LOL, OIC, and WTF at ROFLThing 

Meet the latest academic discipline and realm for cultural criticism: Internet culture studies.

The Mighty is a fairly standard San Francisco dance club, and 5:30 is generally known as happy hour the Western world over. But at the Mighty at 5:30 two Fridays ago, no DJ was on stage, and no one in the crowd yet nursed an IPA. Instead, a wiry guy wearing boxy glasses with orange curlicues for hair stood spotlighted on stage, a microphone in one hand, the other shoved in his pocket. Behind him, the words "Cult of the Unwilling CELEBRITY" and an image of a chubby kid holding a stick, his eyes masked by a black rectangle, illuminated an eight-foot-tall screen. For the next 4.5 hours, the Mighty was not your typical dance club. Then again, neither was it home to your typical lecture series on Internet culture. But there it was, ROFLThing. In the words of developer and consultant Sean Savage, it was "one of the strangest conferences I've ever been to."

ROFLThing, if you want to be a n00b (a newbie) about it, is short for "Rolling On the Floor Laughing" Thing. The acronym ROFL is one of the ever-expanding lexicon of terms bandied about on the Internet like ping-pong balls. LOL (Laugh Out Loud), GTG (Got To Go), and FTW (For The Win) have been adopted as new forms of net-speak just as quickly as hip-hop slang from crunk to hyphy have entered the vocabulary of MTV. ROFLThing was an event about memes: those cultural phenomena, most often links to videos or pictures, that get rocket-blasted around the Internet as viewers forward them to everyone they know, accompanied with messages such as: "You've GOT to see this!!!111!!!!!!111! LOL LOL" The word 'meme' itself refers to the way that certain trends spread of their own accord, causing people to propagate them like viruses regardless of whether the subjects are willing. Memes often glorify something so exceptional it seems unreal, or something so very real that it strikes a chord of utter hilarity — even if silly and mundane.

Andy Baio, the first speaker of the night, used PowerPoint to unleash the subject of his talk: Star Wars Kid. The video showed an overweight white kid, flailing and swinging a stick around to mimic a light saber. Imitating a nerd movie isn't anything special — betcha your little cousin is doing it right now, or that guy next to you on BART making saber-like noises. But a marketing agency called the Viral Factory estimates that the video has been viewed more than 900 million times, making it the most popular video meme ever. It struck an authentic chord with viewers: it's comical because those watching know this kid, either as themselves, a friend, or as a kid they bullied. And they can't help but watch his video train wreck because it's just too real, just too stupid-looking. Instead of watching Britney Spears crash and burn, we get to watch an average geek make a fool of himself.

The unfortunate kid in the video, Ghyslain Raza, was a fifteen-year-old high school student in Quebec when the video was put online by some classmates in 2002. In the years before YouTube existed, Andy Baio found the server space to host the video as millions of people flooded his site to watch it. Essentially, Baio kept the video alive. He watched the trend fastidiously, crunching page view statistics and noting whenever Star Wars Kid showed up in mainstream culture. Indeed, along with Star Wars Kid's rising popularity came references in Arrested Development, Family Guy, the Tony Hawk's Underground video game, and more. Star Wars Kid highlighted what makes the Internet distinct as a social medium: it encourages the spread of small, ridiculous things, including personal moments that you had hoped no one would ever see. The attendees at ROFLThing believe that the videos we find popular speak some truth about us. We laugh at Star Wars Kid because we're being mean, perhaps, but also because he represents the embarrassed Star Wars Kid in all of us. (In fact, Star Wars Kid ended up dropping out of school, entering therapy, and his parents sued the offending classmates.)

Welcome to the populist paparazzi, where anyone can find or post something on the Internet, and if it has broad appeal it will spread. And with the public eye comes academic, commercial, and legal attention. How will we apply the old morals and social norms? Will they hold up in this arena, which moves by its own natural laws?

The organizers of ROFLThing didn't set out to address such concerns. The gathering flowed out of ROFLCon, a conference organized by Tim Hwang and a small group of Harvard students on April 25 and 26. Hwang at first conceived of ROFLCon as a small event featuring maybe 200 people. But as he started receiving positive answers from Internet celebrities and attention from blogs, he realized they would need a venue at least three times larger than what they had planned for. All along, the ethic remained oriented toward having a good time. "That's the idea behind ROFLCon in the first place — do it because it's fun to do," Hwang said.

ROFLCon was like an intellectual Outside Lands, except instead of rock stars, it was professors, memes, and their unlikely stars who took the stage (for instance, Tron Guy, a pot-bellied, middle-aged, mustachioed man who created and wears his own glow-in-the dark Tron costume; Leslie Hall, a larger-than-life beehive-wearin' blond from the Midwest who makes gem sweaters and electronic music; and Justine Ezarik, a wide-eyed, lip-glossed young woman better known as iJustine, who webcast virtually her entire life online for about a year. It was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the MIT campus and attended by about 900 people. The opening keynote crowd was packed with bloggers, freaks, hipsters, nerds, and the usual sprinkling of local seniors with a healthy thirst for knowledge.

Two days of well-attended panels and geeking out was a testament to the growing influence and appeal of online culture. The first generation of kids raised with as much bandwidth as leisure time was now attending universities, and some of them were now ready to contemplate the sociological architecture of their laughter. Despite the feeling that the whole event was one big inside joke, ROFLCon resulted in another epiphany, that the Internet has finally become a viable source of entertainment comparable to television, movies, and radio.

ROFLThing was a spin-off. While ROFLCon lasted over a weekend, ROFLThing consisted of four speakers pontificating on a Friday evening in San Francisco, where the tech-lovin' community has a distinctly commercial orientation. This academically minded look at the Internet was oddly populated by Web 2.0 types, who attentively watched the speakers — albeit while standing behind the seats at the back of the room. "It's a conference about the social effects of the Internet, and yet the crowd is almost all developers and marketers who market developers," Savage observed. After the talks ended around 7:30, they all made a beeline for the open bar.

The event was fun if you were in on the joke. "It's a little self-indulgent — it's a little meta," said Doctor Popular, a professional yo-yoer and nerdcore rapper. But beyond the laughs and the shared feeling that "we're so cutting-edge," it was hard to draw more serious conclusions based on the wildly different topics addressed by the four speakers. Baio started the night off with his talk on the "Cult of the Unwilling." Ben Huh spoke on microhumor, from his vantage as owner of one of the web's largest LOLcats site (pictures of cats with funny captions on them). Sean Steen followed with a speech on the Fail Whale, a popular image on Twitter, and Stanford assistant professor of communications Fred Turner finished off everything by describing Buckminster Fuller's vision of using design to save the world.

The four speakers seemed to imply that the Internet makes us possible — oversize kids who love to see YouTube videos referenced in our favorite television shows, or share a chuckle over silly pictures of cats with our co-workers, or think of the future and design products and web sites for it. It gives us our jokes and it reinforces the ties we have with our friends. Like any form of entertainment or media, it is something we share, which becomes a competition in what's newer or most hilarious.

The techies at the back of the room may have come to schmooze, but perhaps not. After Turner gave his intriguing speech on Buckminster Fuller, members of the audience crowded around him for at least another hour, wanting to talk more about the lingering legacy of the bizarre architect-inventor and his groundbreaking ideas, as well as the surviving values of faith in the individual, communal spirit, and the power of technology to change society.

ROFLThing was the kickoff event for a whole series of other "Things," planned to take place in New York at the end of this year and in Toronto next spring. As to whether ROFLCon will be happen again next spring, Hwang says that there has been a lot of excitement and discussion going on, and "the odds are that something will be happening, if nothing else." It ROFLCon lives on, it seems bound to become a fan conference — like a comic conference, a place for rather average eccentrics who like ideas about Internet culture to gather and geek out. Meanwhile, the more sociological talks featured at ROFLCon will become articles in technology and culture magazines.

For all their differences, ROFLThing and ROFLCon herald the birth of a new academic discipline and realm for cultural criticism: Internet culture studies. Along with superficially fascinating sociological questions about what we think is funny and why, comes at least one fundamentally frightening question. Are we really becoming a nation that spends its time finding one stupid video after another to watch? What, really, is the point of listening to anyone muse about a chubby kid waving a stick around?

The ultimate problem with such an endeavor is not that these ROFLtalks are intellectual thumb-sucking, or that memes waste our time and herald the death of any semblance of intelligence that civilized people currently possess. The Internet clearly contains copious amounts of information that can be channeled in productive, creativity-enabling ways. The real danger is the insularity of the thing. Like any culture, web culture reeks of cultishness. If you were at ROFLThing and had no idea what Rick-Rolling was (a prank where someone sends you a link, you click on it, and it leads you to a music video of Rick Astley singing "Never Gonna Give You Up"), those jokes, repeated multiple times at ROFLCon and ROFLThing, would seem stupid and unfunny. Although the Internet appears egalitarian, web culture still revolves around a largely well-informed, culturally-attuned, collegiate sensibility — essentially, upper-middle class, white, and nerdy. If ROFLCon hopes to remain the vanguard of Internet culture, perhaps it could take a tip from Buckminster Fuller himself: Use a little comprehensive design to encourage people not to succumb to the mindlessness of LOLing but, instead, to encourage access to anyone who wants to explore the flurry of ideas and information, intellectual or otherwise, on the World Wide Web.


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