How internet culture evolved

(Image credit: Far Out / Reddit / Greyloch)

Movie Sat 25 Feb 2023 10:00 GMT

Culture has always changed rapidly, with political movements and the advent of technological innovations in the late 20th century leading to significant change in the way people lived, communicated and interacted. The rise of the internet age has increased the transparency of such cultural changes. However, taste, fashion and comedy fluctuate with rapid fluctuations, reflecting the ever-shortening modern attention span.

There is no better way to study this shift than in the realm of online comedy, with the internet meme proposed by Richard Dawkins in 1972 to describe an idea that spreads from person to person through imitation and has since their early practical beginnings turns 1990s. The first of its kind was arguably Michael Girard and Robert Lurye’s “Dancing Baby,” a 3D representation of a boogying dead turned GIF that became popular via message boards, Usenet groups, and email in the early days of the internet age.

Canadian art student Deidre LaCarte’s “Hamster Dance” came about later in 1998, when images of funny cats with “lolcats” became a viral trend shortly after finding a home on imageboard website 4chan. As the internet grew in popularity, this type of meme with an image overlaid with large text became the bread and butter of online comedy, giving way to the rise of popular rage comics in 2008.



With the popularization of YouTube, such static memes got louder and more dynamic, with “random” teen skits thriving on the platform. YouTube was not yet a platform to be exploited for personal gain, but a space curated by young people creating peer content with boyish immaturity and raucous comedy that consisted largely of silly dancing and public pranks. It was through this platform that the viral meme would become public and pour out of the confines of the internet into the physical world.

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George Miller, a Japanese-American college student, would be one of the key figures in the development of this viral meme. Miller released a silly three-and-a-half-minute sketch show under the alias “Filthy Frank,” which began with a preposterous dance starring him in a pink morph suit. Miller’s character, unimaginatively named “Pink Guy,” led a small group of friends into a dance to Baauer’s EDM song “Harlem Shake.”

Miller’s subscribers pounced on the small clip, with one excising the 19-second sequence as a single video, where it has amassed over 65 million views today. Instantly becoming an online sensation, an endless stream of other creatives copied the video format, prompting young people from around the world to surpass previous iterations by performing the Harlem Shake dance on buses, planes and at sporting events.

With young people leading the online movement, it was almost inevitable that the trend would spill over into colleges and universities, with schools around the world joining the online community. With no malicious or commercial undertones, the Harlem Shake was a pure reflection of the innocence of the early internet, especially compared to the bitterness that reigns in 2023.

The Harlem Shake disappeared as quickly as it appeared, being pushed out of popularity by young people who quickly grew bored with the trend, especially after seeing the older generation jump on the bandwagon. But now a thirst for a public embrace of online culture has been nurtured, with PSY’s “Gangnam Style” prompting a similar level of mania upon its release in the summer of 2013.

Existing both online and in real life, such viral memes were something of a celebration of the internet’s all-encompassing global popularity. It was new back then to see your school’s teachers and students on YouTube dancing the Harlem Shake in grainy footage, or actually watching an entire television studio or army division boogie, but in the modern world, such basic thrills seem to be obsolete.

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Mass trends like the Harlem Shake, Gangnam Style, or the Ice Bucket Challenge are indeed gone, lost in the airwaves of early internet romance, replaced by more cynical, commercial efforts at popularity. Though such viral memes may have been lost, the essence of their popularity remains, with similar dance trends emerging on short-form content platform TikTok.

Claiming overall responsibility for viral online content, TikTok is now hoarding the contemporary meme, with Facebook a place for “boomers” to converse, Twitter a trading floor of screaming voices, and Instagram a futile echo of one’s interests. Social media isn’t quite as community-oriented anymore, the thrill of connecting with someone on the other side of the world has evaporated. The Harlem Shake is just an eerie EDM echo of a romantic bygone era when the internet’s moral potential was still up in the air.

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