The Strange History of One of the Internet’s First Viral Videos

You’ve seen the video. Everyone on the internet has. A man sits in a cubicle and pounds his keyboard in frustration. A few seconds later, the Angry Man picks up the keyboard and swings it like a baseball bat at his screen—it’s an old PC from the ‘90s, with a big CRT monitor—whacking it off the desk. A frightened coworker’s head pops up from over the cubicle wall, just in time to watch the Angry Man get up kick the monitor across the floor. Cut to black.

The clip began to circulate online, mostly via email, in 1997. Dubbed “badday.mpg,” it’s likely one of the first internet videos ever to go viral. Sometimes GIFs of it still float across Twitter and Facebook feeds. (Most memes barely have a shelf life of 20 minutes, let alone 20 years.)

Beyond its impressive resilience, it’s also unexpectedly significant as the prime mover of viral videos. In one clip, you can find everything that’s now standard in the genre, like a Lumière brothers film for the internet age: the now-standard surveillance footage aesthetic; the sub-30-second runtime; the angry freakout in a typically staid setting; the unhinged destruction of property.

The clip also serves up prime conspiracy fodder. Freeze and enhance: The computer is unplugged. The supposed Angry Man, on closer inspection, is smiling. Was one of the first viral videos—and perhaps the most popular viral video of all time—also one of the first internet hoaxes?

Vinny’s Viral Video

Vinny Licciardi didn’t realize he had gone viral until he heard one of his coworkers had seen a video of him smacking a computer on TV. Except at the time it wasn’t called “going viral”—there was no real precedent for this kind of thing. A video he made with his coworkers had somehow ended up on MSNBC, and thousands of people were sharing it.

At the time he was working at a Colorado-based tech company called Loronix. The video was shot at Loronix, and the computer he smashed belonged to the company, but he wasn’t a frustrated cubicle drone. Loronix was actually a fun place to work, the kind of tech startup where coworkers stay late to play Quake online over the company’s coveted T1 line. They weren’t usually going full barbarian-horde on their office equipment.

But Loronix was developing DVR technology for security camera systems, and needed sample footage to demonstrate to potential clients how it worked. So Licciardi and his boss, chief technology officer Peter Jankowski, got an analog video camera and began shooting.

They filmed Licciardi using an ATM, and pretended to catch him robbing the company’s warehouse. Licciardi decided he wanted to be a “disgruntled employee,” which gave his boss an idea. “It was pretty ad hoc,” Jankowski explains. “We had some computers that had died, and monitors and keyboards that weren’t working, so we basically set that up in a cubicle on a desk.”

Jankowski directed the shoot, as Licciardi went to town on a broken monitor and an empty computer case. It took two attempts. “The first take, people were laughing so hard we had to do a second one,” Licciardi said.

They converted the videos to to MPEG-1, so that it’d work best on Windows Media Player and reach the largest amount of people. (“Great resolution—352×240,” Peter adds, laughing.) They put them on promo CDs and handed them out at trade shows with a company brochure; then they forgot about them.

Over the next year, badday.mpg began to circulate through various companies. The large file caused some problems. “Loronix would get calls from these companies saying, ‘Hey you know this video of yours is getting passed around, and it’s crashing email servers,’” Licciardi says.

While he wasn’t getting noticed on the street, Licciardi did experience the bizarre partial fame of other viral video stars. “I was traveling on a plane, talking to the guy next to me, telling him about my video,” he says. “And he’s like ‘I’ve seen that.’ And the guy behind me is like ‘I’ve seen that too!’ and the stewardess was talking, ‘Oh, yeah yeah yeah, I’ve seen that!’ It’s amazing how many people have seen it.”

The BadDay.mpg Conspiracy

Today, the spread of badday.mpg seems almost impossible. There was no YouTube, no nearly infinite email storage space, no video sites like eBaum’s World, and there wasn’t really an infrastructure in place to easily handle the mass distribution of video content. Hosting a video cost money; downloading it took time. And after downloading it, you’d have to open it up in one of only a few media players, like Real Player Plus or Windows Media Player. It’s impressive that any content at the time could go viral.

But something about badday.mpg transfixed people. Like most people, web developer Benoit Rigaut first saw the video in 1998, after a friend emailed it to him. The attachment was a short, low quality version of the original. He was captivated, and sought out a higher quality version. It took a while to download—he estimates 20 minutes. “There was definitely something special in this video,” Rigaut recalls. “A real catharsis to the always somehow frustrating computing experience.”

So on a rainy weekend, Rigaut made a fan site for it, mostly so he could share the huge file without blowing up his friends’ inboxes. He had previously worked at CERN, and still had full access to its web hosting: “I placed the 5-MB file on Europe’s largest internet node, without any traffic quota.”

The site had the look of an old Geocities page. Black background, ASCII art, novelty GIFs, visitor counters. There’s a link to the “badday webring,” and an audio-only file of the video. At the top there’s a GIF to give users a preview, before they took the time to download it. Rigaut wrote a semi-tongue-in-cheek conspiracy narrative, pointing out badday’s inconsistencies. He included screengrabs with red circles drawn around the unplugged cables and the man’s smile.

“There is no doubt on this point,” the site said. “Wintel is creating a catharsis because they fear the day of the revolution. The day when workers sitting in front of their buggy products won’t laugh. The day we will stand up together to fetch for the people in charge of this disastrous hardware/software association!”

Almost by accident, Rigaut’s faux-conspiracy site anticipated the aesthetics of contemporary internet conspiracy theorists. His frame-by-frame closeups and red circles were potentially the first mainstream example of “Chart Brute”—the conspiratorial folk art that became widespread online post-9/11. But the site’s visuals were just the natural result of shoddy graphics software. “I feel very proud if it turns out I invented, or probably just popularized, this grassroots aesthetic so common these days!” Rigaut says.

Soon the video’s fan site began receiving thousands of visitors daily. Thanks to Rigaut’s page and a few others, the video was now easier to share. It eventually got mainstream media attention. Then, one day, he received an email from the Angry Man himself:

Date: Wed, 10 Jun 1998 08:25:59 -0600 From: Vinny Licciardi To: “benoit.rigaut@cern.ch” Subject: Bad day

Thanks for all the sites. I’ll see if i can come up with something else in the near future. Got to get smashing.

 Mr. Bad Day Vinny Licciardi

They exchanged messages. They seemed to intuit, on some level, the importance of the clip. “Eight years later we were all watching ‘Evolution of Dance’ on YouTube,” Rigaut says. “I guess I now feel sorry for myself not to have identified this business opportunity.”

Smash Hit

As video sharing became easier and more common, others filmed their own versions, and Smash Videos became a thing, a motif it was hard not to recognize in Office Space’s infamous printer-destruction montage.

Over the subsequent two decades, “[n-person] destroying [x-object] in [y-location]” became a reliable formula for creating popular web content. The subgenre followed its own trends. In the ‘00s, gaming-related freakouts were en vogue, typically involving World of Warcraft or Counterstrike and a frightening amount of Red Bull.

More recent variations are much more cynical, gaming YouTube recommendation algorithms for views. Garret Claridge has destroyed what seems like thousands of electronics, and in the “Psycho Dad” series of videos, an allegedly mentally unstable father brutalizes gaming hardware—running them over with a lawnmower, grilling them, and throwing them in a woodchipper.

And through it all, GIFs of Vinny Licciardi continue to circulate. That the clip still resonates is a testment to our broader cultural feelings about technology, especially vis-a-vis the workplace. “I’m kind of amazed it’s still going around as much as it is, but I think everyone can relate to that moment,” Licciardi says. “They’re so ticked off because their software is not working, or there’s some glitch, and everybody’s wanted to do that at one point in their life.”

Faced with the futility of improving—let alone escaping—our dull cyberpunk hell, we take our keyboards and smash.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/history-of-the-first-viral-video