What started 20 years ago in Nanaimo, B.C. spawned hit songs, worldwide LOLs and a giant hairball of drama
Leah Collins · CBC Arts · December 27
It’s a chapter of pop-culture history that could only have started in 1998, a time when more people than ever before were making sense of the internet for the first time. And that includes the folks you’re about to hear from. (Leah Collins/CBC Arts)
What, exactly, is the Hampsterdance? If you were online around the turn of the millennium, you probably think you know the answer to this question. I did, anyway. And the first, seemingly obvious definition is that it’s a website. It’s the kind of website you probably haven’t seen in a decade, at least — lost to the pixels of time along with stuff like Zombo.com and the emo rants you used to publish on LiveJournal. But it’s a website, just the same. One page with one purpose: deliver 392 animated GIFs of dancing rodents and the most infuriating .wav file ever uploaded — a sound that, way back when, threatened to blast out of your speakers every time you checked your email.
It’s weird to think about now — weirder than a website devoted to hundreds of cartoon rodents. But 20 years ago, the Hampsterdance was revolutionary, an example of “going viral” before anyone was even using the phrase. Want to make someone LOL? Send them the Hampsterdance. Want to prank your boss? Teacher? Roommate? Get everyone to load the page at the same time. It infiltrated the culture, both online and off, even popping up in a TV ad for Earthlink. And it made its conquest before iPhones, before social media — spreading through email and old-timey word of mouth.
The original Hamsterdance site. (YouTube)
When you consider all that, it’s fair to call it the world’s first online meme — or one of the first, depending on your source. And that’s the beginning of where things get tricky, because getting a handle on what a meme actually means can be strange business. It’s a thing — an image, a video, a concept, a website, some cultural object — that spreads wildly, mutating and evolving as it’s passed along. So when it comes to memes, we’re all authors, and we’re all the audience. Keep that in mind. It’s what makes this whole “Hampsterdance” question difficult. What is it — who made it — if we’ve all had a paw in there somewhere?