The Web’s First Viral Hit Re-emerges 20 Years Later. Can It Go Viral Again?

'Wear Sunscreen' gets second life, with proper attribution

Remember the ’90s? We have a friend who’s constantly telling us everything was more real back then. Generally, we find that sentiment pretty suspect, but it’s true there was a texture to the decade that no longer exists.

Stuff was more tangible: We read real books with fibrous pages and that delicious paper smell. We listened to music on cassettes—with Walkmans!—and left the radio on for hours to catch (and poorly record) songs we liked. TV was grainier; HD, unimaginable. And the internet. Man, the internet. It was dial-up. It was pixellated. Every webpage looked like somebody’s diary.

Then there was “Wear Sunscreen.”

Posted on the Chicago Tribune’s website on June 1, 1997, under the winsome title “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young,” and written by columnist Mary Schmich as a hypothetical commencement speech (usually falsely attributed to Kurt Vonnegut), its unalienable truths rippled through cultures as fast as 56k dialup could take it.

In fact, it was the internet’s first major viral phenomenon, passed to us via message boards and email chains. Yesterday was its 20th anniversary.

As a tribute, London agency BMB created a website, WearSunscreen.net. It lifts Schmich’s words out of the dusty recesses of the past, giving us the chance to rediscover them and judge whether they still resonate in a world now filtered through retina displays.

From the cheesy starburst favicon to its dancing baby sign-off, WearSunscreen.net is a nostalgic eulogy of what the internet was, mixed with the memes, GIFs and symbols of what it’s become. It’s a picture of how much has changed … and how little we have.

Schmich’s self-deprecating advice is interspersed throughout, sandwiched in a chain-letter-style story about how “Wear Sunscreen” became a phenomenon, and the critical role email played in disseminating it. It begins:

In the summer of 1997, an email found its way into inboxes all over the world. It claimed to contain the transcript of a speech given by Kurt Vonnegut, bestselling author of Slaughterhouse Five, to students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that June—and it caught the imagination of people from Boston to Budapest.

Whilst apparently addressing America’s elite—the geeks, thinkers and entrepreneurs that would go on to build the world we live in now—the words spoke to everyone. They would end up on posters and postcards, be turned into a bestselling book, and transformed into a chart-topping record.

“Most people think of the summer of 1991 as the birth of the World Wide Web, when Tim Berners-Lee published the first web page,” says Ben Lunt, BMB’s executive digital director.

“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.”

Schmich’s advice ranges from the banal, like her one-word admonitions to floss and stretch, to the profound: “Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.”

The last half of the site describes how powerful that Vonnegut attribution was; even his wife believed he wrote it. It also explains how “Wear Sunscreen” came to exist, loosely paraphrasing a story Schmich herself tells in a short book she wrote about it:

Then I saw her, a woman in her twenties sitting on the lakefront, her face turned toward the sun to catch the weak May rays. “I hope that woman’s wearing sunscreen,” I clucked to myself.

I realized in that moment that I’d reached a dangerous phase of life, the phase in which a person is seized by the desire to redeem her own mistakes by administering advice. I also realized it was graduation time, a time when speakers everywhere could sow their words of wisdom without seeming like buffoons.

Okay, so no one had invited me to be a graduation speaker. Why not pretend?

Thus inspired, and “fueled by coffee and M&M’s,” she composed her imaginary graduation speech, filed the copy and moved on. Two months later, the work—now mysteriously attributed to Vonnegut—was “rocketing around the world on the internet.”

With that, “Wear Sunscreen” became the first piece of shared history—the mother of the meme—for a connected world. I discovered “Wear Sunscreen” at 14, when Baz Luhrmann adapted the text in his spoken-word song, “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen”:

WearSunscreen.net gives us the pleasure of revisiting those words. But it also does something more important. It gives the piece a shot at another viral voyage on far more powerful platforms than email … while giving Schmich her overdue credit.

Knowing now that the voice was a woman’s gives it a different resonance, particularly in passages like this:

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Or this one:

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

“The purpose behind this project was very much to try and pass on Mary Schmich’s wisdom to a new generation,” says Lou Sloper, head of art at BMB. “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 recognizable 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.”

Seeing the site today inspired us to pick up Schmich’s book—it’s a tiny, 20-minute read. In her introduction, she seems less upset than bemused at how her words were lifted, misattributed and made famous. As a bonus, she dispenses one last piece of advice:

Do your work. You never know when routine life will delight and surprise you.

Reread the original text on the Chicago Tribune.