20 years ago this month, an episode of the TV show Ally McBeal featured a strange animated baby dancing the cha-cha in a vision experienced by the show’s titular character. It immediately became an unlikely pop culture sensation, and by the tail end of the 90s you couldn’t pass a mall t-shirt kiosk or a Spencer’s Gifts without seeing corny merchandise for The Dancing Baby, or “Oogachaka Baby” as it was sometimes known. This child of the Uncanny Valley was an offensively banal phenomenon: It had no depth, no meaning, no commentary, no narrative. It was just a dumb video loop from the internet, something your nerdiest co-worker would have emailed you for a ten-second chuckle. We know these frivolous bite-sized jokes as memes now, and they’re wildly pervasive in popular culture. You can get every type of Grumpy Cat merchandise imaginable, for example, despite the property being nothing more than a photo of a cranky-looking feline with some added text. We know what memes are in 2018 but in 1997, we didn’t. The breathtaking stupidity of The Dancing Baby’s popularity was a strange development with online origins that had no cultural precedent. It’s a cringe-worthy thing to look back on, appropriately relegated to the dumpster of regrettable 90s fads. But I have a confession to make: The Dancing Baby was kinda my fault.
Above: Ghastly Dancing Baby T-Shirt, circa 1998
First, let’s make this clear: I did not create The Dancing Baby - but I did meme it. My role in the Dancing Baby phenomenon is not something I was ever eager to brag about; for many years the mere thought of it all made me cringe the way anyone does when they think about the dumb things they did in high school (or at least, the way my generation cringes at dumb things they did in high school, before all of it was live-streamed to the world). It wasn’t until recently that I started to think about the whole thing differently, and take a strange pride in being largely responsible for what, as far as I can tell, was the first internet meme to break out into offline pop culture.
A couple years ago I was living in LA and quite a few of my friends were a good decade younger than me, early-to-mid-20s (I was 36 then). In career terms I’m mostly known for my time as Nine Inch Nails/Trent Reznor’s art director, which refreshingly didn’t mean much of anything to 25 year olds who were still in preschool when The Downward Spiral came out. But when I made an off-hand joke about my role in The Dancing Baby meme, I was shocked to find my friends not only knew what it was, they were blown away (one of them immediately called her brother back home: “DUDE, my friend Rob is responsible for The Dancing Baby! Can you believe that??”). As kindergarteners, their experience with the baby was a very different one than mine as a high school senior. They looked back on this grotesque cultural embarrassment as a fond piece of early-childhood nostalgia, an angle I’d never even considered before.
I took my new revelation to a friend older than I, a game designer who’s been involved with internet technology since the beginning. He too was amazed by my confession, but from a different angle I’d never considered: one of an internet historian. “I think you made the first true meme,” he told me. We looked through lists of the earliest internet memes, and although several preceded The Dancing Baby (like the Hamster Dance), their popularity had remained contained within the internet. The Dancing Baby was the first meme to truly permeate meatspace.
In 1996 I was sixteen and the open internet was a raw, untamed wild west, a playground of ideas and imagination and weirdness. Loosely-connected protocols and communities of net-savvy nerds were sharing everything from scientific research data to Star Trek slash fiction. I had only been getting into computers for a couple years, as my family didn’t get one until a friend handed down his old one in 1994. Always a creative kid who loved tinkering, I was immediately sucked in by the possibilities of the PC, and the network of information attached to it by our clunky modem. By 1995 I had started teaching myself HTML so I could make my very own web pages. I figured the best way to practice web coding and design was to build a fan page. At the time, my favorite band in the world was Nine Inch Nails, and their fan community was hugely active for the early internet. So I built a NIN fan page called “Above The Trees,” named after a lyric in their song “Closer.” It had photos, lyrics, links, FAQs, news, MIDI files, all the usual 90s internet fan page content. I prided myself on its graphic presentation, which is absolutely hideous in retrospect but looked pretty cool in 1996. That fan page would, just a few years later, land me a job working on Nine Inch Nails’ official website, and then becoming their creative director for over a decade, radically changing my life and kickstarting the career I enjoy today. But that’s a different story. This is the story of another teenage fan site I made, and its equally unexpected results.
Unlike today’s instantly-searchable web, finding specific content in the wild west 90s internet was an excruciating but exciting archeological expedition - and often, the best discoveries happened accidentally along the way. In those days there was no YouTube, or any streaming video at all. Video clips were cumbersome things stored in AVI and MPG files, massive by dial-up standards (a couple megabytes was a huge file) but microscopic by modern video standards (240 x 180 at 15fps, for example). You could only find them as downloads, most commonly via FTP, usenet, or BBS servers: cold text-only listings of files devoid of previews or context. Finding well-curated servers was key to finding fun random stuff in this digital frontier, and I scavenged as many as I could, often waiting 20 minutes to see what “funny.avi” was, only to find a 10-second video of a skateboarder falling over, or “sexy.avi,” only to find a poorly-digitized clip of a swimsuit model. Yes, this is the “I walked ten miles uphill in the snow” of the internet age, but I can’t help but feel a nostalgic charm for the effort it took to dig through lines and lines of poorly-labeled clutter hoping to find the occasional treasure: a cool movie clip, a random funny/weird thing, or, of course, some decent porn.
One day, in late 1996 or early 1997, my afterschool file-scavenging led me to “babycha2.avi” on a newsgroup, described without context as “weird baby dancing” or something like that. I downloaded it and discovered, to my teenage delight, a hideously creepy bald humanoid CGI toddler cha-cha-ing on a black background; no music, no text, no explanation for why it existed or where it came from. The baby was extremely realistic by 1997 standards, rendered in lavish detail at 260x200/30fps, which I described as “hi-resolution” at the time. But it was the baby’s cold dead eyes that shook me, the way it stared expressionless into a black void while it danced nightmarishly through the Uncanny Valley with its weird Benjamin Button body; a ragdoll flesh puppet made by sinister digital masters who forced it to twirl for their amusement. It was as off-putting as it was hypnotizing, perhaps a perfect prophetic metaphor for the shallow but novel alternate reality the internet would eventually foster. At the time though, it was nothing more or less than exactly the type of bizarre little oddity that brought morbid delight to a 17 year old boy.
I added babycha2.avi to the list of files in the carefully-curated “funny stuff” section of my personal homepage. I don’t recall what else was in that prestigious link list, but the hamster dance, midi files of techno songs, and some 10-second Simpsons clips seem likely. Hosting space was always an issue in those days, and a 900k file was eating into my 10mb web storage allowance, so I eventually removed the link and added a note, “email me if you’d like the dancing baby file.” To my surprise, I started getting daily emails from people who really wanted that creepy thing I’d found. I felt in that moment the same rush of narcissistic zest any contemporary meme-creating Redditor must feel upon discovering something weird or hilarious that no one else yet has: I had uncovered digital treasure, and I needed to curate it. I also needed avenues beyond my NIN page to continue practicing html, and thus, in April of 1997, The Unofficial Dancing Baby Homepage was born.
Above: Screenshot of the page as it looked on August 5th, 1997, clearly a masterpiece of graphic design.
I figured if all of these dozens of people (dozens of people was a lot, by teenage 90s internet standards) wanted this stupid thing I’d found, I should build a digital shrine to it, a central location where people could go to get the stupid thing. Files were so scattered, disorganized, and decentralized then that a single easy-to-use home for a sought-after clip made a lot of sense to me. I made the page intentionally silly, crafted with animated GIFs and pink baby rattles and horrendous cartoon Windows fonts, an expression of the absurdity of it all. I linked it to my homepage and posted it on some newsgroups, and before I knew it my little hit counter was going through the roof. Visitors began submitting alternate edits of the dancing baby which I gladly posted on my page, including the most famous “oogachaka” version which paired the original animation with the song “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede. It made the clip that much more strange and absurd, and propelled the Dancing Baby to 1997 viral status. From visitors to my page I learned that the file was nothing more than a tech demo animation for Kinetix/Autodesk’s Character Studio software, which took all the mystery and fun out of it for me but didn’t slow the clip’s inexplicable appeal. Soon I was adding other “remixed” versions that people were submitting: “Rasta Baby,” “Techno Baby,” the infamous “drunk baby” (that YouTube version takes some odd creative license that wasn't part of the original, but you get the idea), and more. I even held a contest on my page for new remixes of the file. I was dumbstruck with awe over how popular the stupid thing became, but soon felt I’d exploited it as much as I could and was getting quickly bored of it all. And then…
Above: USA Today article, January 8th, 1998. Emphasis by my Mom.
On January 6th 1998, I was contacted by USA Today; they were eager to get me on the phone and ask me some questions about the Dancing Baby. I was excited and confused - a NATIONAL NEWSPAPER wanted to INTERVIEW ME?? So I talked to them, and was surprised to learn that The Dancing Baby had been featured in an episode of Ally McBeal the night before, and was quickly becoming a watercooler sensation. A huge audience of offline TV-watching normals had just seen this weird Thing From The Internet for the first time - probably the first time many of them had ever seen a Thing From The Internet. I’d never seen Ally McBeal and was unaware that babycha2.avi had inexplicably broken out into the real world. The USA Today reporter was trying to find out more about it, and had come across my page. From what I gathered, Ally McBeal’s creator David E. Kelley had seen the file on my page and got the idea to use it in the episode as a taunting vision McBeal was having about her biological clock. He tracked down the file’s origins at Kinetix/Autodesk and got the baby into the show, turning it into a mainstream offline sensation.
The 1998 text-only version, created to accommodate high traffic demands.
With the baby phenomenon taking off, the traffic to my site surged, and my flimsy local dial-up host crumbled under the weight (local, independent dial-up providers are a quaint old concept in today’s age of national broadband monopolies). They called me in a panic and implored me to remove all of the data-heavy GIFs and graphics from the page, reducing it to text-only. They told me they were adding servers to accommodate the traffic and wouldn’t charge me anything as long as they could put some banner ads on the page. For all the hassle, this mom & pop service provider was enjoying all the attention. Meanwhile, I was contacted for an interview in The Seattle Times, and TV appearances on Evening Magazine (a Seattle-area lifestyle show, and yes, you can watch me on it in that link, and yes, it's super embarrassing), Public Eye with Brian Gumbell, and even Hard Copy, whose angle of course was “the dark side of the Dancing Baby,” focusing on some of the off-color creations like the drunk baby (I wish I had the clip of the Hard Copy segment, but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere). It was a whirlwind of attention for a kid who’d never been on TV before, especially as I was becoming embarrassed about my association with this monster I'd accidentally created (I was a 17 year old goth kid, this pop-culture mall humor stuff wasn’t good for my personal brand, man).
Above: Me trying to look cool in my high school bedroom for a Seattle Times story on the baby
Kinetix/Autodesk was quick to capitalize on the baby’s popularity, launching a merchandising blitz that led to Dancing Baby toys and hideous “oogachaka” t-shirts which now pad landfills around the world. They sent me one as my thanks for turning their little tech demo into a meme (I didn't make a cent off of any of this, for those wondering). In less than a year the whole thing had taken a life of its own and my association with it was more or less forgotten, which was fine by me - I was soon to be headed off to art school in New York where the I would have to convince college girls that I was Incredibly Cool and a Serious Artist, not some dorky suburban kid who made an insanely lame web page. And little did I know just a short year later I’d be interviewing with one of my teenage idols, Trent Reznor, for a job with Nine Inch Nails - I certainly wouldn’t be eager to tell him about any of this.
So I left The Dancing Baby back home, in high school, and didn’t think about it much, because a whole new life was coming at me fast, and when all was said and done I didn’t even really know where to place myself in the whole thing anyway. I wasn’t the person who created The Dancing Baby. I wasn’t the person who first posted it online. I wasn’t the person who put it on TV. And yet, without me, it would have never become a sensation. At that time there wasn’t a precedent for such a role in popular culture: the meme-makers, the content curators, the people and sites who now fuel the social internet by creating viral sensations from re-contextualizations of other peoples’ content. But looking back on it now 20 years later I can see exactly what my role in it was, and I realize I might just be accidentally responsible for the first true internet phenomenon. And that’s an incredibly weird thought.