System 32 is essentially the heart of the computer’s software. Task manager, the boot-up instructions, and hardware-to-software system files are all located in the System 32 file folder. It’s very important. Do not delete it.
This folder is not a secret, but what exactly it’s responsible for wasn’t always public knowledge. After all, Windows keeps everything very neat and tidy; photos and documents to games and applications all stayed in their own little cubby holes. The actual System 32 folder is a couple of folders deep already– exploratory digging might result in someone finding it by themselves, but why would they ever delete it if it’s already there? That was Microsoft’s approach: make everything the user wants easy to find so only experts and programmers have to consider System 32. Even better, it would still (usually) work in the recycle bin, and it wouldn’t allow deletion with a simple left-click; there was no way a user could delete this folder without serious work. The hope was that most people would never even notice it.
They were right, and this was enough. For a time.
It’s the mid to late 2000s, and anonymous internet message boards are largely unrecognized and somewhat unmoderated. It serves as the Wild West of the internet, the last dark corner in a time where the rest of said internet is at least glimpsable with Google. Computers are expensive, but not Hope Diamond expensive, and the thought that someone would tell an un-monitored kid online to break theirs just for the heck of it was kind of absurd. Keyword: un-monitored. Underage children were getting into all sorts of sites they shouldn’t have, including internet messaging boards.
Knowing this, the people falling for the system32 prank are obviously not all just gullible adults.
The site responsible for the meme (at the time) made it very clear that this was not a place for children, and the nature of the site’s set-up made it nigh impossible for the average user to be tracked or traced by another user. No username? No IP tracking? Zero consequences. There were mods, but the mods were few in number, and more concerned with activities that were genuinely very illegal and could lead to the site’s shut-down. Users convincing strangers to mix chemicals together or de-magnetize their hard drive was less pressing unless it also resulted in something illegal.
The meme really got going when one user came back to complain that their computer would no longer start after they followed one of the first troll posts. That post gave instructions on how to delete it while framing it as ‘bloatware’(software that intentionally slows a device down). If you have no idea what makes a computer run, it sounded like good advice.
When users caught on that some versions of Windows would refuse to outright delete System 32, they moved on and started including console commands, something the average user (at the time) had no experience with. Someone with little or no knowledge of the subject wouldn’t know what they were looking at. A button press, some typing, and an @echo command. Easy to follow… too easy.
Instructions for deleting System 32 to ‘speed up the computer’ or ‘make the computer quieter’ appeared on more public sites some time in 2008. I Can Haz Cheezburger is likely the largest at this point, a forum centered around funny images of cats and other assorted animals, with a penchant for memes including advice, good or bad. Soap Ice, the idea that you could freeze Dawn dish soap and water in a puck of ice, and then use it to ‘shower’ after a trip to the gym or park, was one of these ‘advice’ memes. This does not work for the reasons you’d expect, but it’s less likely to kill someone than bathroom cleaner ‘crystal’ hacks. ‘Advice’ to delete System 32 was a natural fit, and it spread like wildfire.
With the meme’s spread into bigger websites that are more strictly moderated, articles start coming out advising people not to delete System 32. Even better, memes start circulating on websites like I Can Haz Cheezburger to give users warning directly. It doesn’t stop all of it – no good-advice-meme can stop a person determined to use a hack like Soap Ice, but it puts a major dent in the spread. With less people taking the bait, and others ready to comment ‘don’t do this!’ on posts where it appears, the meme finally slows down, eventually to a crawl. “Delete System 32” is now used ironically, because knowledge of it is so widespread that someone not knowing is rare.
And so the rise and fall of a meme is recorded. This is one of the first of it’s kind, but it’s far from the last.