My first memory of the Internet involves four rows of pixelated hamsters, spinning and gyrating to music that sounds like it’s scraping your brain.
It was the late 1990s or maybe early 2000s, my family used EarthLink via a dial-up connection. I think we had a Compaq computer. Being only recently born, I found the website amusing, I shared it with my family, I laughed about it with friends. I probably watched it hundreds of times.
I admit this because, some fifteen years later, I still remember the website Hampster Dance. I can sing you the song. Being now older and burdened with the need for a certain serious disposition to the world, I’ve been thinking a lot about this experience in the context of bitcoin (and the blockchain) and the struggles of its advocates to communicate its value.
So, I want to take this time to talk about Hampster Dance. I want us to talk about Hampster Dance in order to highlight the extreme power of extremely dumb ideas. The Internet was communication, in all its raw, rambling and insane forms, and Hampster Dance is one of its finest early examples.
Maybe I knew I was using the Internet, and maybe I could distinguish that from a plastic and metal computer. I’m not sure. I certainly didn’t know I was using protocols. I didn’t care that the website’s content was made possible by a GIF or a WAV file or even a browser.
At the time, such details weren’t important. In nine seconds, every time I got exactly what I wanted, the same ecstatic burst of absurdity, animation and sound – and I understood.
For all its faults, Hampster Dance did something no teacher could have done, and beautifully – it distilled the complexity of an education process to its purest form, its message able to be easily replicated, digested and communicated with the click of a button.
If you look close enough, you can see the seeds of Netflix, Tumblr and a hundred other innovations, all in the magic of these endlessly dancing hamsters.
Clever and stupid
One of the classic lines in 1984’s This is Spinal Tap comes when lead singer David St Hubbins responds to an album cover disagreement.
He realizes that he made a mistake, that the original cover (featuring a lewd drawing of a woman and a glove) was too offensive, but that a subtle change could have pleased the studio execs. If it had been he who was made to “smell the glove”, it might have worked.
“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever,” he says, and he’s right.
So far in the bitcoin industry, there seems to be a widespread hesitation against exploring this line. Dogecoin was derided until its joke was pronounced dead and its founders chased out of the industry. Other meme-focused altcoins came and went. The industry hasn’t really recovered from this funny bone fracture since.
There’s still a pull against taking stupidity seriously, despite evidence of its effectiveness. As our most recent State of Bitcoin report showcases, “bitcoin billionaire” was the fastest-growing search term related to bitcoin over the last 12 months.
The term doesn’t relate to the promise of bitcoin as a speculative investment or hedge in times of currency crisis.
Bitcoin Billionaire is rather an online game that simulates bitcoin mining and rewards users with fake wealth. The game has a four-and-a-half star review on the Google App store and five stars on iTunes. One video guide to the game has nearly 500,000 views on YouTube.
A better example is the recently launched website Eternity Wall, one of the best examples so far of a single-serving bitcoin-based website. It’s message is simple. Write a message, it will last forever. As my fellow writer Grace Caffyn quipped, it’s “restroom graffiti” for the bitcoin age.
So far the wall is littered with stupidity, with words like “fart”, proclamations of who is “the best DJ” and boring statements of approval like “cool”.
There’s even one guy slamming the service for generating “blockchain spam” by using small transactions to tie the messages to bitcoin’s distributed ledger. The message is implicit: this stupidity is getting in the way of the serious stuff.
I’ll take a moment to digress and clarify, that the intent is not to suggest that bitcoin itself is dumb or stupid, or that the ecosystem’s larger attempts to make the world a better place are in any way not admirable or well-intentioned.
I won’t even argue there’s a legitimate argument against blockchain spam, that you probably wouldn’t want a copy of Hampster Dance stored on every server in the world. At that point, let’s be frank, you might be overpaying to secure the Hampster Dance website.
I’m sure bitcoin and the blockchain will be everything we want it to be. It will likely be greatly transformative. The Hernando de Soto, MIT vision of the blockchain will probably come to pass – land title records will be digitized, complex financial assets will trade at the speed of emails.
Bitcoin and the blockchain will impact the wider world in ways we can’t imagine. Just as the Internet enabled Twitter to play a role in the Arab Spring movement, change will be inherent in our use of transaction systems that rely on participation, that lack central guiding authorities.
Change will come and it will likely be slow and tangential, only observable later when we look at things at certain angles, because the nature of change is for it to be absorbed.
I’ve written in this space for two years now. I don’t say much often. I am content to watch and listen and observe. I want the industry to get there, but I want it to remember how I came to the Internet, and for us to maybe remember a bit about ourselves.
We are human beings. Humor is how we learn, it’s how we make sense, it’s how we understand. Help us understand. Do it in the messiest and most annoying way possible, and if possible, don’t be afraid of dancing hamsters.
This post was inspired by this tweet.