Let’s Revisit the Numa Numa Guy
Online infamy wasn’t something you hid from in 2004; it was something you desperately wanted
Welcome to part eight of our Internet Nostalgia series, which looks back at phenomena that captured the imagination and attention of the internet for a fleeting moment and then vanished as everyone moved on to something else. This series looks back at those olden times, and what they told us about the internet, and ourselves. If you have a suggested topic, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Last week, we looked at Keyboard Cat. This week: The Numa Numa Guy.
The story: In 2004, Gary Brolsma was an 18-year-old kid playing around on a video-sharing website called Newgrounds.com. He used Newgrounds.com rather than, say, YouTube.com, because YouTube, in 2004, did not exist. Brolsma was just goofing off, lip-syncing to a song called “Dragostea Din Tei,” by something called O-Zone. This is the O-Zone song:
It is incredibly silly, though no one in O-Zone seems to realize that. But Brolsma did. He knew, even as a teenager, how dumb that song was, and, impressively, how dumb and silly he would look singing such a ridiculous song. So he posted it. Because Brolsma doesn’t look much like a boy-band singer, his lip-syncing looks especially incompatible with the music. That’s why it’s funny. But what’s important is that Brolsma knew that it was funny. Back in 2004, you might have thought you were laughing because That Fat Kid didn’t get the joke. But he absolutely got the joke.
And you know what? I still love it. Even if he’s kidding… his enthusiasm remains absolutely infectious.
Pop culture crossover: Well, not for nothing, but Brolsma got his own South Park character out of the whole deal.
What we’ve learned: The writer Charlie Warzel wrote in his new Substack newsletter this week about the dark, often random social media phenomenon of a platform (almost always Twitter) choosing one main character every day and collectively dunking on them. It is today’s equivalent of “going viral,” and it is a harrowing experience for everyone it happens to. “You’re repurposed as fodder for content generation in a way that’s just so dehumanizing,” one poor soul who went through it told Warzel. The idea of everyone discovering you at once, and sending whatever interests them about you to everyone they know, and having the whole world talk about you… today, that sounds absolutely terrifying. It sounds awful.
But with the “Numa Numa” video, Brolsma succeeded beyond his wildest imagination; if anything, he anticipated a platform that didn’t even exist yet. Online infamy wasn’t something you hid from in 2004; it was something you desperately wanted. And it turned out to be nothing but positive for him. He even did a 10th anniversary “Numa Numa” video, and he’s still out there today, making weird videos I don’t understand but certainly doesn’t seem like some idiot who doesn’t realize he’s getting made fun of.
The reason “Numa Numa” couldn’t happen today isn’t because we’ve all gotten meaner and more glib online, though that has of course happened. It couldn’t happen today because no one wants to go viral like Brolsma did. If you are suddenly, out-of-nowhere internet famous in 2021, it is because something horrible has happened. In 2004, Brolsma’s viral journey was his greatest dreams realized. Today, it would be a nightmare.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.