The original iCarly aired September 2007, when internet culture was in a trollish youth. Grainy home videos like Chocolate Rain and Potter Puppet Pals had achieved virality (a term not coined until later) and an influencer ecosystem was on the horizon. The Nickelodeon show took a cast of miniskirt-clad middle schoolers and introduced a generation of couch kids to social media stardom before social media stardom was a real thing. Carly, Sam and Freddie dazzled audiences with butter socks, ‘Messin’ with Lewbert’ segments, and spaghetti tacos. The trio brought us the word “derf” (a number between five and six) and donuts on a stick (thanks T-Bo). It also provided something more subversive: the occasional peek at the dark side of being a creator.
In 2021, the show comes back, this time on Paramount Plus (I’ve lost hope of keeping the streaming platforms straight).
Nostalgia is a cash cow, which might explain the slew of kids show reboots released or announced recently: Gossip Girl, Zoey 101, Friends, Full House, Powerpuff Girls and, briefly, Lizzie McGuire (now canceled). Another explanation for the reboot bonanza is our lonely quarantined hearts desiring a reunion — any reunion. TV revivals also hit the sweet spot of familiarity that our subconscious craves: old enough to be palatable, new enough to be interesting. Regardless, iCarly is coming back into a world that is strikingly different from the one in which it originally aired.
When iCarly first came out I was in second grade, the age where you try new things and beg everyone and anyone to watch. I would call out to my mom whenever I did a new pogo stick trick or handstand variation: “Look at this! Are you watching?!” And, to my delight, she would muster a “Woah! Cool!” before going back to whatever she was doing. That fleeting recognition was what I chased.
As an attention-hungry kid, the premise of iCarly, a show about a girl with a hit eponymous web show, immediately drew me in. I realized that people on the internet could watch moments from my goofy life willingly. Internet stardom seemed glamorous but attainable, and I wasn’t alone in my view. Nickelodeon’s Marjorie Cohn told Variety that “the beauty of the show is that it makes it seem like the average teen can do it.”
So began a series of half-assed attempts at becoming a youth internet personality. I started to post (now-deleted) Youtube videos called “The Annie Show” with mind-numbingly stupid clips of me blabbering about my elementary school life: my classmates, homework, toys. I wanted to be like iCarly. My parents were oblivious, I think.
The show predated the “influencer” and the “creator,” at least in the words’ current definitions, yet it puts its finger on the late-aughts’ naive awareness of web stars — or at least the potential for web stars. Created by powerhouse kidvid producer Dan Schneider, the show profiled teen internet fame in real time as the influencer profession emerged. Schneider has stated that his original idea was for a normal girl, in a twist of fate, to star in her favorite TV show, but that a casual conversation with friends led him to instead write a script about a girl with a web show. She could run it herself and do whatever she wanted to do. On the set for Zoey 101 (which he also created) Schneider decided on the name iSam, later changing to iJosie, and eventually landing on iCarly. Each “i” name mimics the Apple naming convention that epitomized the 2007 zeitgeist.
That year was a turning point, a self-reckoning. 2007 was the year Youtube began covering the bottom 20% of the screen with an ad and when it began verifying content to heed copyright law. It was the year that saw ordinary people catapulted to virality over dumb, funny videos, and those unsuspecting stars had the digital infrastructure to spin their spotlight into a bona fide platform. The quote, often attributed to Andy Warhol, took on new meaning: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Suddenly, home videos (like the one of a teething toddler named Charlie) weren’t just for parents’ future nostalgia — they could be a ticket to fame so global and enchanting that elementary schoolers on my playground in West Michigan would quote the clip’s lines. ‘That really hurt, Chawwwhhlie’ we’d say as we bit each other’s fingers, completely unaware that we were living in the most connected world in history.
iCarly was ahead of its time, but only by a smidge. I was recently surprised to discover that the show’s release predates Youtube personality Fred, a character created by a then-13-year-old from Nebraska named Lucas Cruikshank. To me, Fred is the epitome of early Youtube: both the video platform and the channel’s target audience were exceedingly young. Today, a slew of child Youtube stars bring home multimillion dollar earnings, but there was no real model for iCarly at the time of writing; its writers may have speculated at what it would be like to be a kid with a web show. I’ll admit that they did an impressive job. Amidst laugh tracks and flimsy sets, iCarly dove into the perils of being a tween creator on the internet.
Though the gang enjoyed fame and glory, they encountered realistic challenges of internet fame. In season one alone, they had obsessive fans, dealt with a glitzy producer who impeded on the trio’s creative vision, experienced the pain of scathing reviews, got tangled in a police investigation when they unknowingly captured a crime in their livestream, wrestled with compromising their brand’s authenticity to promote a sponsor’s stupid product, and resorted to creative ways to gain more followers. The publicity attempt goes wrong when their big neon sign saying “Please go online to icarly.com” malfunctions to say “Pee on Carl.”
iCarly didn’t hide from the dark side of internet fame, but it also didn’t get far into the psychological effects of youth social media use (smells like teen sorrow!). Teenage internet stardom isn’t lit by the bright lights of a TV set as often as it’s illuminated by an iPhone glow in a dark bedroom. A 2019 article in the Wall Street Journal describes the “lonely burden of today’s teenage girls,” who are “unwitting guinea pigs in today’s huge, unplanned experiment with social media.” Reading the piece, I recognized my 12-year-old self and shuddered.
Critiques of social media aren’t anything new, or special, or even very interesting to me. The University of Michigan Class of 2022’s Writing Placement test required us to respond to an Atlantic article called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” which I sort of liked even though it fails Bettridge’s Law of Headlines miserably: (“Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”) Using correlations and demographic data, the author claims that Gen Z is “on the brink of a mental health crisis” and that phones may be to blame. When I wrote my assigned response three years ago, I struggled to see past the achingly condescending tone and unnecessary fearmongering of the article. The author, Jean M. Twenge, wrote a whole book on the topic titled “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood” which I started reading until I felt too offended to continue (she had called me completely unprepared for adulthood before I even opened the book!).
Some of the points are fair, though. My undying love for social media has to coexist with my understanding of its dangers. I have gained a following for posting Wikipedia screenshots, and while most interactions are positive, I get my share of trolling and the occasional threat of violence. A few days ago, an anonymous poster made disturbingly graphic speculations about, among other things, my fart volume, toe jam and pee color. I shrug off this type of thing, but I don’t know if my 15-year-old self would have been able to. It’s really creepy, to say the least.
“Maybe allowing giant digital media companies to exploit the neurochemical drama of our children for profit, you know — maybe that was a bad call by us,” Bo Burnham said on his floor, wrapped in a blanket, in his recent comedy special “Inside.”
Maybe glorifying tween internet stardom on TV before we understood its dangers was a little bit misguided. Maybe there were better role models to crown than Carly Shay; maybe it’s a bad thing when kids with soft-boiled prefrontal cortexes aspire to fame online.
2010s Youtube stars Jenna Marbles, Shane Dawson, and Bo Burnham all logged off, leaving behind the hours and hours of content they churned out until they burned out. The generation a few years younger, the one that grew up watching iCarly, has also struggled. In June 2021, Taylor Lorenz released a New York Times piece titled “Young Creators are Burning Out and Breaking Down.” There are tales of predatory managers and fan armies gone rogue. According to a recent report by the venture firm SignalFire, more than 50 million people consider themselves creators, all attempting to stand out in an already saturated market. The realities of childhood internet stardom are more toxic and scathing than iCarly led us to believe. No one could have expected an aughts kids show to predict the psychological challenges of the creator economy, but I think it’s fair to expect the revival to absolve the original’s sins.
So wake up the members of my nation; it’s your time to be! The iCarly cast has aged a decade and their allure has faded. Jerry Trainor, who played bumbling brother Spencer, achieved Twitter notoriety for his presence on Bumble. Miranda Cosgrove, who played sweet albeit high-strung star Carly, doesn’t share internet cool-girl prowess with her character: Miranda’s feeds are populated with cheugy selfies and airy musings like “About to sleep in the middle of the day” (it’s called a nap, Miranda!). Nathan Kress, who played techy friend Freddie, now has two kids and what seems to be a receding hairline (though I suppose I can’t be sure). The last star is Jeanette McCurdy, who played the brassy and borderline violent best friend Sam. She has stated on her podcast “Empty Inside” that she “resents her career” and has quit acting. She also hinted that Dan Schneider was inappropriate to the girls on his shows (iCarly and Victorious, specifically) and was unusually obsessed with their feet.
Since 2007, we’ve gotten a bit wiser and a bit more jaded by the digital world. The iCarly revival has the benefit of hindsight and a unique opportunity to take on the thornier dark sides of internet stardom. The characters will be working their way back to hit internet sensations in a decade where anyone can become famous overnight. The show’s topics will have aged with its original audience (Jerry Trainor promises “sexual situations”) and the creator landscape will be more complex than it was in the original show. I’m eager to dive back into my elementary school guilty pleasure and I’m ready to let Carly Shay guide me through the internet once again, though I’m not sure if she’s the right person to do it anymore. If nothing else, I transport myself to 2007 and reminisce about when iCarly was cool and nothing hurt. But maybe she’ll surprise me: the show’s theme song, sung by Cosgrove, ends with confident assurance: “leave it all to me.”
Statement columnist Annie Rauwerda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.