Tuesday, January 5, 2010

90s Internet Phenomenons

Here's a helpful hint in garnering attention for your silly, senseless ideas: simply jump on the bandwagon as early as possible in the technological timeline. If you can somehow finagle yourself a little corner of that virtual marketplace when the competition is light, people will probably find their way to your inane website. Nowadays the internet is over-saturated with all kinds of drivel but in the web's earlier days, these useless pages made up a far more significant proportions of websites. When you only have so many websites to visit, you're far more likely to check out a singing hamster or a dancing baby. That's just simple statistical analysis. So, sorry self, you've entered the world of novelty websites a decade too late. I'll give me some time to grieve.

We've all grown increasingly more difficult to entertain over the years. We have constant access to multiple forms of entertainment, many of which we choose to employ simultaneously. Have you ever noticed that you get bored just putzing around on the computer if there's no TV on in the background? This constant buzz of entertainment has dulled our reactions to internet stimuli. In the 90s, though, if a site offered us some sort of animation with accompanying irritating soundtrack, we were enthralled and immediately forwarded the link to all of our friends. While today when I get a forwarded email my major reaction is disdain to the sender for clogging my inbox, in the early internet days I would cross my fingers that my inbox contained a chain letter or a link to one of the following early meme gems:

Hampster Dance

In 1996, all it took was a couple of GIFs and some captivatingly irritating music playing on loop to lure us to a pointless website. The site featured four different types of hamsters arranged in rows, with each type feverishly perpetuating its signature dance move as a sped-up version of a song from Disney's Robin Hood played in the background. Hampsterdance exploded onto the meme scene overnight, jumping from just a couple of pageviews to a shocking 15,000 visits daily. It was sort of cute, yes, but not exactly the stuff groundbreaking internet phenomenons are made of.

Dancing Baby

This animated three dimensional rendering of a dancing babies made its rounds on the internet before ascending to television fame on Fox's Ally McBeal. It was, as the straightforwardness of the name suggests, a dancing baby. Really, that was it. A baby. Who danced. Like I said, it didn't take all that much to impress us in these early days of the internet; most of us were generally enthralled by the ever-growing capabilities of the internet. Sure, the dancing baby site probably froze every couple of minutes on your dial-up internet or shut down when someone picked up the modem's phone extension, but it amused us all the same.

Bill Gates Chain Letter and others

Over the years, we've become more and more accustomed to monitoring our emails for spam. I no longer jump for joy every time a Nigerian banker tries to share his lucrative fortune with me or when I'm notified of my winning $14 million in a foreign lottery I never entered. I used to experience a brief, gullible thrill at these messages, but they've since lost their luster.

In the 90s, however, we weren't quite so disillusioned with the notion of our inboxes bringing us great luck and free cash. Many chain letters were of the old-fashioned variety, warning that failure to forward it to 12 friends will leave you unlucky in love and life. Some, though, were a bit more enticing, notably the notification that an imminent merger of AOL and Microsoft meant Bill Gates wanted to send you a big fat check. Most of these fraudulent emails claimed the now-merged companies wanted so badly for Internet Explorer to remain the most popular browser that they were putting forth a little cash to cement its status. Who wouldn't press "forward" in hopes of receiving a check for somewhere between $200-$1000? As in most cases, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Bill Gates is a generous guy, but I think his money's a bit more useful in funding clean water supplies for impoverished African villages than ensuring I don't switch to Firefox.

Ate my Balls

Just as the name implies, the site depicted popular characters with thought-bubble overlays detailing their desire to eat balls. Sound stupid? It is.

Mahir Cagri: I Kiss You!!!

Who can deny the charm of a Turkish accordion aficionado with a standing offer for a kiss? Apparently none of us can, or so reveals the incredible amount of traffic to Mahir Cagri's personal web site in the late 90s. His site was full of little tidbits of broken-English self-proclamations, such as "I like music , I have many many music enstrumans my home I can play" and of course, "I Kiss You!!!" Cagri alleged that Sacha Baron Cohen's based the Borat character on his website. There are definitely an assortment of similarities, but Cagri's post-Borat movie lawsuit against Baron Cohen seemed more like a cry for lost attention than a legitimate legal claim.

Bert is Evil

Much to the chagrin of Susame Street producers, this website showed the puppet Bert consorting with all manners of unsavory characters such as Osama bin Laden. The idea was that Bert was actually some form of conniving evil genius and not just the disgruntled foil to the cheerier Ernie. The site's proprietor eventually took down the site, but not before Bert's image began cropping up on the posters of actual bin Laden supporters. Scary stuff. I thought it was bad when he was getting mad about cookies in the bed, but this is taking it to an entirely new level.

Bonsai Kitten

What does a group of rogue MIT students do when they get together to kick back and have some fun? Why, start an elaborate internet hoax, of course. The Bonsai Kitten website claimed that you could raise a Bonsai kitten in the same manner as you would grow a Bonsai tree, complete with photographs and descriptions of the process. Gullible animal lovers worldwide cried out in outrage, forwarding the site to all of their friends in hope of putting an end to this cruel, inhumane kitten-pruning practice. The joke may have been in poor taste, but it was just a joke nonetheless.

Rating Sites (Rate my Face, Hot or Not)

Have you ever wondered whether you were attractive? Do you have a camera and an elevated sense of physical self-esteem? Then we've got a whole slew of websites made just for your own mirror basking self-admiration. You simply uploaded a photo of yourself to the website and people would give you a numeric rating based on your looks. I'm not totally sure why we needed this type of validation from the general internet-roaming public, but the site was admittedly fun to browse. Now many of these sites have added a dating element, which I suppose hinges on the notion of matching individuals of equal attractiveness.

Peanut Butter Jelly Time

The meme featured just a dancing banana emoticon and the song "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" by the Buckwheat Boyz. The frantic banana has had many imitators including Family Guy's Brian, but none can compare to the simplicity of the original.

There's no means of predicting just which of these crazy little corners of the internet will skyrocket to disproportionate fame, but they do seem to have a common thread throughout: complete and total ridiculousness. The internet's bursting at the seams with heaps of viral memes and trends, but in the 90s the novelty was enough to draw us in to watch a dancing banana instruct us in the art of sandwich making.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Beanie Babies

If you are ever in doubt of just how pliable and easily manipulated the general public can be, simply consider the unwarranted astronomical rise of the Beanie Baby. Throughout the Beanie-crazed 90s, our frenzied consumerism teetered at the brink of insanity as we abandoned all sense of decency and proportion. We gave up our notion of actual value of goods and commodities in favor of being swept up in the fervor of amassing inordinate quantities of pellet-stuffed plush toys. The highest offenders among us willingly and knowingly shelled out thousands of valuable units of currency to obtain these cuddly little critters all in the name of riding the Beanie Baby bandwagon to brewing bankruptcy. Just to recap our scoreboard here, that's Mob Mentality 1, General Sensibility 0.

It's difficult to ascertain the exact moment that a phenomenon morphs into a craze. There's no real predictive mechanism for explaining why some toys become icons of a generation and others simply fade into obscurity, though smart marketing can certainly play a role. Such was the case of TY Beanie Babies, a well thought-out product launch in which the producing company intentionally created a sense of limited stock and imminent discontinuation of coveted items.

TY, Inc chose not to unleash their bean-filled babies to large retail distributors. Instead, they selected more upscale, lesser known toy stores to carry their allegedly elusive product. This air of exclusivity bred stirrings of increased perceived value and specialness, despite the fact that these babies were available to the general spending population at just $4.99 a pop. Feeling used and abused yet by the field of consumer psychology? If you're not quite there, don't worry, there's still some time to catch up.

In an age where we pretty much did whatever the Word from our Sponsors dictated, it seems like a step backward to implement a word-of-mouth campaign, especially for something with no other real use or value outside of its cuteness. TY strayed away from traditional commercial advertising strategies, hoping to add to its elusive air of mystery and secrecy. In ninety nine cases out of a hundred this plan would almost certainly backfire as none of us would have an inkling the product even existed, let alone the capacity of envy to care that we might be missing out on this alleged collecting opportunity.

From this point on, TY pretty much had us in the bag. It was like a primitive form of viral marketing dependent solely on our lust to like things that others don't know about. I dare any of you to deny that there has been a time in your life where a friend said, "Hey, check out this new band, isn't it awesome?" and you turned your nose up in much-anticipated aloof glee and told them, "Oh, I've known about them for years. I've been listening them since way before they were famous." It's in our basic human nature, and TY caught us in the act. They somehow managed to convince us that owning one of these $5 pellet-stuffed plushies gave us some sort of coolness capital.

In case you were wondering, this entire collection is currently for sale for a mere $200 by an Oklahoma seller. I'd stay strike while the iron is hot on these ones. She claims some are "very valuable". That's why they're only $200 total. What a steal!

Vast segments of society bought into this marketing strategy wholeheartedly. TY threw in some other nice touches to further tug at our ever-gullible heartstrings, including a signature tag on each beanie indicating this particular model's unique name, birthday, and accompanying aww-inducing poem. Despite the fact that our Squealer the Pig was just one among dozens in the beanie bin we plucked him from, TY had us convinced that he was somehow ours in a unique one-of-a-kind way not possible in this age of mass-produced toys. Well played, TY.

To further add fuel to the frenzied fire, TY opted to premiere and retire new favorites at a whim, prompting us all the more quickly to consume these toys on the assumption that their availability was extremely limited. This was mostly untrue, of course, though it certainly eased the transition from poseable prop to coveted collector's item. While the product's major consuming demographic had originated as allowance-toting youngsters, middle-aged hobbyists soon saw some appeal in the collection of these limited-availability stuffed animals. Adults took to the internet in droves, operating frantic chat rooms and forums on the possibility of this or that Beanie Baby facing retirement or possessing some rare attribute. Over a very short period of time, the amassing of Beanie Babies segued from toy ownership to investment opportunity.

Because there was no means of knowing whether a certain Beanie would be retired, reinstated, or available in only limited quantities, collectors quickly began cataloging the trajectories of their favorites and charting out their chances for financial success. I personally made a brief foray into Beanie collectorship upon the realization that I had indeed purchased a limited edition original wingless Quackers the duck on a field trip in fourth grade. Almost immediately after coming to this exciting and undoubtedly profitable conclusion, I dug up my old pal Quackers from a pile of forgotten stuffies only to find the unthinkable: it was leaking beans. Well, leaking plastic pellets, at least. I could have been an elementary school thousandaire, but TY's original shoddy workmanship (or perhaps my inability to play gentle) had thwarted this lucrative opportunity. In case you were wondering, I'm still fairly bitter over the whole incident.

Thanks for nothing, Quackers

While the narrow of window of opportunity was still open on the craze, companies and individuals fought for their own corner of this fad market. McDonald's introduced a "Teenie Beanie" Happy Meal toy tie-in, releasing miniature versions of the popular collectibles. On the far more extreme side, some individuals got involved in black market knockoff Beanie Baby rings, including a couple from my hometown who were fined a whopping $150,000 for their Beanie impropriety and a hefty $11,000+ to each of their victims. Now, of course, I'm just kicking myself for not have seeking out my neighbors as Beanie Baby suppliers. Screw the profits I could have gained from Quackers; that settlement would have been far sweeter.

My own childhood greediness aside, it also seems TY was not above capitalizing on tragedy and circumstance to turn a tidy profit. The company released a limited edition Princess Diana bear almost immediately following her tragic death in 1997, offering an extremely limited quantity to ensure they turned the highest profit from her untimely demise. TY also had a tie-dyed Garcia bear in circulation, undoubtedly styled after the late Grateful Dead guitarist. Garcia's family sued and TY acquiesced, but you've got to admire their gumption. We're talking about the same company that tried to pawn off some allegedly non-Obama daughter related "Sweet Sasha" and "Marvelous Malia" dolls this past year. These stuffed animal people can be ruthless.

Like all good fads, Beanie Babies could only hold our attention so long before a new trend came along and erased all memories of our bepelleted pals. Many of us who had treated the rise of Beanie Baby collectibles as a legitimate investment opportunity were distressed to find that nearly overnight, the astronomically inflated value of our little bears had plummeted. The trend began to fade almost as quickly as it had peaked. Scores of us were left with tens or even hundreds of these value-deficient toys, now likely relegated to basement storage room garbage bags or garage sale dime bins.

We all want to declare ourselves impervious to trends, but sometimes our bandwagon-hopping mentality gets the better of us. For those among us who got out in time and unloaded their Beanies to naive collectors willing to pay top dollar for their collections, congratulations. You've outsmarted the system and most likely, the rest of society. Hopefully we can take it as a learning experience and not be so impulsive the next time. If you'll excuse me now, I need to go check on those limited edition Pokemon cards I've been watching on eBay. I'm pretty sure their ship is on its way in.

Friday, January 1, 2010

In the Meantime, Please Enjoy this Classic Post: Slap Bracelets

Fear not, loyal readers. Children of the 90s will be back in full force next week. I'm sure you're all aquiver with excitement over that one, but you'll just have to contain your glee until Monday. See you there.

Repost Disclaimer: Children of the Nineties is currently in recovery from the New Years festivities. In the meantime, please enjoy a pre-scheduled classic CotN repost from earlier this year. As I only had three or four readers at the time, it's probably (okay, almost definitely) new to you.

Slap Bracelets

Violence as fashion. It's a novel concept, or at least it was in the early nineties. Imagine, never again having to deal with the insurmountable challenges of securing a traditional bracelet to your wrist! Despite the fact that slap bracelets served no practical purpose and actually caused a moderately tragic number of injuries, we consumed them all the same. Slap bracelets were beloved by children and teenagers not just for their fashion credentials but also for the perceived danger we were warned of by parents and teachers. Slap bracelets may have seemed like the most minor type of rebellion, but they possessed the unmatchable allure of the forbidden fruit.

School principals sent strongly-worded letters home with students, urging parents to restrain their children from coming to school armed with these spring-loaded metal-lined deathtraps. The cheap cloth cover often strained under the force of the metal beneath it, poking out in an admittedly dangerous fashion. However, we weren't about to side with The Man and agree to the ban. We were passionate about our right to wear our day-glo green and zebra-striped wrist weapons, regardless of rampant urban legend-based rumors warning of slit wrists and burst arteries.

Slap bracelets were so much more than tacky arm candy. They worked as catapults, slingshots, and all-purpose weapons. And how cool to slap on a bracelet with a satisfying smack! There were endless ways to work these babies. Four at a time! Long-distance slapping! We just couldn't resist. Sitting there in class, how could you just leave this mind-bogglingly entertaining device to lay dormant? So it would be crack (flatten), smack! (slap on), over and over again until you'd earned yourself a trip to the time-out corner.

Slap bracelets have made a few minor comebacks in the last decade, but nothing on par with their original popularity. Stripping these delightful devices of their contraband qualities, slap bracelets became plastic-spring laden, pvc coated advertising devices. Sure, we were willing to acquiesce a bit in our day...give us a dinosaur slap bracelet with ruler markings down the side and we'll concede to its minor educational value. These days, slap bracelets are being used as cheap ploys to encourage kids to wear some company's logo around like a walking (gesturing?) wrist billboard. There's even been word of physics teachers using slap bracelets to teach functions of potential energy curves and states of stability, but it's almost too frightening to verify.

So let us remember slap bracelets as they were, before the world insisted on infusing some sort of subliminality to their existence: violent, neon-hued, and pure wrist-smacking fun.

Check it out:
The dark side of a slap-happy fad
US consumer panel warns of injury from slap bracelets

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