What Was the First Internet Meme?

Today's internet is a churning sea of funny images, remixes of those images, parodies of those remixes of those images, and cat videos. But before there was the Y U NO Guy or the Ermagerd girl, there was an animation that would come to change the internet forever. It was called Baby Cha-Cha-Cha, also known as The Dancing Baby.

Hooked on a Feeling

In 1996, Autodesk animator Michael Girard and his colleague Robert Lurye wanted to show that you could program and direct the same movement with different characters using computers. They designed an animation of a baby doing a series of complicated cha-cha dance moves. Autodesk soon sent the animation around to other development and animation companies, presumably to show off.

When it got to LucasArts, developer Ron Lussier made a few changes to the original file and turned it into an animated GIF, which he sent to a few coworkers...who sent it to friends, who sent it to friends, and on and on. That GIF soon took the pop culture world by storm, showing up in advertisements, on merchandise, and on TV shows, including a few infamous episodes of "Ally McBeal".

Creepy Is As Creepy Does

When it comes to internet memes, the evolution is key: it can't just be popular; it has to change. Variations on The Dancing Baby have appeared on "The Simpsons", danced to "Gangnam Style", and an endless array of products. Girard told Great Big Story that he thinks the animation's popularity comes down to its creepy factor. It resides in the uncanny valley, that perceptual spot where it almost looks human, but not quite. It's the kind of nightmarish, dead-eyed thing you'd drop-kick if you saw it in real life.

So how does the internet's original Dr. Frankenstein feel about his creation today? Girard was asked if he regretted making The Dancing Baby. His answer? "Yes. 100 percent."

If you'd like to learn more about the history of the Internet, check out "The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution" by Walter Isaacson. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Life After Net: Giving Birth to the Dancing Baby

Written by Ashley Hamer November 11, 2017

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