Agency re-tells the story of one of the earliest online memes and examines what has changed (and what hasn't) since early days of the Internet
On June 1 1997, an essay written as a hypothetical commencement speech by a US columnist called Mary Schmich was published in the Chicago Tribune.
Within weeks, the essay – providing advice on how to live a happier life – had become the Internet's first big viral phenomenon, spreading globally via email and message boards, and falsely described by most as a speech given by the author Kurt Vonnegut at MIT.
Within months, the speech adorned dorm room walls on university campuses around the world.
And the spoken-word song her words inspired – ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ – was a Number 1 hit for the Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, and would stay in the charts around the world for the rest of the decade.
Now, 20 years on, BMB is marking the anniversary with a website (http://wearsunscreen.net), launched today (1 June, 2017), and dedicated to re-telling the story - highlighting both how much has changed since the early years of the web, and how much hasn’t.
Ben Lunt, BMB's Executive Digital Director, said: “Most people think of the summer of 1991 as the birth of the worldwide web, when Tim Berners-Lee published the first web page. But it took years for it to enter the public's consciousness, and 'Wear Sunscreen' is a watershed moment. It’s arguably the world’s first ‘viral’ - it's certainly the first time you see Internet culture starting to genuinely impact popular culture at scale. It's the perfect story through which to celebrate two decades of the web, warts and all - and the perfect time to do it."
The essay was known as ‘Wear Sunscreen’, although its official title was: ‘Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young’. The scale it achieved and the rapidity with which it spread was quite unprecedented at that time.
As a result, it is now regarded by many as one of the first examples of something going viral, albeit unintentionally. It was also notable that the real author’s name was replaced in the minds of many by that of Vonnegut, the acclaimed US author.
The advice that the essay offered still carries resonance today. Some of its insights include ‘Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth’, ‘Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly’, and ‘Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old.’
"At the time of writing, Mary Schmich was very much passing down life lessons from a generation that had come of age in the 1970s." said Lunt. "And the visuals in Baz Luhrmann's music video reference that period very explicitly. Twenty years on, we thought it was time to pass on her words to a new generation, for whom they remain just as relevant."
wearsunscreen.net embraces a retro design style to convey the user experience of navigating a computer interface in the 1990s.
BMB's Head of Art, Lou Sloper, says: "The purpose behind this project was very much to try and pass on Mary Schmich's wisdom to a new generation. With that in mind, we wanted to take the chaos and ugly beauty of the 90s Internet, but reinterpret it using modern web techniques and recognisable visual references to the present day. That meant letting our hair down, and breaking a lot of rules. And cats. And unicorns. And emoji. And lots and lots of GIFs. We hope you like it J"