‘ROFLCon’ Explores the Art of LOLing

The Internet is not the real world. In a real job, a person does something useful. Giving away pictures of funny-looking cats would not count. In the real world, if someone approached a passerby on the street and offered to trade a red paperclip for his or her house, he would probably be ignored, or laughed at, or punched in the face. But, somehow, such encounters are possible on the Internet—and the Internet came alive at MIT this past Friday and Saturday at the first-ever conference for Internet phenomena: ROFLCon.

ROFLCon’s mere existence is worthy of a big fat star on the timeline of cultural history. The Internet meme, which is anything on the web—be it a video or an Internet celebrity—that gets picked up and sent around to tons of viewers, has become a new cultural genre in itself, making its way into popular culture. No longer are the insular, nerdy tech communities complete worlds apart from those who go blond and sing Miley Cyrus songs with the top down. Now, they both can share in the LOLcatz.

The intersection of the Web and popular culture has birthed a new “roflculture,” fostering new genres, new celebrities, and a new type of audience. While the meme remains based in the ridiculous that often becomes popular by chance, the LOLomenon has seemingly elevated it to the status of a new—albeit somewhat accidentally created—genre.

Online, the new culture is “doing a billion things all at the same time,” according J.D. Connor ’92, a former Crimson editor. And yes, the popular bits culled from the billion often turn out to be as ridiculous as two minutes of a laughing baby, or a fat kid imitating “Star Wars,” or Tay Zonday singing “Chocolate Rain.” And, yes, we laugh at them and their absurdity as often, or more often, than we laugh along with them.

Conscious of this ridicule, Ian Spector, the creator of the Chuck Norris Random Fact Generator, said he’s become “jaded” as a result of his rise to Internet success. “What I did, it doesn’t serve any practical purpose. It’s a huge waste of time,” said Spector, a junior at Brown. “I’m still in school. I want to do important things with my life,” he added, blushing as the audience laughed at his implicit diss of the other Internet memes.

On the other hand, Matt Harding of the website “Where the Hell is Matt?” finds his work—creating videos of himself doing a goofy dance in different locations around the world—to be very fulfilling. “I do find meaning in what I do,” he said. “I didn’t, but then I started getting all these emails from people who were like, ‘I hadn’t even thought of doing this, I’m going to quit my job and go traveling around the world.’”

The meme falls somewhere between art and comedy, often taking the form of a video. “I think a lot of the criteria carry over,” Connor said. When asked if the infamous video of Leeroy Jenkins, a player on “World of Warcraft,” is performance art, Connor said that it is a matter of intention. It remains an open question whether Jenkins accidentally ignores the obsessive strategizing of his teammates, storming into battle to infuriate his team, or whether his friends gathered his friends together and planned the video.

If they had planned it, Connor said, “It may not be good art—it may not be important art—but yeah, it’s art.” Jenkins himself, known in real life as Ben Schulz, would not say whether or not his video was art. “It’s whatever people decide,” he said—“whether it’s real or false.”

Along with the new genre of the meme, there comes a new celebrity, or what keynote speaker and NYU Ph.D student Alice Marwick calls a “microcelebrity,” one who is popular because it seems like he is a part of the audience itself. There is a democratic quality to this celebrity: we choose whom to make famous.

But on the other hand, the do-it-yourself quality that shows up in the content of memes leads to serious questions of authenticity. Anyone can be themselves on the Web, but the second skin of an online identity means that anyone can also be anyone else or say anything on the Web.

We’re now both the providers and the audience, which means that the new culture includes people like Ji Lee, who “both know how [the system] works and. . .how to break it,” according to Connor. Ji Lee was once the artistic director for the global advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi. Now, he works as the branding director for Droga5, a boutique advertising agency, and as a culture jammer who “edits” street advertisements by putting speech bubble stickers on them that any passerby can fill in. It is an effort to allow the viewer, forced to live in a physical environment surrounded by advertisements, to speak back—in a sense, to make the world more like the Web.

The future may look like this: the so-called “democratic,” user-generated and user-popularized content of the web merging more and more with the practices of the world at large. After all, the Internet facilitates capitalism in its most bare and brutal form. The audience has the final say on whether a meme gets picked up or not, and no one has figured out a formula for being big on the Web. For the most part, Web comics and blogs do not undergo extensive editing or censorship. Instead, they undergo the intense selection of the audience, subject to their whims and relentless commenting.

The future of the “Roflculture” will likely be filled with what can be delicately termed “crap.” As Alex Tew, the creator of the One Million Dollar Homepage, said, he has had many stupid ideas. He put them all out there, and one just happened to become popular.

Matt Haughey, the creator of Metafilter, said that “If [there’s] a problem, someone’s gonna want to solve it.” Ben Huh, the owner of “icanhascheezburger.com,” a propagator of the LOLcatz phenomenon, presented a hopeful vision for the future: that the Internet will be a conduit for more reality. “I hope it becomes more like reality,” he said, “that we do not escape into virtual worlds where we are just trying to be somebody else. . .I hope we use it for being more honest about who we are.” And ultimately, all our base are belong to us.

—Staff writer Elsa S. Kim can be reached at elsakim@fas.harvard.edu.