Ten years ago this month, the Harvard men’s baseball team put a video on YouTube in which they danced and lip-synched to Carly Rae Jepsen’s No. 1 hit, “Call Me Maybe.” It was funny because, well, you know: They were muscle-y boys with serious jawlines, and they were doing choreography that involved punching the ceiling of a van; this was back when a lot of people thought that pop songs were really stupid and for girls. So the video got really popular. Then other groups of people started to film themselves doing their own versions of the song: college students in Idaho; the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders; the U.S. Olympic swim team. Maybe you, too, were inclined to dance and lip-synch to Carly Rae Jepsen’s No. 1 hit, “Call Me Maybe,” with your friends and post it to the internet. This is how one of the first super-viral “challenges” on social media was born.
Planking, where people filmed or photographed themselves lying flat—like a plank—in unexpected places, had already peaked, as a challenge, in the previous year. But the “Call Me Maybe” challenge turned out to be a lot less dangerous, and—as a group activity—a lot more fun. The Pittsburgh Steelers made a “Call Me Maybe” video in 2012. A class of kindergartners made one. Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber made one—this is when they were in love. And I’m sure you already know who else made one … I did, at the end of a closing shift at a coffee shop in the mall food court. (This was an amazing, boring, mostly unsupervised job. We also did the eat-a-spoonful-of-ground-cinnamon challenge, which was popular at about the same time.) I recently dug up our “Call Me Maybe” video from the depths of Facebook and watched it and was shocked.
Although it is always uncomfortable to see a video of yourself from your teen-goth era, what really set me back on my heels was how alien the clip seemed. I texted the link to my former coffee-serving colleagues and co-stars in the video. “Was there choreography involved or is this freestyle?” I asked them. “I couldn’t even watch it, I need to be in the safety of my own home first,” one of them replied. This video from 10 summers ago was not just embarrassing—it was from another world. Viral challenges like this one used to have the power to unite the internet, bringing together mall-food-court kids and professional athletes and politicians and 4-year-olds. Then suddenly, they disappeared.
The challenge once embodied all that social media was meant to be: a forum for exchange; a source of fellowship; a way “to make the world more open and connected.” Our favorite truism about the internet today—that it divides us into warring tribes and makes everything terrible—simply wasn’t true back then, or at least it didn’t seem to be. In the early 2010s—the golden age of challenges—anyone could get involved in an online trend, and that would