LOL, OIC, and WTF at ROFLThing 

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

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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?


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