This is one of the first photo ever posted to the World Wide Web. There were other images, other photos. If this one has any particular distinction, it is that it is the first photo of a band. The picture is of Les Horribles Cernettes, a parody pop band based out of CERN. The name translates in English to The Horrible CERN Girls. It was taken backstage at a CERN event on July 18, 1992. It also kicked off a tradition that persists to this day. When we expect the web do one thing, it almost always does another.
The image, which features (from left to right) Angela Higney, Michele de Gennaro, Colette Marx-Neilsen, and Lynn Veronneau, was taken by de Gennaro’s husband Silvano. Counted among the band’s more loyal fans was Tim Berners-Lee, who had met the de Gennaro’s at the amateur operatic society, also hosted at CERN. When Silvano showed Berners-Lee the photo he had snapped, and subsequently Photoshopped with a vibrant background and big, decadent lettering, Berners-Lee immediately suggested that he post the photo to the web. Silvano’s first question, understandably, was why.
This was July of 1992, when the web was still an in-house project at CERN and very much a buttoned-up side project that doubled as a corporate directory, filled with employee contact information and dry research papers. CERN’s plan for the web was still unknown, but it was definitely going to be a professional thing managed by scientists and academics. So you might be able to find a scientific diagram, but there were only photos here and there.
Berners-Lee had other plans though, even in the beginning. He had begun circulating the web protocol in small circles outside of CERN, and even in those days, it had gathered quite the following. This was a group that saw the web as looser than all that, a fun and hackable and collective digital space where stories and lives and personalities could be exchanged. It would of course be a central hub of information, but the bold vision for the web pegged it as an entirely new medium for communication.
This was the version of the project that Berners-Lee believed in, so he handed the photo off to a fellow programmer to post somewhere on the web. So right at the top of the webpage featuring a list of CERN musical acts, was the photographic image of Les Horribles Cernettes, a small act of transgression that marked not what the web was, but what it could become. A dash of color and amateur flourish to an otherwise plain digital canvas. It was an idea that caught on, and the web that evolved out of CERN cast off its academic and scientific roots in favor of a web that was easily hackable, built for everyone, and grown from communication and sharing.
All of this from one image.
This, by the way, happens on the web all the time. Expectations race to meet the rapid pace of growth on the web, as thought leaders wildly speculate about the web’s future imagined as an elegant fusion of emerging tech. And they are almost always wrong. Like in 1996, when browsers waged war for market share, and entrepreneurs and engineers foretold of a web that would let users directly plug into a network of intricately tagged and exhaustively available information. Then, out of nowhere, we got the Internet meme.
Michael Girard and Robert Luyre were working at Autodesk on a way to show that movement in computer animations could be programmed and then shifted to different 3D characters. They made a demo reel of a few different dancing characters and began passing it around to other animators and studios. An animator at LucasArts got ahold of it, converted a small clip of the reel to a GIF file, and began emailing around a crude animated image of a Dancing Baby (sometimes known as the Baby Cha-Cha-Cha).
The GIF gathered momentum on email, before finding its true place of rockstar virality on the web. The Dancing Baby, as some of you may recall, found its way on videos, merchandise, and even made an appearance on Ally McBeal in 1997. But crucially, that GIF offered a new way for web users to talk to each other, testing the boundaries of a brand new medium. The Dancing Baby was used to punctuate a point, or signify a response, or just toss some chaos into a conversation. It wasn’t long before other GIF’s entered the vernacular, and the Internet meme became a cornerstone of communication on the web.
Understanding what a meme means, and how it informs and enhances a conversation, is secondhand nature these days; think about how effortlessly they are exchanged and immediately understood. It’s hard to imagine a web without them, and we’d all be hard pressed to get through a conversation with some friends without using them.
Just try to imagine a web without photos or memes. What would we even use it for?
The web rode this wave of new evolution of the medium on Under Construction pages, and Angelfire blogs, and Myspace profiles until Gary Brolsma discovered the song “Dragonstea Din Tei” for the very first time. And became obsessed. He sat down in front of his webcam and switched it on to record just over a minute of himself dancing and singing along to the tune. The next day, December 6th, 2004, he posted his video to Newgrounds, giving it the title “Numa Numa.”
Trace the long line of viral videos that have plagued the web all the way back to their source and you will eventually arrive at “Numa Numa.” The video was short, off-the-cuff, low-res with absolutely zero production value to it. And yet, it was beloved by its viewers, remixed, rehashed and repackaged in tributes, comments and videos. At one point, Newgrounds even had a dedicated page for just “Numa Numa” related content, before they had to take it down for copyright violations. Brolsma found himself on talk shows and in the news, eventually creating the New Numa contest to crowdsource the best Numa Numa content.
Which is kind of insane when you think about it. This was before YouTube. Newgrounds was still pretty new. Video was finally becoming a reality on the web thanks to Flash and other embedded technologies. It was to be the end of cable, the end of TV, the end of movies, and the beginning of a whole new era of syndicated content (which would, in some ways, eventually happen).
And then people began switching on affordable digital cameras and filming all sorts of things. Dancing in front of webcams and dogs on skateboards eventually evolved into experimentation with low budget special effects and keyframe animation. Once again, the web proved itself as a medium in its own right, and the videos posted online took their cue from television and film, but with an amateur edge. The most authentic and charming videos would spread from one edge of the web to the other. Because we always have to name things, we called the phenomenon viral videos.
Photos. Memes. Viral Videos. That’s more or less how we talk to each other on the web, isn’t it? They are used so often they have almost become banal. It would be hard to imagine a web without these ingredients. And no matter how many corporate brands or fame-seekers try to commoditize them, throwing out formula after formula as a replacement for genuine connection, remember that they all began with people, people having fun, embracing the web medium, and trying something that absolutely no one saw coming.