April 23, 2008
Countdown to ROFLcon: An Interview with its Organizers (2 of 4)

This is the second part of my interview with the organizers of ROFLCon.

Why do you think something like ROFLCon is necessary? Are there gaps in the current discourse around online/digital cultures that you hope to fill?

Christina Xu: I mean, these days my personal goal has shifted to not failing out of school...but otherwise no =P Often times I can be found raising a cautionary voice in the conference because I'm always really afraid that the convention/conference balance will be broken and we'll get too academic-y. I really don't want to alienate the internet community we're trying to give a voice to. If anything, my involvement with the conference planning has only emphasized that more.

But basically, yeah: internet culture is interesting in that a large number of the people involved in its creation are highly educated and really well-spoken, but no one had really asked their opinions on why this Internet thing got as crazy as it did. Also, we really wanted to meet Goatse in real life....sort of.

Natalie Bau: Christina already did a lot on this question. In general, I think there is a sort of arrogance in academia; academics reduce the people they study to objects instead of attributing them with self knowledge. At ROFLCon, it's not just academics speaking about the internet but actually engaging with the internet. Sudhir Venkatesh, who did some really controversial work with crack gangs in Chicago talked about how before he really knew people living in the projects he wrote questions like, "How does it feel to be black and poor?" I think this is pretty illustrative of the gap that exists between academics and the people they study.

Secondarily, the internet opens up a lot of new paths of study that are really very exciting. Because things are happening so quickly though, a lot of people in fields like sociology, anthropology and economics for which this is particularly relevant haven't really taken advantage of it. The internet has this incredible value as a field of study because (1) it really amplifies trends that have already existed but were impossible to study in a systematic way (internet dating, MySpace and Facebook as networks), and (2) it drives pretty meaningful changes in culture and how we interact. Our generation grew up on the internet and grew up with memes and that's something we have addressed somewhat sort of in creating more culture that comments on the digital culture but less so in academia.

We started out with really amorphous goals and I think we were able to really focus them by having these conversations with people like Joshua Green and CMS as a whole. Starting from scratch, we didn't have a big picture of what was feasible. I think funding, and guests both in academia and from the meme community, and space availibility had to all come together. ROFLCon really grew out of this set of circumstances. I think there has been a consistent vision and drive throughout but that vision and drive became articulated later on.

We've talked a little bit about some unconventional tactics in organizing the conference, like the YouTube interviews. Can you guys talk a little bit about that, and anything else that makes the process of putting together ROFLCon different?

DIana Kimball: Well, the funny thing about organizing a conference about the internet is that everyone involved is on the internet, all the time. I'll send out a request to our guests, or the team, and within half an hour I've got 30 responses. Sometimes, on a Saturday evening. Our first solution to any problem is almost invariably involves the internet. Or Google Spreadsheets. Usually Google Spreadsheets.

Natalie Bau: One of the things I've noticed is that so many people have been really eager to partner with ROFLCon. We are the only people doing something that really celebrates and harnesses all this online culture, and there is an amazing amount of untapped goodwill toward this effort. The Berkman Center has been really there for us, but a lot of people like the Wexley School for Girls and Yelp just came out of the woodwork and said, "We like what you are doing. We want to help you make this happen."

ROFLCon also has just brought so many people from so many geographic areas/interest groups together. While I think the core of ROFLCon comes out of Harvard free culture, there are people like Susannah and me who originally just knew Tim in summer camp and people like Carrie who found out about ROFLCon on Facebook and said, "This is something I want to do." Traditionally, I think organizations exist before conferences. I think the conference sort of created the organization around it and many people work with us primarily through email. Because the conference collected people who were so net positive, it was able to tear down a lot of the traditional barriers in social/professional networks.

Dean Jansen: I'd like to jump in here... I think I was one of the first to start the YouTube preview trend.

I'm not sure there are a lot of conferences where you can use the YouTube speaker preview for a large portion of the participants (yet). Luckily we're in the right demographic for this. I think it started when we were considering Alice Marwick as a potential keynote speaker. We really wanted to make sure that our opening speakers were not just well written, but also well spoken and charismatic. After watching a video, we were convinced that Alice was a shoe in for ROFLCon. Now of course we also used this tactic to weed out a few potential panelists and keynoters. I won't name any names though.