And it felt that way; even if you believed there was a live actor doing your bidding in that chicken suit, he was clearly an actor, and he was on a stage, and he even said "No."

I don't know what it feels like to send an actual, bonafide human being — sitting in their bonafide human bedroom or kitchen — a virtual gift to make them say,  *lick lick* Mmm ice cream so good… but I don't think I'd like it.

Higher quality photo of the subservient chicken costume. It's creepy… a fleshy face, little teeth on the beak, a cocks comb, and real feathers.

Through the temporal dislocation that is memory, my sensory recollection of  Subservient Chicken puts me in my childhood basement. But by the time it came out, I was long gone. Perhaps it is because that basement was where I felt the wonders of the internet the most, and Subservient Chicken was definitely a wonder, and a formative memory of What Is The Internet… if a creepy one.