Silly Internet Traditions: A Concise History

From dancing hamsters to LOLCats, we take a look at the silly traditions that have shaped the online world

silly Internet traditions

Let's face it: the Internet can be a strange and intimidating place.  After all, it only takes one foolish click on a dodgy link embedded within a spam email, and then BAM!  A haxxor is ROFL because he pwn3d you with a Rick Roll and proclaims that all your base are belong to us.  And despite the fact that you have no idea what the heck just happened to you, you do feel vaguely annoyed that you're suddenly humming "Never Gonna Give You Up" against your will.

If you feel confused by all this, you're not alone.  Millions of Americans who surf the web every day are besieged by so many cryptic references to "ROFLcopters," "Failboats" and "Chris Crocker" that they feel like l4m00r n00bs who are hopelessly out of touch.  Indeed, the Internet's various weird memes and fads have grown to such an extent that being " aware of all Internet traditions " has become its latest running gag .

In honor of the Internet's uniquely dense brand of insider humor, we've decided to examine and explain each of the most famous Internet traditions of the past decade.  While this guide may not help you speak fluent 1337 overnight, it will at least help you understand why Chuck Norris is seemingly held in such high esteem nowadays...

Since the advent of the Internet to the mass market in the 1990s, nothing has consistently generated more traffic than silly graphics of dancing creatures.  The graphics design team at Kinetix Character Studio got the ball rolling in 1996 when their infamously creepy Dancing Baby took the web by storm.  The Hamster Dance similarly hit it big in 1998, when a Candian art student named Deirdre LaCarte created a Geocities page full of animated hamster gifs grooving to a sped-up version of an old Roger Miller song.  Similar phenomenon include the Loituma Girl and pieces of macaroni doing the Macarena . Web celeb Matt Harding has taken the phenomenon to a new level by filming live-action movies of himself dancing in famous places around the world.

One of the Internet's greatest time-honored traditions revolves around anonymously trashing other people without pretending to respect their opinions.  From blogs to message boards to YouTube comment boards, heated exchanges often blow up into "flame wars" where each side uses ad hominem attacks, profane language and childish taunts to pummel their opponent into submission.  While many flame wars start organically, others are started by "trolls" who join discussions with the explicit intention of causing trouble, such as the Yankee fans who used to haunt Red Sox message boards by invoking the names of Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone.  Good flame wars often end when one side equates the other side with Adolf Hitler or Nazi Germany. Godwin's Law , a principle created by web pioneer Mike Godwin, states that the longer Internet discussions go on, "the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

While the rise of the Internet undoubtedly expanded our ability to communicate with one another, it also created a new dilemma: how to fully convey emotions and intentions succinctly without the use of vocal inflections or body language.  The solution?  Create small faces to express happiness (J), sarcasm ( ;-) ), displeasure ( L ), shock ( :-O ) or a wide array of other emotions.  While this method of communicating intent may seem crude, it has certainly been effective: after all, can you imagine all the awkward moments and ruined friendships that we'd all experience if we were no longer allowed to use the Winky Face after making a particularly snide remark?

Americans have been laughing at poorly-translated Japanese texts since at least the 1980s, when Panasonic and Sony were issuing near-unreadable instruction manuals for programming VCRs.  But it wasn't until thousands of gamers on the web started obsessing over an obscure 1989 space-shooter game called Zero Wing that hilariously inept Japanese translations became ingrained in Internet culture.  Essentially, Zero Wing's introduction features a noble band of space fighters are suddenly attacked by a vicious alien warlord named CATS.  After the ship's mechanic informs the crew that "someone set us up the bomb" (or more accurately, "Someone has set up explosives on our ship), CATS appears on the ship's transmission screen tells our heroes that "all your base are belong to us" (or: "We have taken over all your bases.").   The phrase became so ubiquitous that even Time Magazine penned an article explaining the phenomenon to the normals.

" Leet " is essentially a form of Internet slang that has been developed haphazardly over the years by both the hacking and online gaming communities.  Short for "elite," Leet has slowly migrated over the past 13 years from small hacker groups to mainstream Internet language (see also: LOLCats).  While the language's intentional misspellings and grammatical idiosyncrasies are too numerous to list in this space, here are some general rules to remember when trying decipher Leet messages: first, most vowels (a, e, i, and o) are changed into corresponding numbers (4, 3, 1, 0).  Second, the suffix "-xor" is often used to replace the suffix "-er" - thus, the word "hacker" is frequently translated into "haxxor" or "h4xx0r."  And finally, when someone says that they've "pwn3d" you, they're telling you literally that they've "owned" you in some type of competitive battle and have emerged victorious.  So to put it all together: "Ha, ha, the hacker has defeated you, newcomer!" can be translated roughly to "T3h h4axx0r pwn3d j00 n00b LOL!!!!111!!1!"

Although the Blair Witch Project was the first major movie to use the viral nature of the Internet to generate buzz , no movie has developed such a strong symbiotic relationship with the web than "Snakes on a Plane," the notorious 2006 Samuel L. Jackson thriller that delivered, as advertized, a whole lot of #$%^$@ snakes attacking people on a @#$%$ plane.  The plot goes as follows: a group of mobsters plant poisonous snakes on passenger jet in order to take out a key witness set to testify against them.  Like many Internet phenomena, the film's main selling power was its lovable and irresistible cheesiness, and it soon spawned countless blogs , songs and fan trailers in the months before its release.  In order to appease fans, New Line Cinema even authorized filming additional scenes for the film that added nudity and copious amounts of profanity to push the film from PG-13 into R-rated territory.

For reasons known to precisely nobody, many people on the Internet started concocting humorous exaggerations of Chuck Norris ' toughness a few years back.  Why was Norris, a martial artist and erstwhile star of " Walker, Texas Ranger ," deserving of such acclaim?  Who knows: it's the Internet, and these things tend to take on a life of their own.

Typical "Chuck Facts" exaggerate Norris' intimidating strength and steely will.  Famous examples include: "There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live"; "Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants"; and "There is no chin behind Chuck Norris' beard. There is only another fist." Norris himself has said that he generally appreciates the "facts" people have written about him, although he goes off the deep end when he tries using some of them to disprove the theory of evolution.

As you've no doubt noticed by now, most Internet memes are driven by a deep appreciation for kitsch, which Merriam-Webster defines as "something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality."  And who could possibly be kitschier than Rick Astley, the British dance-soul singer whose delightfully cheesy video for hit single "Never Gonna Give You Up" has become one of the biggest running gags in Internet history.  Sometime over the past few years, gamers started the practice of "Rick Rolling" their peers by sending them a URL to the offending Astley video under the guise of something else.  Thus, a h4xx0r whose friend sent him a link to an allegedly sw337 pr0n video would feel pwn3d when he discovered that he actually clicked on a Rick Astley video.  Rick Rolling has become such a popular phenomenon that YouTube acutally redirected all links on its front page to the "Never Gonna Give You Up" video as an April Fool's prank this year.

YouTube is awesome for so many different reasons.  Not only can it help you find every Rick Astley video every produced (see also: "Rick Rolling"), but it's allowed a whole generation of insane people to get 15 minutes of fame with the simple click of a mouse.  The most popular viral videos are always the ones where the person being filmed seemingly has no idea that they're about to become instant web celebs: see Andrew Meyer's desperate plea to not be tased, or Chris Crocker's heartfelt defense of Britney Spears as prime examples.

It's not all fun and games, though.  As the " Star Wars Kid " discovered when his classmates posted a one-time secret video on the web of him twirling a golf-ball retriever around like a light saber, viral video fame can lead to permanent public humiliation.

Step one: Find a cute picture of a cat doing something goofy.  Step two: Write an appropriate caption for the picture in Leet speak that preferably references some other Internet phenomenon.  Step three: post online and watch your friends LOL all the night long.

Welcome to the world of LOLCats, the zany collection of Leet-speaking felines who gained prominence with the birth of the website I Can Has Cheezburger? in 2007.  The website describes itself as "a site that gathers, organizes, tags, and captions the funniest and entertaining pictures of user-generated lolcats... from the Internet," and is essentially a summation of web humor over the past decade.  Typical captions make reference to other web in-jokes over the years, including " DO NOT WANT ," " FAIL ," and " Im in ur base killing ur d00dz ."  While each of these jokes could very well warrant their own slide to explain their relevance, I won't try your patience and will instead just leave them as part of the LOLCat slide. Kthxbai .

Feel free to spout off in the comments about your favorite Internet traditions.  Before we sign off, we'd like to give a big "Thank you!" to the writers at Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia for keeping track of many of these web traditions' origins and histories so we didn't have to.  And a bigger "thanks" to the various bloggers who gave us inspiration . And if you'd like to read an even more detailed history of Internet traditions, then just click here .