Meme police

MIT’s ROFLcon, a gathering of the Web’s biggest names, decides what will make you laugh and cry.
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  May 5, 2010

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PLAY IT AGAIN: Internet tastemakers like Keyboard Cat’s Brad O’Farrell are subverting popular culture while influencing its future.

I just woke up from some sort of bizarre dream. I was at MIT. There was a weirdo painting nudes of President Obama on a unicorn. Several adults were dressed like domestic animals. Eight-year-old David DeVore, from the YouTube fave “David After Dentist,” was reminding everyone how hilarious it is when kids get high. Toward the end, some dude was aggravating motorists on the Mass Ave bridge by slapping KEYBOARD CAT HAS A POSSE stickers on passing cars.

Or maybe it was no nightmare at all, and instead I was hanging with the nerds who inspire everything that you find sad, funny, or perverted. A gathering that can best be described by a masturbating kitten — and whose name is derived from the Web shorthand for “rolling on the floor laughing” — this past weekend’s ROFLcon consortium on “geek, freak, and queer culture” attracted a historic assemblage of viral titans, including the founders of Regretsy, Lamebook, and Stuff White People Like.

To most folks, these oddballs are merely 15-minute famers — good for little more than a few chuckles on your lunch break. But at this conference, they’re John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Jesus — and not without merit. Strange and awkward as this eccentric parallel universe might be, its inhabitants exert a mighty influence on the majority through billions of YouTube views and infinite LOLs.

“Memes” — socially emblematic concepts like, say, Auto-Tune the News, in which the Web-famous Gregory Brothers morph Katie Couric into T-Pain — are almost always spawned organically and spread online before cycling through pop culture and winding up on SNL. By the time Obama Girl reached your desktop, the joke was already played out on innovative chat and image boards like 4chan.org.

The creative class that fuels so much Web hilarity is aware of its increasing power position. And at this second ROFLcon since 2008, there was much discussion about commercial adaptations of memes born in the deep Internet. In the course of two days, there were many laughs at the expense of Net civilians who don’t realize that their entertainment is determined by these tastemakers and their legionnaires. Still, for a conference where costumed characters with boomboxes regularly start impromptu boogaloos, there was some serious business at hand.

On the weird again
This year’s underlying ROFLcon message is presented loud and clear in Friday’s opening address. In a talk titled “The Future of the World Weird Web,” Microsoft social-media researcher Danah Boyd (along with Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society) blasts the MBA frat boys who inflated and exploited the Internet to disastrous ends last century. In the wake of the dot-com bust, Boyd assures that “subcultures and marginalized populations” have resumed control. “Access is easy,” she says, “but being in the know is hard.”

In a time when “being weird is all of a sudden cool,” Boyd reminds those in the crowded auditorium that they — not old-guard corporations and marketing firms — instigate and catalyze cultural trends. This theme surfaces all weekend, as a vast range of pioneers brings examples of mainstream channels co-opting underground ideas. Even Randy Hayes, whose “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” videos resulted in that line appearing in X-Men 3, is on hand to get props, as is Garfield Minus Garfield creator Dan Walsh, who, instead of getting sued by Jim Davis, was asked to collaborate with the comics stalwart on a book.

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