The animated GIF is a wordless poem.
Without the barrier of language, it expresses emotions, and visualizes in one looping series of frames what it would take the written word, well, at least a sentence, maybe even two! It's for this reason that some GIFs persist, long past relevance and the internet’s self-destructive short-term memory.
Why does one GIF stick around for years, while another expires faster than a carton of milk? One theory: a long-lasting GIF is often preserved by a rich backstory. In the best GIFs, we sense we’re getting a look at the perfect moment of something bigger. There’s an implication of mystery, or even mythos.
A timeless GIF has an implication of mystery, or even mythos
Which brings us to the math wall. The GIF features a woman deep in concentration, staring down an oncoming wall with a math problem written up high, and down low, two potential solutions. In the few seconds before the wall makes contact, she decides whether 2 + 2 X 2 equals 6 or 8 and then lies down straight on the ground and hopes she chose correctly. Of course, her choice is wrong. The wall doesn’t break away. The cushioned surface slams into her face, shoving her contorted body into a pool.
As it turns out, this GIF is quite old, and has a rather quirky history to it. So let’s dissect the origins of this moment:
What’s going on here?
This particular challenge was part of a short-lived South Korean game show called Jiwhaza, also known as Burst! Mental Concentration, which forced celebrity contestants to solve brain teasers under extreme pressure. The show only aired from April to September in 2007, clocking just 22 episodes.
'Jiwhaza' aired for just 22 episodes in 2007
It did, however, feature a notable segment called "Brain Pull Power," which involved an encroaching Styrofoam wall that was used to humiliate contestants if they failed to meet its requirements. Contestants were sometimes asked to contort their bodies into weird shapes, like ballerina poses or high kicks, but also in some cases to solve quick math problems, as we see in the infamous GIF. If a contestant failed, he or she for some reason had to risk having their neck crushed as they air-planked their way backwards into a pool of water.
So who is this person?
The contestant in question is Chae Yeon, a popular South Korean pop singer who rose to fame around 2004 with a distinctive dance style and a hit single called "Two of Us." Prior to her solo career, Yeon was a member of a few Asian pop groups under the name Jinny before transitioning to the Japanese game show circuit and eventually returning to Korea with a debut album. She was chosen to participate on Jihwaza, having had experience with a popular Japanese variety show called Uchan Nanchan no Urinari!
Is she haunted by her mathematical failure?
In fact, she kind of is. Popular South Korean TV host and comedian Yoo Jae-suk brought up the moment on the variety show Infinite Challenge last October, asking Yeon how she felt about the internet’s lasting obsession with her math skills. Yeon expressed some embarrassment, but did point out that she was aware of the order of operations. "It was unfair because I was very nervous," Yeon says. "I could have gotten it right if I had sat down."
Why does this remind me of a Japanese game show?
"Brain Pull Power" was actually modeled on a segment from a popular Japanese show called Tunnels Thanks to Everybody, which popularized the concept of a moving wall that would push contestants into a pool of water. On Tunnels, the wall contains a cutout of a geometric shape, and it earned the nickname "Human Tetris" online where clips of wondrous failures have gone viral.
Did America steal the concept?
It seems so, though we’ll leave the debate on intellectual property theft to the producers and lawyers. A 2008 game show, called Hole in the Wall, remodeled the concept for Western audiences — inspired in part by ABC’s success with the Japanese game show-themed Wipeout! — and it aired on Fox for about a year with host Brooke Burns from Baywatch. It featured variations on the theme, including one version where the contestant was blindfolded and another where three people competed simultaneously. Poor ratings led Fox to replace it with reruns of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? hosted by friend of Ned Yost, Jeff Foxworthy.
Of course it did
Hole in the Wall was later picked up by none other than Cartoon Network, which inexplicably hired Real World Hawaii cast member Teck Holmes as host. It lasted about two years and kept the racy name despite reformatting the context and humor for a kid’s channel. A similar program, also called Hole in the Wall, aired in the UK on BBC One around the same time as Fox’s version, but it didn’t make it past a second season.
What is PEMDAS and how can it save me from lasting internet humiliation?
The order of operations, known as PEMDAS, can save you from many math-based embarrassments, though few may ever find themselves facing down a wall of hardened polystyrene foam. It stands for "Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction," popularized by the mnemonic device, "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally." (It’s also known as BEDMAS for Canadians, who as a culture have decided that bracket is a superior mathematical term, and that division should come before multiplication despite both holding equal weight.)
The order of operations is why 2 + 2 X 2 does not equal 8, and forgetting that is why Chae Yeon was pushed into a pool of water on national South Korean television nine years ago. Instead of adding before you multiply, you multiply before you add. So the answer is in fact 6. The more you know!