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Panelists Jamie Wilkinson and Kenyatta Cheese (Know Your Meme), Greg Rutter (Youshouldhaveseenthis.com), and Christopher “moot” Poole (4chan) show Ben Huh (I Can Has Cheezburger?) some love during the Mainstreaming the Web panel of ROFLcon after Ben said, with regard to ROFLCon, “I feel like I’m part of something special.” ROFLCon, a two day conference on Internet culture, took place last Friday and Saturday on campus.
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Last weekend at ROFLcon, I was online without being on the internet. The guest list read like a printout of my browser history.

In front of me sat Ben Huh of I Can Has Cheezburger? next to moot of 4chan. In the audience among hundreds of fans like me, sat Charlie Schmidt of Keyboard Cat, Lauren Leto and Benjamin Bator of Texts from Last Night, and Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics, to name a few of my Internet heroes.

“oh shit, the whole internets here” read an online, real-time comment displayed on a projection screen in 26-100.

Last Friday and Saturday, ROFLcon 2 descended upon MIT, the biggest gathering of internet celebrities ever. ROFLcon (“Rolling On the Floor Laughing conference”) was established in 2008 to bring together creators of memes to discuss and celebrate internet culture. Although held on the MIT campus both years, Harvard undergraduates Tim Hwang and Christina Xu organized both the 2008 and 2010 ROFLcons.

When the official ROFLcon web site describes the 2008 conference as “a kickass time, not to mention the most important gatherings since the fall of the tower of Babel,” a second conference sounds hard to top.

While the Internet has forever skewed my perception of what’s “good” (or “right” or “ethical” for that matter), ROFLCon 2 at least quantitatively outdid the first, bringing together even more memes and dispensing more lulz. Approximately 950 attendees registered, up from 500 attendees in 2008. They came from places as far as Israel, Brazil, and Scotland according to Hwang. Of the 78 “featured guests,” 66 were the internet celebrities who created the actual memes. The other 12 were academics and researchers who study memes. The researchers highlighted the changes brewing on the ’net: The fragmentation and commercialization of Internet memes — because for better or for worse, Internet subculture is hitting the mainstream.

Legitimizing the internets

While the battle cry of ROFLcon appeared to be “for the lulz,” it had a surprising academic presence.

“Usually we don’t lol at Chinese lolcats and they don’t lol at ours…which is problematic!” said co-keynote speaker Ethan Zuckerman from Harvard, discussing the unifying and fracturing potential of international memes.

Keynote speeches were given by Zuckerman, member of The Berkman Center for Internet and Society and danah boyd MS ’02 from Microsoft Research. (boyd prefers to render her name completely lowercase. She explains on her website that “I am not my name; my name is simply another descriptor of me.”) They discussed the problem that memes are an individual cultural phenomenon, and by not learning about memes from other countries we risk creating Internet and international communities that cannot communicate with each other.

China is just one place our cultures are diverging, Zuckerman discussed. For instance, in China which heavily censors YouTube, the primary source of user-generated video is Youku. If you search for “funny cats” in Youku, it displays thousands of videos, just like its American counterpart. “This is of terrifying geopolitical importance… We did not know China had cute cat technology.” Zuckerman said.

The real problem isn’t potentially losing the lolcat race, but that the cultures’ memes are diverging because they are using different websites: “Someday we may actually end up with Internets that aren’t talking to each other and maybe someday Internets that can’t talk to one another. We need to meme at each other!” said Zuckerman.

He displayed a map of the world with numbers of memes that came from each country. He was happy to report though that while historically Africa had produced no memes, Kenya had recently created its first. Makmende Amerudi, a pseudo-Chuck Norris, has quickly gone viral in Kenya. Web sites have been established listing Makmende facts, and his portrait has found its way onto parody 10,000 shillings notes.

Our task is to learn about these other cultures’ memes, he said, so that we can continue interacting with them constructively. He compared interacting with memes to exchanging literature or news stories. “The easiest way to cross cultural barriers is to laugh,” Zuckerman said.

Other panels had a similar academic vibe. On Friday the creators of My Mom is a FOB, Stuff White People Like, and The Onion sat down in an event titled “i can haz dream?: race and the internet.” The moderator of the panel discussion, Lisa Nakamura from the University of Illinois-Champaign, stated that race is an important aspect of internet use: “When something claims to be apolitical ‘just for the lulz’ it has the potential to be racially transformative,” she said.

You don’t know meme

Not all panels were meant to be so serious; some were just meme-creators sitting down and discussing their craft. Along with moderators leading the discussion, the audience asked questions to the panelists online using their laptops or phones.

Neil Cicirega, creator of the Animutation genre and series like Potter Puppets Pals, reminisced about one of his fans: “I was reading about this guy who had killed this girl and was planning on eating her… I was looking at his Geocities page, and he linked to me as ‘some of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen.’ He just got life.”

Joel Veitch of rathergood.com is the creator of the deranged-squirrel musical video “We Like the Moon,” later the inspiration of a Quiznos commercial, and the recent “The Internet is Made of Cats” video. He was asked why cats are inherently funnier than dogs. “Cute animals are an easy … I started doing stuff with little furry animals [because] you can love them, but only in the way you’d love a terrible diseased child.” Later on he added, “With a dog, a dog loves you, and if you died the dog will pine. But with a cat, it pretends to love you, and if you were to die it would just eat your corpse.”

When asked how they actually created their viral memes, most panelists credited luck instead of skill or creativity. “However good you are at it, you’ll never create the mystery and wonder that is Keyboard Cat” said Zuckerman. Cue thunderous applause.

“Crisis of Weird”

I spent both days of the conference in a constant state tip-of-the-tongue frustration from seeing people I knew I had seen before, but couldn’t remember where. If it weren’t for the name tags, most of the actual internet celebrities wouldn’t have been recognized. It’s not just that they look like us, it’s that they are us.

More than once I heard someone say “oh that guy!” after long scrutiny of someone’s face.

That’s the reality of Internet fame — creators of these memes are just a couple of people like us who happened to get famous. I prefer it this way; at the very least they’re not famous for merely being famous like IRL celebrities, they’ve brought something to the table, be it a lolcat or Naked Obama on a Unicorn.

However, for being at MIT, I was disappointed by the lack of MIT students I saw. Besides volunteers, most attendees didn’t appear to have any connection to MIT and I saw more than one student ask around what the entire thing was about. How can we expect to be global leaders in anything if we don’t hascheezburgers? The Internet is a thriving a culture as any other, and deserves serious anthropological studying just like anything else.

If the Internet is a series of tubes, there were times this weekend when it felt like I was climbing through its sewers. The event’s programs, designed after 90s era floppy-disk casings, came packaged with an official ROFLcondom imprinted with a classy goatse icon.

Toscanini’s created a new flavor of ice cream inspired by the conference, titled “The Internet.” The flavor, a mixture of vanilla ice cream and Nerds candy, highlighted, for the most part, the demographic of the event: white and nerdy.

As identified by danah boyd and others throughout the conference, Internet culture is undergoing a profound transition, becoming increasingly commercialized and marketed. much to the dismay of those who remember its roots. Making money on the Internet inevitably means advertising and merchandising, the coming of the marketer. We’re going through a “national weirdness crisis,” boyd said, where “memes immediately become a commercial.”

Most panelists were asked what their day jobs were. Very few had any outside of their web sites or blogs. Hur of the cheezburger network has forty employees and contractually cannot discuss his income; David DeVore, the big half from the video David At the Dentist admitted he’s made somewhere around $125,000 from it. While most people create memes for the lulz, if the meme becomes viral their creators then keep them going for the profits.

There was a bubbling tension between those who create the memes and those who profit from it. At the event, I saw a clear distinction between those who were genuine attendees and those who were from businesses: those who belonged and who didn’t. Two self-described /b/tards heckled advertising agents sitting in front of them, telling them to leave and, subsequently, “show me your tits.”

What memes we’ll be telling — or hiding — from our children in five, ten, twenty years from now was often asked of the panelists. How much we’ll let “the suits,” as boyd stated, rule what we read and lol at in the future is the current question — and crisis — the Internet is going through.

In the past, the currency of the internet was credit for work, but with increasing commercialization, Internet currency is now real currency, and it’s a matter of livelihood who gets paid for what work. The phenomenon of lolcats came from 4chan, and in the last panelist discussion, moot of 4chan asked Hur of the cheezburger network, who was profiting tremendously on other people’s work, what he was giving back to the Internet community, if anything.

The underlying motivations behind memes may be changing from humor to money, but at least in 2010 ROFLcon was a celebration of hilarious memes. The existence and ultimately successful run of an event like ROFLcon suggests that memes have socially important and redeeming value and proves that the Internet, funnily enough, is serious business.