Seventeen million eyes stared in fascination. And thousands of unseen Web surfers propagated its message. "I did not create the hamster dance," one of its imitators explains. "The hamster dance came from the collective unconscious, from the minds and hopes and dreams of everyone. In a very real sense, the hamster dance came from you.
"In another, truer sense, the music came from Disney's Robin Hood."
Roger Miller's "Whistle Stop," from that 1973 film's opening credits, forms the basis of -- among other things -- the most-requested song on BBC Radio 1's influential John Peel show since the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" two decades before. Titled "Cognoscenti vs. Intelligentsia" by the Cuban Boys, the piece mixes a sample of Miller's scat solo -- speeded up to a nine-second clip, with synthesizers, drum beats, cymbal crashes, and various pop-crit voice samples. ("Don't be too happy. After a month of this you'll be smacking your lips.")
It's all part of one of the Web's greatest -- and strangest -- success stories. A page originally intended as a vanity pet site ("Hampton's Hampster House") -- with an introduction that states "My name is Hampton Hampster and I want to be a Web Star" -- has accomplished just that. The page, launched in August 1998, grafted the high-speed Roger Miller sound clip onto 392 images of happily dancing hamsters. The page had only 800 visits in its first seven months -- but in the four days after that, there were 60,000. By June, the number of visitors had reached 17 million. According to the page's creator, Deidre LaCarte, "Hampton is getting about a thousand emails a day." Future plans include a screen saver.
Ever in search of the next big thing, other sites soon appeared depicting ongoing dances by other creatures. Panthers, bees, frogs, and chickens. Snakes, cows, fish, Jesus. One Web ring lists 230 dancing sites. Mushrooms, Pez dispensers, AOL CDs, cheeseburgers. Popeye, Dan Quayle, Dick Van Dyke, Elizabeth Dole. Every craze was dance-ified -- from Star Wars to Phantom Menace, along with objectivists, infectious organisms, genetically modified hamsters -- all rushing to the web to dance the night away with the turtles, spiders, ferrets, and prairie dogs.
The hamster site's popularity grew exponentially as its location was passed electronically from Internet user to Internet user. "I'll see you all in the asylum," read a post in alt.sports.football.pro.sea-seahawks. Other newsgroups followed: alt.med.fibromyalgia, alt.chinchilla, misc.education.home-school.christian, alt.support.depression. The Hamster Dance's trek continued, through alt.support.diet.low-carb ("I am laughing so hard it hurts!"), alt.fan.matchbox20 ("the hamster dance is evil!!"), and rec.sport.football.fantasy ("The Hamster Dance has become a form of torture in my office. Whenever someone screws up, they're forced to listen to it for at least 10 minutes.").
Several webmasters duplicated the site, one adding banners pointing to pornography sites, collecting God-knows-how-many porn dollars from advertisers. ("It's a secret," its webmaster told GettingIt.)
Harvard student Thomas Lotze decided this practice was "opposed to all that the hamster dance stood for," citing "such noble ideals as truth, justice, and the pursuit of small dancing rodents." So Lotze also duplicated the dancing hamster site -- minus the porn banners -- and added a handy page chronicling people's early reactions, including "The damn thing puts me in some type of trance," and "Don't ever take it down. f***ing genius dood." In just two weeks, over 13,000 visitors came to the site before its old Web counter (in Roman numerals) overloaded.
But some sensed the darkness to come. "Oh mighty The Erehwon, why do you punish us so?!" one of Lotze's readers commented. "The terrors of the hamsters haunt my dreams, and lurk in that darkness behind my eyes..."
Soon a page appeared titled "Die, dancing hampsters!! Die!! Die!!" Nine Inch Nail's "Reptile" played as surfers click the hamster images to replace them with a modified clip-art movie of an explosion. The backlash continued when an "Anti-Hamsterdance Zone" surfaced, publishing letters both con and pro. One reader insisted that "Pet-rodent humor is an essential cultural element of this blessed medium." Another "hamster death" page depicted various animated rodents meeting violent ends.
The cartoon mayhem foreshadowed legal bushwhacking yet to come. Soon LaCarte, the creator of the original site, began asserting a copyright claim on all her imitators -- including the Harvard student who'd opposed the porn banners. Along with ten other imitators, the Harvard student removed the site -- replacing it with a sad explanation, plus links like the mpeg of Hamster Armageddon.
Others soon picked up the cause. "The Hampster Dance Should Be FREE!!!!!" one announced. The author of the mini-Hamster Dance site wishes "Many hamster raspberries" to LaCarte, "who thinks she can copyright things she stole from other sites on the Internet." She assertsthat "The hamster that spins around has been on the Internet since at least 1993 or 1994."
Dances With Hamsters
The hamsters have indeed made an indelible impression. In January, the Chicago-based Web hosting company Tilted Planet offered the hamsters their own domain at hamsterdance.com, and reports it has since served out nearly three terabytes of animated, dancing rodents. "I think we get something like 13,000 visits a day to the store," says Tilted's CEO George Vuckovic. "The store" being the venue for Hamster Dance merchandise -- bumper stickers, mugs, T-shirts, stereograms, posters, postcards, and refrigerator magnets. All 12,000 items sold out within the first week, and back-orders are piling up.
Unfortunately, most of the backordered merchandise is stuck on pallets somewhere in China. "We re-ordered, and then let's just say that certain suppliers have been less than friendly, and they've had our nuts in a nutcracker. We're pretty much being held hostage right now," laments Vuckovic.
The site's freak popularity has also strained the company's resources. Tilted's home page now consists of nothing more than an announcement stating "Do NOT contact us about the various Dance pages."
Vuckovic is humble about his role in Internet history though. "If I ever see one of the hamsters dancing on Ally McBeal," he laughs, "I think I'm going to cry." He's baffled by the mechanics of the craze -- yet this anonymous geek remains locked at hamster ground zero, meeting the wave of humanity's demand for hamster nonsense that the Internet has created. "We kind of have a reputation for hosting the unhostable," he sighs wearily. "I love the poor little things. But holy moly, it's just a site!"
The Fates echo back: "Dee da-dee doo doo da doo-doo..."
David Cassel is Interactive Media Editor for GettingIt. He created the dancing Steve Case to commemorate New Year's Day on the AOL Watch Web site.