Revisiting Internet Relics, Part Two
As I covered in Part One, we’ve come a long way since the early days of the World Wide Web. But over the last 20 years of advances, a lot of trends and services got left by the wayside. I thought it would be fun to look back on the things that used to be such an important part of our lives — until bigger, better things came along, that is.
Let’s get right back into it, shall we?
Part Two: From Dancing Babies to “Pimped Out” Profiles
Our first meme
Here’s one for the memory books. There’s a first for everything, and our first meme was… a baby dancing.
Why? Don’t ask why. It just is.
This dance floor tyke was originally produced by the 3D animation development team and released as part of a Character Studio software product sample in the autumn of 1996. Normally that would be that, but there was something arresting about this cha-cha-ing toddler that charmed — and disturbed — everyone who saw it.
Today, memes spread like wildfire via social media shares, but in the mid-90s things didn’t move quite so fast. The dancing baby started gaining some popular traction when web developer John Woodell made a .gif from the source movie and posted it on his employee page at the Internet startup where he worked, and soon after that other websites began “borrowing” it to post on their own pages. Around the same time LucasArts artist Ron Lussier made his own tweaks to the original source file and emailed it to coworkers, who then emailed it to their friends, who then emailed it to their friends. Lussier later described the process thusly:
I showed it to a few people and one of them asked me to forward it to them in e-mail. A week or so later I heard from fellow employees that the animation was traveling through the company via e-mail… then a bit later, I heard people say they had received it back again from people outside the company, across the country. From that it quickly traveled to the internet and became the strange phenomenon that it was.
Slowly but surely, our first viral video was born. Of course, in those days “viral” wasn’t so, er, instantaneous.
Over 1997 and 1998, the dancing baby made appearances in every corner of pop culture. Crash Designs Incorporated sold dancing baby merchandise like t-shirts, ties, boxers, and mouse pads. Local news stations pounced at the opportunity to include it in broadcast editorials. Blockbuster put out a commercial featuring the baby boogying to Rick James’ “Give It to Me Baby.” Ally McBeal famously hallucinated the baby dancing to a Blue Swede cover of “Hooked on a Feeling.” The baby was also parodied in TV shows like The Simpsons, Celebrity Deathmatch, and Third Rock from the Sun, among others.
Looks like our first web-based marketing experiment went pretty well, eh?
As anyone who has ever worked alongside an interoffice busybody knows, email forwarding isn’t remotely a thing of the past. But there was a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s when email forwarding was less a corporate tattletale function and more a method to spread surveys, hoaxes, chain letters, spam, and not least, bad jokes:
Yes, there was a time when it was much more common to log into your email and see a few dozen new messages with subject lines like this:
Re: fwd: Fwd: fwd: re: FWD: fUnny !
If the syntax alone wasn’t enough to strike terror into your heart, the contents certainly would. It could be a joke bad enough to make your eyes roll, a stranger begging you to send them money, a warning about some greatly exaggerated danger, or a cheerful exclamation point-laden missive encouraging you scroll down forever before making a wish. And at the end, without fail, you were called upon to forward the email to 200 of your closest friends or risk being struck down by an ancient curse.
And if you were really lucky, you might get a fake Bill Gates offering to send you money. Provided you forwarded the email to your contacts list, of course, in order to avoid the curse. If anyone knows about avoiding curses, it’s Bill Gates.
This Rhymes With Orange comic from January 5, 2000, by cartoonist Hilary Price nicely sums up what we were all thinking about email back then:
Why don’t we see email forwarding like we used to? Part of it is that spam filters are better at their jobs these days. And a bigger part of it is that what we used to see arriving in our inboxes took on new life on social media, particularly Facebook where like farming, spam, and scams adapt and multiply faster than the algorithm can keep up.
Makes you kind of miss the simpler days, doesn’t it?
First launched on April 15, 1999, as a way for programmer Brad Fitzpatrick to keep his high school friends updated on his life, LiveJournal quickly became a way for millions of young people to share their feelings in all-lowercase run-on sentences.
While you could launch your own personal site pre-LiveJournal — think Geocities or Tripod or Xoom — LiveJournal was the first to combine homepages and blogging with an element of social networking. In addition to publishing posts, LiveJournal enabled you to “friend” other users and they, in turn, could friend you back, granting you special permissions and access to their content. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were effectively beta-testing early prototypes of the big social media platforms to come.
We didn’t care about that back then, though. All we cared about was — you guessed it — writing about our feelings.
I don’t know about you, but my friends and I used to be big letter-writers. Throughout middle and into high school, we’d meet between classes and slip intricately-folded notes into each others’ hands. We moved apart but that only seemed to amplify the intensity; we took to mailing each other actual packages stuffed with pages and pages of dashed-off observations and sketches. No detail was spared in our transcriptions of the daily affairs of a teenager.
Sure, when the world wide web arrived we began to adopt email and instant messaging, but those didn’t feel quite the same. It wasn’t until LiveJournal came on the scene that we finally had a place that made sense for writing “letters” electronically. The advantage was that now you could write to all your friends at once. And to sweeten the deal, you could plug in fun details like what music you were listening to and add customized emoticon sets. I still stand by my decision to express my daily moods using a “goth girl” character.
Fun fact, for the purpose of this post I dusted off my ancient LiveJournal account and logged in for the first time in years. This is an actual screenshot of part of a journal entry of mine. Note that, back at age 23, I am pining for the “simpler” days of age 20. Note the somber countenance of my emoticon. Note that everything I’ve typed is in lowercase.
What can I say? It was an, er, simpler time.
As long as we remain on the subject of simpler times, we might as well discuss the brief window when we could log on to the Internet and download almost any song for free.
I strongly believe that stealing is wrong. But in those early days of Napster, it didn’t feel like stealing. Perhaps that was due to the peer-to-peer nature of Napster’s network — downloads came straight from the libraries of other users who happened to be online, not some third party monolith. At the time it felt familiar, like copying a tape or burning a CD from a friend. And it helped that you were able to chat with the person you were file-sharing with.
It wasn’t so innocent, of course. And while the Napster experiment was short-lived — beginning in June of 1999 and peaking in February of 2001 before ultimately being shut down that July — it had lasting ripple effects. Napster, for example, didn’t singlehandedly kill the traditional music album, but it did usher in the era of digital music platforms and pose questions about intellectual property rights that we’re still trying to answer.
You know, maybe it wasn’t quite as simple back then as I thought?
Friendster arrived on the scene before MySpace, true, but for many of us MySpace was our first full-on experience with a social network. It was a place where choosing the friends to go in your Top 8 felt a bit like choosing the only 8 things you could take with you in a house fire. It was a place where, if you didn’t have any friends, at least you had Tom.
MySpace was all about the customizations: custom layouts, custom fonts, custom (often relentlessly sparkly) graphics, and custom colors. Provided you had enough time on your hands, you could make your MySpace profile look entirely unlike anything else on the web — and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
As a music lover, one custom feature I appreciated about MySpace was the ability to choose a song that would auto-play whenever friends visited your page. Unfortunately, any songs your friends posted in comments on your page would also start auto-playing, creating an ear-splitting cacophony which would give you a headache and give you away to your coworkers.
Lesson learned: always turn those computer speakers way, way down before browsing the web at work.
These days it seems a bit naive that we poured so much energy into picking songs and font colors that said “us,” but then again it makes sense in a way. In the offline world, we already have a ready set of visual cues we use to communicate information about ourselves to others — our haircuts, the type of clothes we wear, and our makeup style (or lack thereof) speak volumes to others without us ever having to say a word.
But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were navigating a totally new medium online, and we needed to figure out what being an individual in cyberspace meant.
Turns out that it meant a lot of poor personal design choices, but hey, we can’t blame ourselves. It was a simpler time, after all.
What did I miss from way back when? Let me know in the comments below.