This Day In Internet History – Feb. 17, 2001: O RLY

Know Your Meme

Greetings, Internet historians! I am RLY excited to share today’s lesson with you.

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Yes, RLY! Today’s lesson involves an owl, some trolls, a computer virus, and Barbra Streisand — all wrapped up in the meme known as “O RLY.”

If you’re having trouble reading it, “O RLY” is an abbreviation of “Oh, really?”

 

A Brief History of O RLY

Seventeen years ago on this day, professional photographer John White published an image of a snowy owl looking, as he put it, “silly.” 

Why is the owl making that ludicrous face? According to White, it was cooling down after a particularly vigorous flight. It was panting, kind of like a dog.

Photograph by John White

White didn’t know it at the time, but the aviary subject of his photograph was destined for Internet stardom. Only, not for four more years.

In the meantime, it was 2001 — the era of online message boards. Yes, dark days — dark days, indeed. And what did people do on online message boards? They were sarcastic. They said dumb things to each other and responded with incredulity, saying things like “Ohhhhh, realllllly?” 

According to Know Your Meme, the phrase “O RLY” can be traced back to early 2003 on the forum of Something Awful, “where it was used as a deadpan response to anything you found doubtful, unimpressive or just plain dull.” I can’t think of any better adjectives to describe online message boards.

From the message boards of Something Awful, this is the first known instance of O RLY

Still, it wasn’t until 2005 that the O RLY retort found its soulmate in the image of John White’s snowy owl, on the imageboard website 4chan. That’s when an anonymous user overlaid the image with bold, white text, resulting in this gem:

Know Your Meme

Perhaps in part due to its simplicity, the O RLY image caught on with 4chan users instantly. They used it to respond sarcastically to posts not only on 4chan, but on multiple other forums, thus catalyzing its spread far and wide.

Over a short amount of time, the meme became synonymous with low-level trolling, and eventually spawned over 9,000 different iterations.

Some of the most popular O RLY versions are:

Gangsta Owl

Bodybuilding.com

O RLY Baby

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O’Reilly O RLY

Uncyclopedia

Two Controversies? O RLY?!

A couple of controversies involving O RLY led first to its ubiquitousness, then to its demise.

First Controversy: The Streisand Effect

When O RLY merchandise went on sale in 2005, photographer John White got a little miffed that he wasn’t receiving royalties. He decided to make his opinion known publicly. However, in the process of chastising popular bloggers for stealing his photograph, White found himself victim to the Barbra Streisand effect — by trying to censor the meme, he accidentally brought extra attention to it, thus making it more popular than ever.

Streisand effect aside, the craze didn’t last long. Why? My guess is, it had something to do with the virus.

Second Controversy: The Virus

In 2006, tons of computers got infected with a worm known as W32/Hoots-A. How did the virus work? Essentially, invasive malware sent pictures of the O RLY meme to the infected user’s printer, nonstop. Yeah, it’s fair to say people got pretty sick of it after that. Search queries for O RLY dropped to nearly zero within months.

Thus, the meme was over.

Still, it is used from time to time in today’s internet culture by people who want to come across as not only sarcastic, but extremely ironic. Kind of like a Nobel Laureate wearing a t-shirt that says “Jenius.”

TL;DR

What, you didn’t read all of that?

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Alright, you friggin’ slouch. Here are the main points, in recipe form:

  • Take one picture of exhausted owl
  • Stir in sarcastic message board users
  • Combine until meme
  • Bake with the heat of the photographer’s ire
  • Destroy it all with a virus

And, voilà! You’ve made an O RLY meme.

Okay, class. For homework tonight, think about how nothing represents internet culture better than loving something and then immediately hating it with the same fervor.

 

This Day In Internet History — January 15, 2006: The Dancing Baby Becomes A Granddaddy (Of Memes)

(YouTube/uninvitedinno)

Greetings, Internet historians! Some of you may remember a little television show from 1997 called Ally McBeal (come on, it was only 21 years ago). When you think of that show, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? I’ll wait.

If you didn’t say “that stupid dancing baby,” then you’re a damn liar.

Don’t get me wrong, Ally was a compelling protagonist — and who didn’t love the frequent cameos from theme song performer Vonda Shepard? We all loved all that shit. 

Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart with theme song performer Vonda Shephard (Credit: 45worlds.com)

But the thing that stuck in the deepest recesses of our craws was the animated dancing baby, AKA Baby Cha-Cha, AKA Oogachaka Baby (I swear to God I’m not making these up).

Baby Cha-Cha (Credit: Giphy)

When Ally McBeal tanked, the baby didn’t get thrown out with the bathwater. In fact, to this day, Baby Cha-Cha holds a revered place in Internet history. Called “the granddaddy of memes,” the dancing baby was one of the first ever GIFs, as well as a pioneer of what it means to go viral.

A Brief History of Dancing Baby

The story of how the dancing baby got on the Internet is actually a fascinating peek into the history of modern technologies.  

Back in 1996, animators Michael Girard and Robert Lurye developed Baby Cha-Cha as a product sample to demonstrate what their 3D character animation software could do. Why they chose to create a weird dancing baby and not, say, a sick as hell werewolf snapping zombies in half and firing a machine gun at a blood-red moon, is beyond me. But, okay, a dancing baby. Fine. Cool. Whatever.

Impressed by the 3D animation, Ron Lussier of LucasFilms fixed up the file and emailed it to a slew of co-workers. They, in turn, forwarded it to their pals, and so on. I’ll beg the reader to remember a time before Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, etc., when people actually had to EMAIL interesting things to each other.

Dear Meg Ryan, You’ve gotta see this dancing baby!!! (Credit: Giphy)

It didn’t take long before the baby danced into email inboxes all around the country. Says Lussier, “I heard people say they had received it back again from people outside the company, across the country…it quickly traveled to the Internet and became the strange phenomenon that it was.”

Then, the dancing baby became one of the first ever GIFs. Perhaps even THE first. Web developer John Woodell, whom I will now call a “GIF pioneer” created a compressed animated file from the source, to demonstrate a new technology that converted moving images into GIFs. By the way, GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format, and you can pronounce it any way you damn well please.

Credit: Giphy

And that’s when Ally McBeal got hold of it. Used as a metaphor, the dancing baby appeared often on the show as a hallucination, meant to represent McBeal’s biological clock. (I found out recently that the character of Ally was ONLY 27 YEARS OLD! Come on, The Patriarchy, give a lady some time!) The baby usually sashayed along to Blue Swede’s cover of the B. J. Thomas song “Hooked on a Feeling.”

Since Ally McBeal averaged about 12 million viewers per episode, the dancing baby immediately became a superstar. Its image was brandished on merchandise and parodies swept the cultural landscape. Even The Simpsons did a take on it, called “Dancing Jesus.”

Credit: YouTube

Baby Granddaddy

On January 15th, 2006, some horrible person uploaded a video to YouTube called “Oogachaka Baby,” enabling people to watch the dancing baby at their leisure. The video gathered over 3.3 million views, prompting The Washington Post to call it “the granddaddy of Internet memes.” But, in my opinion, it’s a crime that not all of the 1,300 YouTube comments said: “please remove this immediately.”

Credit: YouTube

Don’t worry, the good news is that the dancing baby swiftly declined in popularity. People stopped feverishly searching the term “dancing baby” near the turn of the 21st Century, or, when they did, they meant to see actual footage of real babies dancing. Still, it’s not hard to stumble into long-running fan sites, like dancing-baby.net.

Shake Your Booty Into The Sunset

Let’s close it out with a quote from Ron Lussier (Remember him? He’s the one who emailed the dancing baby to all his friends in 1996). This comes directly from the FAQ section on his fan site.

Q: That baby is so stupid and ugly! Why did you do that?

A: I’m glad it bothers people. I think that’s cool!  🙂   I fixed up the file because I thought it was really bothersome in a cool way, but also bothersome in a crappy unfinished way. I tried to, at least partially, finish it. That’s my “enhanced” version you used to see on many web pages.

Thanks a lot, Ron! See you in hell, buddy!

This Day In Internet History – December 6, 2004: Numa Numa Is Born

(YouTube)

On this day in 2004, a New Jersey man named Gary Brolsma procured for himself something we all long for: Immense fame simply for being a silly goof on the internet. But, like a wish upon a cursed monkey’s paw, it came with a price.

When Gary (or whoever got ahold of the video) pressed the upload button on Newgrounds in December of 2004, did he know that by doing so he would become a viral legend? Did he know that dancing and lip-syncing to the song “Dragostea din tei” by the Moldovan pop group O-Zone would make people freak out with laughter and inspire countless parody videos? Probably not. But he did it anyway. The man took a chance.

(YouTube)

This video, which has over 27 million views, is, as The New York Times puts it, earnest but painful.

A Brief History of Numa Numa

Gary Brolsma was 19 years old when the video hit. And it hit hard. In fewer than three months after its release, it had been viewed more than two million times on Newgrounds. Then it ballooned up to 18 million. From there, the video was copied and shared on countless websites. By November of 2006, Numa Numa was the second most-watched viral video of all time, with over 700 million views.

According to Brolsma, his mom woke him up one day when she discovered news vans from CBS, NBC and ABC parked outside their house. She didn’t know about the video, and thought her son had gotten himself into trouble. No, mom, your boy just went viral.

In a whirlwind of press coverage, Brolsma made appearances on ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC’s The Tonight Show, and VH1’s Best Week Ever. The Numa Numa video was ranked number 1 on VH1s Top 40 Internet Superstars.

But the attention got to be too much. Brolsma didn’t know how to deal with his unexpected launch to celebrity. The New York Times revealed that he was an “unwilling and embarrassed Web celebrity.” He canceled an appearance on NBC’s Today, in favor of isolating himself to seek refuge from fame. He stopped taking phone calls. He quietly sulked around his home.

He didn’t stay down forever.

A supportive story in The Believer made the case that the Numa Numa video “singlehandedly justifies the existence of webcams… It’s a movie of someone who is having the time of his life, wants to share his joy with everyone, and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks”.

The story goes on, “Everyone wanted to be the Numa Numa Guy—to feel that un-self-consciously self-conscious joy he felt in his body, flailing around in his chair and lip-synching a stupid pop song in a language he didn’t understand.

He may be shy, but there’s no question that Brolsma is an entertainer. His video made people laugh and forget their troubles for a while.

Time Goes On

Brolsma says he “wasn’t big on fame.” The attention got to be relentless. Still, he made the best of it.

In an interview with C-Net, he says his life essentially went back to normal after the fame died down. He has retained his small group of friends, and it’s thrilling when people stop him and ask for a picture. The marriage proposals are flattering, too.

Brolsma came back in September, 2006 with a professionally produced video, this time using a song written for him by Variety Beats.

New Numa 

(YouTube)

Then he teamed up with some other viral video stars for the “Numa Numa” 10-year reunion. 

(YouTube)

The man certainly knows how to milk it!

Parody Videos and Tributes

Numa Numa on South Park.

(YouTube)

I thought this was Britney Spears. It’s not.

(YouTube)

I don’t really know what this is but it has over 3 million views so who am I to judge?

(YouTube)

I hate this.

(YouTube)

Maybe don’t show this to your kids.

(YouTube)

Speaking of kids.

(YouTube)

So that’s the story of Numa Numa, one of the first viral videos ever.

Let’s close it out on some solid advice from the Numa Numa man. “If you’re doing something and your intention is to be funny and you’re not having fun yourself, it’s not going to work out.”

Now let’s all get out there and dance our weird hearts out!