One weekend this spring,
close to 1,000 people gathered on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
to attend a sold-out conference devoted to the question “What is awesome on the Internet?” While the event included presenters and moderators with respectable research credentials from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and the like, what they had gathered to examine, more or less seriously, is what might be called the ROFL universe. ROFL, which became familiar in the age of texting, stands for “rolling on the floor, laughing” and can serve as a shorthand response to the most ephemeral, silly and frankly unimportant-seeming manifestations of pop entertainment in the early 21st century: absurdly captioned pictures of cats, goof-off remixes of YouTube videos, unlikely Web celebrities, quick-hit visual jokes with unprintable punch lines and sporadic references to Rick Astley.
Tim Hwang, a clean-cut, 23-year-old go-getter from New Jersey, was an organizer of this event, called ROFLCon II,
as well as its predecessor two years ago. Back then he was finishing up degrees in economics and political science at Harvard, and he, Christina Xu, who was a fellow student, and other friends began hashing out their definition of “Internet awesome.” They were partly inspired by Randall Munroe, creator of the online comic XKCD, who used a coded message to invite fans to gather in a certain park at a certain time. Hundreds of people showed up. To Hwang, who later became a Berkman Center researcher, there was something curiously powerful about hundreds of strangers gathering in physical space to bond over a shared Internet obsession that most people had never heard of. “Wow, this is a culture in a real sense,” he recalls thinking. “It’s not just people fooling around online.”
That said, much of what is discussed at ROFLCon events are
in fact the artifacts of people fooling around. What the ROFLCon organizers meant by “awesome” was, for instance, Tron Guy, a man who is famous online because he posted pictures of himself dressed in an elaborate custom-made costume inspired by a 1980s sci-fi movie. Tron Guy received the first invitation to the first ROFLCon. He accepted. So did a variety of people who attracted cultish online audiences via YouTube or off-kilter sites like Chuck Norris Facts. A young man then known only as “moot,” founder of the notoriously profane Web site 4chan
, agreed to appear, as did a clutch of academics and researchers to present papers that dealt with cultural co-optation and online status hierarchies — viewed through the lens of ROFL.
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Hwang concedes the metajoke aspect of that first conference in 2008: wouldn’t it be funny and weird to create an event about things on the Internet that are funny and weird? The punch line is that their idea was prescient. Moot, the 4Chan.org founder, who has since revealed his name as Christopher Poole, recently gave a talk at a TED Conference, a gathering of tech and business insiders. There, he explained the origins of Internet foolishness like Lolcats and Rickrolling to its well-heeled, big-thinking audience. Hwang spoke at this year’s South by Southwest Music and Media Conference on the subject of “homemade-flamethrower videos” on YouTube. The department of media, culture and communication at New York University brought in a trio of performers for the main event at its undergraduate conference this winter to give a presentation called MemeFactory, a fast-paced talk with three slide projectors running simultaneously, addressing practically every stupid joke — or Internet meme, to use the common catch-all term — that’s ricocheted across the Web in the past 10 years.
Like practically everything else, people fooling around is transformed by the online context. Consider Rickrolling. As many (but probably not all) of you know, this involves suggesting that a point being made online will be backed up, or refuted, if you click on what appears to be a relevant link; instead, the link takes you to a video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” This prank became such a fad that it was referenced in the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, with Astley himself on hand to live-Rickroll the audience. Or consider Lolcats (LOL meaning “laugh out loud”), which even the most casual Internet user has probably come across: funny pictures of cats, made funnier by a pidgin-English phrase in big block letters, joined in what’s referred to as “image macro.” The Mona Lisa (or maybe the Duchamp “Fountain”) of Lolcats shows a chubby feline with a plaintive expression, asking, “I can has cheezburger?” A Seattle entrepreneur named Ben Huh, who now owns icanhascheezburger.com, has made Lolcats the cornerstone of a multimillion-dollar business, producing several books and a slew of similar sites. Not coincidentally, mainstream publishers have paid six-figure advances to total unknowns in hopes of converting ROFL to revenue; CBS is turning some guy’s crude-humor Twitter feed into a sitcom.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is a technology/culture columnist for Yahoo News
. He is the former Consumed columnist for The New York Times Magazine
, and has contributed to many publications. He is co-editor (with Joshua Glenn) of the book Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things
, and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
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