April 23, 2008
Countdown to ROFLcon: An Interview with its Organizers (1 of 4)

As many of you already know, on April 25th and 26th, MIT will be hosting ROFLcon, a convention/conference hybrid about internet memes and online popularity: what it is, how it work, and what it can do. Even in the growing tradition of events that are functionally both fan conventions and academic conferences (and the argument might be made that academic conferences are their own form of fan convention anyway), I doubt that there has ever been anything, for better or worse, quite like ROFLcon. The guests are a mix of academics, advocates, artists, and other people that don't fit neatly into any of those categories who did stuff that somehow made them famous on the internet. The panel topic range from civic media to meme infrastructure to advertising and marketing (I'll be moderating that panel, for those who plan to be in attendance). There is an entire panel devoted just to LOLcats, as well as a number of unmoderated talks, screenings, and presentations, including our very own Joshua Green's analysis of participatory systems and YouTube, and fellow CMSer Kevin Driscoll presenting on department favorite, Soulja Boy. Not to mention, with Brawndo as one of the sponsors, we will all be uncomfortably energetic.

Given the unique nature of the event, its guestlist, and its history, I managed to get a few of its insanely overworked organizers -- Christina Xu, Natalie Bau, Diana Kimball, Dean Jansen, and Rachel Popkin -- to take some time out from watching YouTube videos to answer some questions.

Give me an origin myth! Tell me how ROFLcon began: when you sat down and decided to put all of this together, what were you hoping to accomplish? What was the impetus for organizing something structured like this around internet memes? Why did each of you choose to get involved?

Christina Xu: In the Beginning, Ceiling Cat created the world. And lo, the world was fully of chaos and lameness, and not even Happy Cat could be Happy. Upon observing this, Ceiling Cat decided that it was a condition unfit for the world to be in, and on the second day He created Tim. Tim immediately created a set of actionable items and set out to organize the world. In the process, he gathered up all the internet celebrities in one big katamari called ROFLCon. And Ceiling Cat saw it, and it was Good, and Happy Cat was Happy, and the ROFLTeam failed out of school.

No, seriously, as far as I remember, the original idea of ROFLCon came when Tim Hwang and I went to the XKCD meetup last year. It was a really surreal experience--like a United Nations of nerddom, with every flavor of nerd/geek representing loud and proud. We talked about how it was kind of like the internet in real life, made some jokes about Homestar Runner and Goatse being on a panel together, and agreed this was the worst idea out of many ideas we had ever concocted. I think the idea came up again when we were talking with some friends at Grendel's Den and everyone seemed really excited about the idea, so Tim decided to go ahead with it. On October 2nd, Tim put the first mention of ROFLCon on his blog. That was the end of September. By October 16th we were already trying to get XKCD onboard. It was nuts.

Although I usually tell people that the reason behind ROFLCon is nothing but a joke gone horribly, horribly wrong, I actually do strongly believe in its value as a scholar and participant of internet culture. In my experience, my friends and I have often been really allergic to descriptions and portrayals of cyberculture by authority figures (academia, the news, etc.) because so often it comes from people who are clearly outsiders and do not necessarily understand what is going on. As I became more engaged in studying the internet academically, it shocked me to see how muted the voice of the community was in the literature, so I think something like ROFLCon is really asking academics and internet geeks to step out across the no-man's-land and accept each other. And have a really crazy-fun time doing it.

Natalie Bau: Tim shot me an email asking if I wanted to help out with this crazy idea of his. For me, it was at a time when I wanted to do more interesting/new things with my college education (most of my work has been with the economics department), and ROFLCon seemed like something I would like to be involved in. When we first started, we sort of just had a list of memes that we had emailed and that had agreed to come. We had a sense of our goals for the conference/convention as both a celebration of internet culture and a talk back between academics, but these goals hadn't been fully articulated. In particular, a lot of academics who study memes and net culture have never spoken to the people who generate these memes. Early on, we sat down with Joshua Green from CMS and he was very critical (but in a helpful way) of our inability to fully connect our ideas I think that was a turning point where we sat down and were forced to say "What are we doing here?" ROFLCon in its current form is sort of an outgrowth of the discussions we were able to have with one another, our antendees and the amazing people at CMS about what and who exactly ROFLCon is for.