A history of goofy Internet fads

John
John Gushue
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Do you remember the first time somebody sent you a joke by e-mail? How about the first time you got a link sending you to something that was funny, kooky or just jaw-droppingly awful?

Whether you knew it or not, you were helping to spread a meme.

"A what-now?", you might be saying. Not to worry; the word "meme" - which came into the web world after being adapted in disciplines as diverse as genetics and philosophy - is a fancy way of describing something that's been passed around the Internet, from one user to the next, often taking on a life of its own.

Surf's up - Do you remember the first time somebody sent you a joke by e-mail? How about the first time you got a link sending you to something that was funny, kooky or just jaw-droppingly awful?

Whether you knew it or not, you were helping to spread a meme.

"A what-now?", you might be saying. Not to worry; the word "meme" - which came into the web world after being adapted in disciplines as diverse as genetics and philosophy - is a fancy way of describing something that's been passed around the Internet, from one user to the next, often taking on a life of its own.

Remember the dancing baby from "Ally McBeal?" Dancing hamsters? Any number of videos involving kids, pets, parents, etc., doing embarrassing things?

They're all memes. Some have been huge, some less so. And now a bunch of people have bothered to put the bigger ones together in one convenient location, kind of like a living museum of how millions of people around the world have come together in a united mission ... to waste a little time together.

The History of Internet Memes

http://tiny.cc/eJxcK

The presentation for The History of Internet Memes is like a timeline of history, except instead of scanning along, say, the age of exploration, milestones of the Renaissance or key scientific discoveries, we see a horizontally arranged selection of major moments on the web. So to speak, that is. Skip from one end to the next end to the other to see how time wasting has become more innovative, perhaps, but essentially unchanged: something shiny that catches the eye ... and then triggers the finger to send it to someone else.

The items below are all from this group.

Smiley Lore

www-2.cs.cmu.edu/~sef/sefSmiley.htm

I remember, years ago, seeing a mess of punctuation at the bottom of a fax I got. Colon, parenthesis ... huh? Well, :) is one of the most recognized emoticons of all time. In Smiley Lore, Scott E. Fahlman describes how in 1982 he proposed using a combination of keystrokes to defuse the nasty exchanges that can occur through electronic messages (in this case, old-school b-boards, or bulletin boards) because people don't catch the tone the author is intending. One of the earliest, and greatest, memes thus spread out.

First Webcam

www.cl.cam.ac.uk/coffee/coffee.html

It was called the Trojan Room Coffee Pot, and was a set up with a singular purpose: to tell staff working at a Cambridge University lab whether coffee was available. The camera went offline in 2001, but the innovation (which went live over the web in 1993) got many people thinking of similar applications.

Bert is Evil

www.bertisevil.tv/

A pranklike idea of dropping Bert - the sometimes pigeon-loving fuss budget from Sesame Street - into historical backdrops spread like wildfire, with total strangers adapting the idea on their own. The site lives still, and so does Bert's nasty alter ego.

Dancing Baby

tiny.cc/jKJ0c

A grooving baby, usually dancing to the strains of "Hooked on a Feeling," was a phenomenon of the early era of web browsers; it later became a fixture on "Ally McBeal."

More Cowbell

tiny.cc/anS2Y

In 2000, five years before Lazy Sunday redefined viral video, a "Saturday Night Live" sketch making fun of VH1's "Behind The Music" series introduced a Christopher Walken-spun catchphrase that still makes me laugh.

Homestar Runner

www.homestarrunner.com/

When this animated series launched in 2001, the possibilities of Flash were becoming more clear. It took a simply animated "show" to illustrate what it could do, and also how potent word of mouth was.

I Can Has Cheezburger

icanhascheezburger.com/

Lolcats. Yep, they has infected da culture.

Star Wars Kid

tiny.cc/APVdi

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars_Kid

This video, of a 14-year-old Quebec kid playing with a make-believe lightsabre, has always made me feel uncomfortable. His "friends" put it on the Internet without his knowledge or consent, but the fact that it was quickly seen by millions showed how the web works ... and how privacy can evaporate in an age of cyberbullying. (One estimate found that 900 million people have seen the video.) On the upside, I was almost touched when I saw adaptations that put the kid, now seeming like the hero of his imagination, in fully animated spinoffs.

OK Go

tiny.cc/DWTiF

The indie band OK Go reportedly spent five bucks making the video for "Here It Comes Again," in which the band choreographed their moves on top of synchronized treadmills. It took days of rehearsing to get that single take ... and, I imagine, only a few days for everybody to talk about it. If nothing else, the 2006 video reminded everyone that a great idea well executed, not a lot of money, counts in getting attention. (It helped that the song was decent, too.)

Garfield Minus Garfield

garfieldminusgarfield.net/

From earlier this year, a site that takes the often sappy originals from the "Garfield" comic strip, and simply by removing the cat, comes up with something entirely different: existential, or lonely, or provocative, or sometimes just plain weird.

John Gushue is a news writer for CBCNews.ca in St. John's. E-mail: surf@thetelegram.com. Read past Surf's Up columns and daily updates at his blog: johngushue.typepad.com.

Organizations: Cambridge University

Geographic location: Bert, Quebec, St. John's

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