ROFLCon: an exaltation of larks

ROFLCon felt like a life-changing event. I don’t know if the effects will really be that long-lasting, but it feels good for now. What really affected me was the massive outpouring of positive energy from nearly everyone: the enthusiasm of the organizers was infectious, and the attendees were touched with a sense of childlike wonder upon learning that the conference was really real. At first I was concerned about the dynamics of 600 introverts in the same room as 100 extroverts (largely from the marketing contingent), but it worked. People found their respective crews, and there were enough good will and shared reference points that misfits like me could wander from group to group with no resistance and lots of good will.

I was blown away by all the kind words said and blogged about the LOL panel. I actually couldn’t explain the effusive praise from such worthies as David Weinberger. Alexis Ohanian, our moderator, certainly kept things moving and varied, and the panel seemed pretty well-balanced in their contributions. What really helped the panel, however, was the overwhelming goodwill from the audience. LOLCats were simply a fun, silly thing to talk about, because kittens make everything better.

This is relevant to my interests

What surprised me most about ROFLCon is how much I was supposed to be there. I thought it was right to attend completely separate from my professional duties at the university: LOLCODE has always been a separate thing, a lark ostensibly done in my spare time. For so long I’ve said my personal shtick was about tools for creativity, and the day job was more about multimedia content distribution, shading towards metadata, user-generated content, and vernacular creativity. I can be myopic sometimes. The biggest facepalm moment was learning that new pal Kenyatta was ‘yatta’ from the unmediated blog, from which I nabbed loads of articles for an old work blog. Of course, I didn’t learn this until an hour after he left.

I loved how nearly every interaction could be memorable. I think the energy behind this was down to how young the participants were: starry-eyed youths were still in their teens, and the majority of the panelists who had done something tended to their twenties and thirties, with only a few incursions northward. This was in sharp contrast with the professional and academic conferences I’m used to: the young ones are comfortably into their early-to-mid twenties, and the accomplished ones are far older. And yet it seems I’m still most impressed with the youngest set at those same conferences.

I spoke with a fair few young people there. By the end of Saturday afternoon, I was pretty tired, emotional, and perhaps a bit full of myself. I ran into a young man named Dixon, describing himself as a Smosh fan. He “so wanted” to come to a school like MIT, and I told him of the relief I felt at MIT and other similar-tier universities recommitting to need-based financial aid. Once again, if you show up as a desirable student, they will make it possible to attend. And if you’re there, there’s no problem with who you are, regardless of color of skin: the MIT I know is one of the ultimate meritocracies. He seemed a bit relieved and… hopeful. I have hope for him, too.


ROFLCon itself might be best termed a symposium: it was neither a conference in a traditional academic sense, nor was it like a convention, with the usual commercial bent (I wanted to get schwag from a number of creators, but there was no way of grabbing it.) Rather, it was a gathering of practitioners (meme creators), theorists (like the keynotes and Josh Green’s session), and some engaged commercial interests (e.g., marketers) about the economy of ideas and internet micro-celebrity. It was an alchemical combination, not least because the practitioners were humble, introspective, and tended to be thoughtful about what led to their being there.

I would love to see another ROFLCon happen. I will do what I can to help make it so. I think there’s more room for an academic track, not only in the social science of memes and microcelebrity, but on more technical subjects on the dissemination of ideas and traffic analysis, and even on practical technical matters like scaling to handle such traffic.

Can I imagine ROFLCon being a yearly thing? An institution? I’m a bit more dubious about that. What made ROFLCon so wonderful was that sense of childlike wonder from everyone, a hovering sense of disbelief just over everyone’s shoulder that it actually happened. The positive vibes that grew from that disbelief permeated all the ecstatic interactions described above. Once the event gets taken for granted, I think it will be time to move on.

And if/when negativity or jadedness invades ROFLCon, it won’t be pretty. This year, anonymous was in full force during the final two sessions. Props to them and their session about Scientology: I really think it’s a brilliant social hack they hit upon in targeting the CoS. But when they’re a masked mob causing havoc with no answerability… not so much. Not clever and not funny, and it really encroached on the good will that permeated the rest of ROFLCon. If ROFLCon can stay on the sunny side of the street, it has a bright future.