Last weekend, the biggest names in Internet fame, academia, and entrepreneurship descended upon MIT for the third installment of ROFLCon, a biennial celebration of web culture. From accidental celebrities such as Scumbag Steve and Chuck Testa to researchers like hacker anthropologist Biella Coleman and MIT’s own Ethan Zuckerman, a diverse cast of guests came together to unite under the common banner of “the Internets.” Prior to the keynote speech, event co-founder Christina Xu put it succinctly: “One out of eight people in this room has done something crazy on the Internet.”
In his opening address on Friday morning, keynote speaker Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School sympathized with conference attendees, “It’s hard to explain what you’re doing this weekend to friends and family who are not part of this tribe.” But with the diversity of subcultures on the Internet — one of the fundamental affordances of online networks — is it really accurate to condense all of them into a single tribe?
At its very core, this year’s ROFLCon was an attempt to wrestle with the Internet’s ongoing identity crisis, to try and find some unifying theory bringing together the disparate strands that characterize the state of the Internet today: the hacktivism of Anonymous, the meteoric cultural rise and commercialization of Internet memes, debate over real-names policies and other privacy concerns, the Arab Spring and other international revolutions, radically new business and content distribution models, and the ongoing battle over copyright and cybersecurity bills such as SOPA, ACTA, and most recently CISPA.
Certainly, a good number of the panels at ROFLCon were not that serious in nature and instead focused on showcasing different aspects of Internet culture. The “Global Lulzes” panel, for example, celebrated Internet memes from other parts of the world — namely, China, Brazil, and Syria. Saturday’s keynote speech chronicled the history of supercuts: fast-paced video montages of clips from film and TV, usually of a specific cliché or trope.
Several of the panels at ROFLCon focused on niche interests. The webcomic community was proudly represented by the artists of Axe Cop, Cyanide & Happiness, Diesel Sweeties, Explodingdog, Loldwell, and SMBC. One panel, dedicated to the subgenre of sadistically-difficult video games, featured the developers of running simulator QWOP and “masocore” platformer I Wanna Be The Guy. Another panel was dedicated to fangirl culture in general, bringing together some of the biggest names in the fanfiction and fanart circles.
Other panels were simply fanservice — such as a solo panel with Internet creator Neil Cicierega, probably best known for his work on “Potter Puppet Pals.” The panel featuring Wieden+Kennedy’s Craig Allen — the creative director behind the “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” Old Spice ad campaign7 — ultimately became a Skype video Q&A with actor Isaiah Mustafa himself.
Despite the huge diversity of subcultures and fandoms represented at ROFLCon, certain recurring themes were felt throughout the conference. For one, multiple speakers mentioned the dark side of being Internet famous. In his talk, Zittrain proposed the creation of an infrastructure that would allow people to “opt out” of the sometimes-unwelcome celebrity of memedom.
The Advice Animal panel — featuring Scumbag Steve and representatives from meme database Know Your Meme — took an unexpected turn when the discussion led to the ethics of the “I Can Count to Potato” macro, which features the image of a girl with Down syndrome. In response, Know Your Meme proposed creating guidelines to help the subjects of memes (and in this case, their parents) make good choices about how to respond to unintended Internet fame.
On the other hand, using memes to ridicule was also lauded as an effective political tool — Zittrain brought up how the Downfall parodies have transformed Hitler into a comedic character, while MIT Center for Civic Media director Ethan Zuckerman half-jokingly suggested the creation of a Scumbag Assad image macro to poke fun at Syria’s current president. Indeed, the intersection of the Internet and politics was another overarching theme throughout ROFLCon.
For example, on the “LOLitics” panel, Mozilla’s Dan Sinker described his experience running the @MayorEmanuel Twitter account, through which he told a distorted version of Rahm Emanuel’s campaign for Mayor of Chicago. Latoya Peterson, editor of the blog Racialicious, discussed the “Shit X Says” meme, its permutations, and how it can be subverted for activist ends, as seen in “Shit Cis People Say to Trans People” or “Shit Everybody Says to Rape Victims.” McGill University professor Biella Coleman discussed Anonymous and popular misrepresentations of the hacktivist organization, analyzing its interactions with the surveillance state.
In his solo panel, Ben Huh, CEO of I Can Has Cheezburger, also discussed intellectual property and how today’s restrictive copyright paradigm is hindering the meme ecosystem and content creation at large. Even the closing panel of the convention, “Defending the Internet,” revolved around the recent slew of Internet-related bills such as SOPA and PIPA. The panel of Internet superstars — including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Yale cyberlaw professor Elizabeth Stark — discussed how Internet policy decisions are made, and how that process needs to be improved.
Amidst these themes running throughout the conference, however, I noticed none more strongly than the collective sinking feeling that the Internet has jumped the shark. In the webcomics panel, Diesel Sweeties artist R. Stevens waxed nostalgic for the smaller, more intimate communities of the early Internet. In reference to Cheezburger’s perceived commercialization of Internet culture, a heckler at Ben Huh’s panel asked, “Why are you raping the Internet, sir?”
The fading YouTube celebrities on the “Channels Killed the (Internet) Video Star” bemoaned how a new industry of web content production has eroded the serendipitous spirit of early YouTube. Judson Laipply’s “Evolution of Dance” video lost its spot on the YouTube Top 20 list to a Vevo music video, and — paraphrasing Matt Harding of the video series “Where the Hell is Matt?” — the medium has already been co-opted by marketers.
4chan creator Christopher Poole, better known by his online handle “moot,” mentioned in his panel that Internet memes — once a small niche of the web — are now everywhere; today net culture does not exist as something separate. “Anyone who has a computer now experiences net culture. Advice Dog is almost the refined sugar of memes: it’s fine, it tastes good, but it’s not good for you.”
According to Poole, the ubiquity of memes has deprived them of richness. As emphasized during the panel on Nano-Fame, memes have now been distilled to the tiniest slivers of content — a few seconds of video, a single image. Today, they come and go faster than ever. Thus, it comes as no coincidence that this was the last ROFLCon (for now), as the “surprise ending” of the event program — styled as an old-school choose-your-own-adventure book — reveals.
“It’s been an amazing run — more stupendously successful than we ever could have possibly imagined for now, we’re putting this trilogy to bed and riding out into the sunset. Our lives are taking us to new and exciting places, so ROFLCon is on hiatus until we can figure out how to continue doing it great justice,” went the pamphlet.
So, did ROFLCon achieve its goal? Was it successful in its quest to resolve the Internet’s existential crisis?
No, I don’t think so. The Internet has grown far too big and far too fragmented to be tamed, and our attempts to understand it asymptotically approach but never quite reach that unifying theory. Perhaps the discourse surrounding the Internet has become as saturated as the Internet itself, and all ROFLCon could do was implode on itself.
In the blue fanny packs given out to each attendee — mingled with the Goatse-themed ROFLCondoms and the limited edition holographic Nyan Cat pins — were stickers and other trinkets from companies specializing in predicting soon-to-be “viral” content or claiming to be able to reproduce similar rates of proliferation. Like the Internet it celebrates, ROFLCon, too, appears to have been co-opted by the marketers.
Despite the great victories (epic wins, rather) of the Internet and its vast potential to effect change and mobilize people, it is — like everything else that humankind has ever loved — being eaten up by commercial interests. That’s why ROFLCon needs to die. With the way we are now, we can only shrug as Keyboard Cat plays it off. We can only hope that the convention will return one day — as something better — to save the Internet from itself.
For now? I’ll be the first to say it: Goodnight, sweet prince.