Zawinski's law of software envelopment holds that all programs continue to expand until they can read email. The rule of cons is something similar: all conferences, no matter how trivial, expand until someone can declare cultural relevance. In the case of ROFLCon, the biennial gathering of message-board-borne Internet sensations and the geeks who can't live without them, the moment of cultural relevance is at hand. In its third incarnation at MIT this weekend, ROFL will still be the sort of place where the magical humans of the Interweb materialize: if your dream date involves high-fiving Double Rainbow Guy and Vegan Black Metal Chef, this is your Valhalla.
But ROFLCon isn't just for the lulz anymore. The last time ROFLCon convened, in 2010, a handful of academics — like current Lady Gaga bestie and Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd — suggested that Web memes could have an impact far beyond sales of I Can Haz Cheezburger T-shirts. Two years later, that's no longer an opinion.
"The increase in traditionally 'serious' content this year definitely has something to do with the fact that the Internet's grown tremendously in importance," says ROFLCon co-founder Christina Xu. "Arab Spring, Occupy, and the SOPA/PIPA protests are hard to ignore, especially given the involvement of traditionally 'non-serious' parties like Anonymous and Reddit. There's more and more on the line for the Internet, whether you're talking money or politics or impact potential, and I think we wanted to reflect that in this year's conference."
So big ideas and big thinkers will be thick on the ground this year. We spoke to a bunch of them — including MIT's Ethan Zuckerman, and Harvard's Jonathan Zittrain and David Weinberger — to find out why the world's most ridiculous Internet fan fest is suddenly concerned with SRS BSNS.
"We're seeing the emergence of the Internet as a powerful cultural force. Not a single culture, but a wealth of cultures in dialog with one another," says Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and a former fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Two years ago, Zuckerman opened ROFLCon by doing the seemingly impossible — he introduced a packed roomful of hardcore meme appreciators to several outrageously viral memes they'd never seen before. All of them were hiding in plain sight — because they weren't in English. That's part of what Zuckerman has been warning about for years, at MIT and Harvard and as the co-founder of the global-citizen news site Global Voices: that the World Wide Web is being spun off into walled-off islands of self-referentiality.
This Friday, Zuckerman will attempt to further expand the horizons of American meme-fanciers with a panel called "Global Lulzes," featuring contemporaries from China, Brazil, and Syria. It's important, he says, because with time, the multi-cultural Internet force gains influence and political power.