Do you remember the first time you heard the word “meme?” The word itself comes from some serious research in the 1970s. In the book The Selfish Gene, author Richard Dawkins used the term to describe a fundamental building block of philosophy and culture that transferred from person to person.
The idea of a meme became a meme in and of itself in the 1990s when the science of “memetics” was proposed to explain how ideas transferred from person to person. Why did some ideas take root? Were some ideas inherently more interesting? How was society affected by them? These were serious questions.
And then came Hampsterdance.
Wikipedia says the Hampster Dance web site was created in 1998 and started to take off in 1999. It was nothing but a large animated GIF with a sped-up music track, but somehow, it caught people’s attention. It became one of the first examples of an “internet meme,” and redefined the word “meme” to mean what we think of today… something that spreads over social media with an entertaining or resonant message and a very short shelf life.
The very fact that Hampsterdance actually spread is amazing. There were no social networks to speak of. People talked about this site. They emailed about it. They had actual conversations discussing this very silly little web page.
It got so popular that Earthlink (then one of the most popular internet service providers) featured the site in a commercial. Don’t believe me? YouTube saves everything.
There’s so much to unpack there. The beige PC. The 90s-tastic Internet Explorer. The fact that this is a TELEVISION COMMERCIAL for the internet. Let that one sink in for a minute.
The Hampsterdance web site is still up, and seems to have been up continuously for the last 20 years. It doesn’t look like it’s been touched in about five years, but at least someone’s still paying for hosting. But, if you want the real Hampster experience you have to go to The Internet Archive’s saved copy of the site from 1999. Be patient… just like the original site, it takes a minute to load.
The importance of Hampsterdance
I’m not alone in thinking that the internet is one of the top five inventions in human history. Some people argue it’s the top invention. Either way, it’s important for historians to understand the very early days of the public internet. The World Wide Web was less than a decade old when hampsterdance.com launched, and it was a time when most people were just starting to get online. It may be embarrassing, but this is what we did with the web when we started using it. We found ways to waste time. We still do that today, as we are on this Fun Friday.