Friday, April 4, 2014

Remembering ROFLcon, or when the weird ruled the Internet

Spring brings with it many things. And in even numbered years, since 2008, it has meant ROFLcon. What’s ROFLcon, you ask? 

Yes, you read that correctly, it's a convention, as in an actual conference, with panels and schedules and speakers and booths, and it is devoted to the bizarre world of the anti-celebrities of the Internet. The people from viral videos, but before they were called that. The people who unknowingly launched catchphrases, facial expressions, and other minutiae later that were later picked up by other YouTubers, Facebookers, tweeters, or just regular folk. Sadly I could not make it to the inaugural ROFLcon, held in 2008, but was fortunate enough to be in Boston for both the 2010 and 2012 editions. And yes, there are pictures.

ROFLcon panel. That's Moot, founder of 4chan, the anything goes image bulletin board, on the left
ROFLcon participants: not shy about getting into the conference spirit
Wayfinding sign on MIT campus, ROFLcon 2012

And now here we are and it’s Spring 2014. After a punishing winter it has only recently occurred to me that the seasons are in fact turning, and it's an even-numbered year, so it follows to reason that it must be time for ROFLcon. I went to the website at and saw that the 2012 schedule was still up. Well…this isn’t very promising, I thought. So I did some additional searching and it looks like…well it looks like the party may actually be over. No ROFLcon this year and who knows, maybe no more ROFLcons at all. (insert dejected emoticon here). 

This is distressing on a number of levels. First of all ROFLcon was the greatest gathering of weirdos, and I say that in the most complimentary way possible, I have ever attended. It was a coming together of the gifted, the obsessive, the strange, and the completely accidental 'stars', and that's stars with a decidedly, and proudly, small 's'. And what all these people and things had in common was that they became this thing called “Internet famous”. A new category unto itself. There's famous, the old kind of Tom Cruise or Jennifer Aniston famous, and there's Internet famous, where you don't need anyone to green light your project, and conventional good looks and charms can actually work against you.

"Bear" aka the double rainbow guy in the hall at ROFLcon 2012
ROFLcon was a parallel universe of insider knowledge. It was a magical place where one could see people and things it was hard to believe were real, like the David after dentist kid, Antoine Dodson of ‘hide your kids, hide your wife’ fame, and the Double Rainbow guy. It was like cable access on a global scale and it was a cavalcade of stars more exciting, to me at least, than any Hollywood red carpet. 

'David after dentist' and his family, ROFLcon 2012
This post is therefore dedicated to those more na├»ve days of Internet culture, before viral videos were engineered, before content was heavily search engine optimized, and before YouTubers and bloggers were pursued as spokespeople for brands. It was a time when expectations were low to nil, and when completely unpredictable things could happen. In other words, when the Internet was a wild west, a place where corporate entities dared not tread. It was a time when broadcasters, studios, and major labels were still largely in charge and the gulf between those worlds was a welcome moat. It separated, and maybe even protected, the true geeks of the Internet, the wonderfully weird and wholly non-commercial, from the forces of industry. Now, things are changing. There's still a sublime randomness that can be found online but we are also seeing the arrival of mainstream market players. Bedroom beauty bloggers can become the face of a major cosmetics company and get their own line of makeup. A network of YouTube channels can be so attractive to traditional industry that Disney acquires them in a deal worth close to a billion dollars. And I think it's worth mentioning that this acquistion took place 2 weeks after Disney let go 700 employees from its own interactive division, which suggests to me that their in house way of doing interactive wasn’t working as well 50,000+ people with their own YouTube channels, doing their own thing -- whether it's comedy, cartoons, how to videos, or gaming tips -- and then turning the logistics and monetization over to a company called Maker Studios. The result: in excess of 5 billion views per month. And that acquisition by Disney.

But before considerations of millions of dollars and billions of views came into the picture there was another culture of the Internet. And now let us embark together on a look at the early days of unfettered YouTubing and LOLcat’ing with the ROFLcon 2012 opening keynote, delivered by Jonathan Zittrain. This guy is a force. Not only because he teaches at Harvard Law School and in the Harvard Dept. of Computer Science and has been on The Colbert Report a few times. But because he completely identifies with this audience and this audience completely identifies with. JZ, as he is affectionately known, was and is a net culture guy, okay ‘geek’, decades before that term got co-opted by the cool kids. The talk is on memes & society and it was honestly one of the most poignant conference talks I have ever seen (I see your TED talks and I raise you this keynote). 

I don’t expect you to watch all 53 minutes of the talk (though it would undoubtedly enrich your life) but I do encourage you to move the arrow around a bit so you can get the flavor of the talk. From the opening salvo, directed at the room of about 1,000 ROFLcon’ers, of "this is what makes the Internet sing…on all the off key notes" to insights such as “we look for pathos in the world and try to capture it” and we “act out against the unfunny cynicism of our mainstream institutions”, JZ’s talk is a manifesto for a world in which decisions about what is good, important, or funny, are increasingly not made by executives in offices but by everyday people. 

Now, we have additional complexities, such as a surge on the supply side and the challenge of getting noticed in a vast sea of options. The invisible hand of the Internet may not be what it once was, now that it is getting nudged and tugged by more conventional market forces, but there is still ample reason to remain optimistic about the new creative-industrial complex of the 21st century. And if you don't believe me, just keep reading this blog.

Related Posts: 
Social Media & its positive effects on negative charisma
The Stars of YouTube: Buffer Festival 2014