Ten Unforgettable Web Memes

Cats and failures highlight this list of the memes that have gone mainstream. Which ones did we miss?

Chuck Norris Facts
Chuck Norris became an Internet sensation when late night host Conan O'Brien featured clips from "Walker, Texas Ranger" on his show. © Cannon / courtesy Everett Collection

Dancing Baby (1996)

Dancing Baby
Before high-speed internet connections allowed the transfer of videos and large image files, animated GIFs (graphics interchange format) were how memes spread virally. The lithe dancing baby, alias Baby Cha Cha, was born in mid-1996 and its 10-second set of boogaloo moves became one of the earliest Internet sensations. Created by software publisher Kinetix, the silent animated GIF was re-imagined by some early web developers as a Rastafarian. Other web-savvy surfers designed a version of the baby tossing back a drink while others set the original animation to music. Television executives took note and incorporated the baby into the hit-1990s show “Ally McBeal” as a hallucinatory reminder that the title character’s biological clock was ticking—but to that driving “ooga chacka” beat from Blue Swede’s cover of “Hooked on a Feeling.” -- JR

Jump the Shark (1997)

The Fonz Jumping the Shark
In a 1977 episode of Happy Days, Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli strapped on a pair of water skis and went up a ramp to jump over a shark. A decade later, University of Michigan student and future radio personality Jon Hein and some of his friends began debating the point at which their favorite television programs began to decline in quality, deciding that the shark episode epitomized the point when all shows enter a downward spiral. In 1997, Hein launched the website www.jumptheshark.com where online readers were invited to continue that same conversation. Fred Fox, the writer of that episode posted a passionate defense of the scene, pointing out that the series had continued success for a few more seasons. But the term “jump the shark” was quickly popularized and evolved to describe events in music, politics and sports. In 2006, “jump the shark” was admitted into the Oxford English Dictionary. When Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal hit theaters in 2008, a spin-off of the meme was coined, “nuking the fridge,” describing the moment when Jones implausibly survives an atomic blast by hiding in a refrigerator. -- JR

FAIL (2003)

When you screw up on the Internet, there’s nothing quite like the entire world mocking you for it. As with many other memes, “fail”, or the recent derivative “#fail” designating its popularity on Twitter, comes from a poor translation of a Japanese video game. In this case, the 1998 Neo Geo video game Blazing Star read “YOU FAIL IT” when the game was over. From there, the meme took off as a Photoshop activity with enthusiasts pasting the word over any example of someone, anyone, doing something incorrectly. (Also see: UR DOING IT WRONG). For an instance where the mishaps have reached severe circumstances, there is the “epic fail.” The ubiquitous use of “fail” as a noun or one-word declarative statement is yet more proof that the Internet is the perfect home for schadenfreude, having enjoyment out of other people’s misfortune. -- BW

Flash mob (2003)

Pillow fight flash mob
(Johannes Eisele / Reuters / Corbis)
The flash mob phenomenon, where a large group of people momentarily gathers in a public place to engage in a predetermined act of spontaneity, apparently began in 2003 when Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Harper’s magazine, organized the first event. Sending a mass email to friends and colleagues, he instructed them to meet at Macy’s where they were to go to a rug in the back of the store and tell the clerk they were part of a commune and in need of a “love rug.” The 200-person event generated a lot of online buzz and soon people all over the world were using the Internet to connect with others and organize their own flash mobs. The meme has since spread to other forms, including pillow fights (above) and fake birthday parties. The meme has even take a post-modern turn, where advertisers looking for a social buzz hire performers to fake a flash mob. In 2009, as a promotion for a new reality series, a Belgian TV station hired 200 dancers to perform the song “Do Re Mi” in an Antwerp train station. -- JR

Chuck Norris Facts (2004)

Chuck Norris Facts
(© Cannon / courtesy Everett Collection)
After NBC bought Universal in early 2004, late night host Conan O’Brien realized he could play clips from “Walker, Texas Ranger” without having to pay royalties, since the show aired on the Universal-owned USA Network. The comedian would pull a lever near his desk, cuing one outlandish Chuck Norris clip after another. When you see Walker taste some dirt off the ground and announce that a plane had crashed in that spot, it seems like less of a cognitive leap to get to the “facts” about Chuck Norris’s super human. In 2005, Ian Spector, then a student at Brown University, created the first site devoted to Chuck Norris facts, and others have sprung up since. Some personal favorites among the facts include “Chuck Norris counted to infinity—twice” and “When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.” The actor and martial arts master is a good sport about it. “To say I’m surprised is an understatement. I take it as a compliment,” he told Time magazine in 2006. -- MG

LOLcat (2005)

i can has cheezburger LOLCAT
For some intangible reason, cats are at the center of many of the Internet’s virulent memes, with the LOLcat (pronounced el-oh-el-cat, loll-cat or lull-cat) as the most prominent. Around 2005, 4chan, the Internet message board responsible for many web memes, posted cat photos with captions using “kitty pidgin” instead of proper English. “Kitty pidgin,” or “lolspeak,” can best be described as a combination Internet slang and baby talk. The most famous LOLcat image is “Happy Cat” with the caption, “I can has cheezburger?” In 2007, icanhazcheezburger.com gave lolcats a home and more importantly, a platform for the meme to take off. In that same year, Ben Huh discovered the site and eventually purchased icanhazcheezburger.com with a group of investors for $2 million. The LOLcat inspired many other memes, including LOLpresident—featuring amusing photos of politicians—and LOLrus, using the walrus in place of the cat. -- RR

Boom Goes the Dynamite (2005)

Boom Goes the Dynamite meme
One night in March 2005, the sports anchor for Ball State University’s student-run newscast NewsLink@9 called in sick, so freshman telecommunications major Brian Collins came out from behind the cameras to fill in. What Collins thought could be his big break quickly turned into an epic breakdown. The teleprompter operator, also new to the job, scrolled through the script too quickly for Collins to keep up. The bumbling sportscaster makes awkward pauses, exasperated sighs and desperate apologies as he attempts to string together some sentences. While attempting a play-by-play of a clip of the Indiana Pacers vs. New Jersey Nets game, he resorted to ad lib: “Later he gets the rebound. Passes to the man. He shoots. And boom goes the dynamite.” The phrase “boom goes the dynamite,” which Collins later admitted was a line he and his friends jokingly used while playing the video game Mario Kart 64, went viral when Collins’s segment was posted on eBaumsworld.com and then YouTube, where it has nearly six million views to date. The catchphrase has since been written into several TV shows and uttered by ESPN SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt, Will Smith at the 2009 Academy Awards and Stephen Colbert during one of his “Sport Report” segments. -- MG

Rickrolling (2007)

Rick Astley Rickrolling
(Redferns / Getty Images)
All the hallmarks of a bad-1980s music video are there: Big hair, synthesized chords, bad dancing and desolate urban settings. But even then, no one really knows for sure why the Rick Astley video for “Never Gonna Give You Up” became such an internet sensation. To “rickroll,” is to send someone a link under the auspices that it is something more interesting, only to fool them into watching the music video. The genesis for the prank came from 4chan, where “duck rolling” was the term meant teasing a provocative headline with an image of a duck on wheels. From there, it evolved to a fake Grand Theft Auto IV trailer that linked to the Astley video. The meme could have “jumped the shark” when Astley was given a spot in 2008’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, perhaps the antithesis of sites like 4chan, but the trick still has its moments. When the cache of Wikileaks documents was dumped in late 2010, a spoof of the official documents appeared with the lyrics to “Never Gonna Give You Up.” -- BW

Unrelatedly, check out these adorable lion cub photos!

Three Wolf Moon (2008)

Three Wolf Moon T Shirt
On November 10, 2008, Rutgers University law student Brian Govern was searching Amazon.com for a book he needed for class, when the site suggested he might also like a Three Wolf Moon T-shirt. Feeling snarky, he posted a review: “This item has wolves on it which makes it intrinsically sweet and worth 5 starts by itself, but once I tried it on, that’s when the magic happened.” He spun a tale about how the shirt had an uncanny ability to attract women. Once Collegehumor.com and the content-sharing site Digg picked up the review six months later, it spawned commentary so creative (example: “You don’t put this shirt on your torso, you put it on your soul”) that the New York Times called it “a new shared literary art form.” Govern’s review inspired video parodies, one by a Brooklyn comedy troupe that sung the Amazon.com comments to the tune of “Colors of the Wind,” the theme song of Disney’s Pocahontas, and another that bills “Three Wolf Moon” as the next movie in the Twilight series. Dwight Schrute of the show “The Office” wore it in an episode, and, thanks to the wonders of Photoshop, so did Barack Obama and Steve Jobs. Let us not forget the satire’s “magical” selling power too. In May 2009, the shirt’s New Hampshire-based manufacturer, the Mountain, was selling more than 100 of the shirts an hour, up from a previous two to three a day, making it the number one seller on Amazon.com’s clothing section. It continues to rank in the top 100. -- MG

Keyboard Cat (2009)

Keyboard Cat meme
After you’ve plastered the word FAIL over an amusing photograph, the clear next step is take a video pratfall and append the “keyboard cat” to the end. In 1986, performance artist Charlie Schmidt videotaped his pet cat Fatso “playing” a silly ditty on a keyboard and dumped it onto YouTube in 2007. Brad O’Farrell discovered the video in February 2009, used it for a mashup of his own, starting the meme “Play him off, keyboard cat.” Its usage is similar to the premise of “The Gong Show” or the vaudevillian “giving the hook” cliché – end the audience’s (and performers’) misery with a final authoritative action. Since her virtuoso performance went viral, Fatso has played off Stephen Colbert, Glenn Beck, Miss Teen South Carolina, and other entertainment stars. -- BW

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