April 23, 2008
Countdown to ROFLcon: An Interview with its Organizers (3 of 4)

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

What about the people? What is it like trying to organize an academic conference around a largely non-academic list of panelists that may not have a lot of experience doing public (non-virtual) speaking? What were some unique considerations you had to take into account?

DIana Kimball: I think a lot of our guests were surprised to even be invited. There's still this holy grail of "real-world legitimacy"; even if you've gotten millions of views on YouTube, there's always this dream of being plucked out of a crowd and given a shot at something "real." I guess that's one of the main questions of this conference, and one of its main goals: what is "real" in an internet age?

Natalie Bau: Particularly with our keynote speakers, we tried to identify people who would do well with public speaking. Luckily, because so many of our keynotes are so invested in the internet, there are usually youtube videos which we can check out. I think we did have some questions about charisma early on. Over all though, I think we found people whose popularity on the internet really suggests that people want to hear what they will have to say.

Early on, we sort of just sent out a lot of emails asking people to come and we got over all, this really positive response from the community. However, a couple of people did ignore us - Jeph Jacques from questionable content comes to mind. A few months later, when we really started getting press people started asking us to be allowed to come instead. Its amazing how much reputation on the internet matters.

Dean Jansen: I wasn't super hands on in planning the panels, but I can say that we didn't just take the panelists into account. We have also been planning the whole event with a diverse group of participants in mind. Asking ourselves how we can keep it academic and serious, while at the same time maintaining the appeal of a fun, exciting, and engaging event. We're hoping that the mix of panels and unmoderated talks will strike a decent balance for fans and career academics alike.

How did you choose panelist and panels?

Natalie Bau: In a sense, I think our panelists chose us. We started out with a huge spreadsheet of memes and we just shot out tons and tons of emails. The people who were excited about the idea got in early and sort of formed a pool of people from whom drew the panels. The panels were created with a lot of input from CMS (Tim and Christina know more about this than I do), and sort of catered to the expertise of the memes who had already volunteered to participate.

Christina Xu: As Natalie said, it's definitely partially true that a lot of the panelists chose us, especially once we had really gotten started, but the team certainly did steer it into a particular niche at the beginning of the process. In the really early days, we were sort of conceptualizing "internet memes" as things that we had grown up with (so, United States/anglocentric) and things that we thought of as internet culture. This is obviously very limiting in many ways, and it wasn't until later on in the process that we started realizing that internet culture was so much broader than the subculture started by things like AYB and YTMND and perpetuated on Something Awful and 4chan--people use the internet to create subcultures all the time that never touch the internet "mainstream" but are nevertheless really interesting and, sometimes, even more wide-reaching than the "mainstream."