At this point, we’re just all beating a dead horse over and over again: there are more than 2000 pictures just in our public Flickr pool, dozens of accounts from mainstream media and bloggers alike, and more Tweets than is ever appropriate. Youtube videos were being put up before stuff even happened. And really, Ryan North already wrote his thoughts on ROFLCon, so what else could I really possibly contribute?
Well. So I thought until I was a) nagged consistently by Diana, b) shamed by Rachel and Carrie’s postmortems, and c) invited to write on the issue for iDC. So here it goes. The following is a slightly revised and augmented version of the email I sent to iDC.
ROFLCon was an idea that Tim Hwang and I came up with while we were at the xkcd meetup last September. We were fascinated by the real world manifestation of this community that had been constructed around a piece of internet culture–the social structures it took on, the way people interacted with each other once they were face to face, and the Stone Soup mentality of the participants involved. It got us joking around about what the rest of the internet would look like in real life (Goatse and Tron Guy and Star Wars kid all in the same room?), which we quickly decided was the most horrifying idea we had ever come up with in a storied tradition of bad ideas. Then we decided to do it–it was just too epic not to.
The image of many internet celebrities in one room was really all that we had in the way of a coherent vision at the beginning, but we decided pretty early on that the “con” in ROFLCon would stand for both conference and convention. We recognized that at some level, we were doing this out of fandom, and that part of the appeal of the event would be being within arm’s length of these internet stars. However, we were also interested in thinking about this stuff at a higher level, and being steeped in academia as we were, it was natural for us to consider a conference-like format with panels and moderators.
Yet, it had to be different from the conferences we were used to. As someone who grew up on the internet, I had always been somewhat allergic to outsiders’ depictions of what was going on, because they were usually hopelessly out of touch. At Harvard, I was fortunate enough to have become acquainted with a wide network of scholars thinking about the internet, but even so I noticed that at the conferences I had gone to, the internet itself–that is, the people who spend hours upon hours on it, generating the content that we all chuckle at during coffee breaks–remained disturbingly voiceless. It was easy to talk about nonprofits like Creative Commons or Wikipedia because they are still somewhat within the extended academic framework, but what about YouTube celebrities or the creators of internet communities? What about the people who had gotten famous themselves? We thought that they probably had really interesting things to say, and set out to make sure that they would have a voice.
One of the most magical things about ROFLCon, incidentally, was that seeing internet celebrities in real life is somehow even better than seeing real-world ones. Real world celebrities are decidedly human–we know where Britney Spears was yesterday, what she ate, how she fucked up, and who her baby daddy is. Within internet culture, however, the identities of the people behind some of the things we all know and love remain totally hidden from us. Even we, the event organizers, knew little-to-nothing about them: moot and Group X’s nametags said just that because we didn’t even know their real names until they introduced themselves. Also, while it makes sense conceptually that there are people behind the Homestar Runner phenomenon, it is never really made explicit, and so getting to see them in real life is kind of like meeting Santa Claus–or at least, the elves in Santa’s workshop. You’re real? You made this thing? You’re that guy?
The tone of the conference was something that we had to control pretty carefully from the beginning. We wanted to be able to discuss things seriously and productively, but at the same time had to do this with a sense of humor that wouldn’t alienate us from the community we were celebrating and giving back to. For ROFLCon to work, it had to take fun seriously without taking itself seriously. Luckily, this came pretty naturally most of the time simply because of the personalities of the ROFLCon staff–we didn’t take ourselves very seriously, and saw ROFLCon less as a serious project than an elaborate practical joke of sorts–hence the ROFLCondoms, and the lunchboxes, and the obsession with Brawndo (which was definitely not fueled by $$$, since they only donated in-kind. I’m looking at you, Nashua Telegraph!). By not trying to prove anything and focusing on creating an experience that would be fun for ourselves, we managed to create a good balance between academia and levity, legitimacy and lulz. This attitude, which also manifested itself in the “jankity” aesthetic of the conference. We made it clear that the bureaucracy and logistics were subordinate to the primary objective: having fun and being ridiculous.
Of course, there were flaws with this plan. As we tried to iron out discussion topics for the panels, we realized that the “internet culture” we were focusing on was much too narrowly defined. It was the internet culture I grew up with–video game/anime/geek-influenced, propagated on message boards and Slashdot, and overwhelmingly white and male. Oops. Doing it again, we would definitely broaden our conception of “internet culture” to other huge components that we missed the first time around: global memes like “Bus Uncle,” for example, or the mostly-female fanfiction community. Despite this, I’m happy with what we DID accomplish–an excellent cross-section of the subculture most commonly called to mind when “internet culture” is mentioned.
When people ask me how ROFLCon was, it is often so hard to articulate how overwhelming of an experience it was for me. On one level, it was my coming-of-age ceremony: it was really the hardest I’d ever worked on anything, so seeing it go off without a hitch was personally redeeming in an actually transformative way. Look, ma, I can do things too! Afterwards, I’ve felt much more accomplished as a person. I have business cards now. People apparently care what I think? On another level, OMFGWTF TRON GUY.
Really, there were few moments of ROFLCon that I didn’t enjoy. It was a hectic experience to be sure, but an incredibly rewarding one. At the end of the first day, I think we were all absolutely shocked that everything had gone so smoothly when we had been bracing ourselves for shitshows and disasters for so long. It was wonderful to hear not just all the attendees, but even all the guests tell us that they had a good time. Obviously, meeting all of these people whose videos and jokes I’d been appreciating and referencing for such a long time was incredible, as was watching the memes have similar experiences with each other. The I Can Has Cheezburger guy was just as wowed by meeting Leeroy as we were! Leeroy, by the way, is an awesome dancer and tells great pirate jokes when he gets drunk. The fact that I know that kind of completes my life. Similarly life-completing was the chance to hang out with Group X onstage (albeit while drinking clam juice, which was…less gross for me than it would’ve been for most people) while they performed Schfifty-Five. I remember watching that with my high school friends. My life is awesome.
It was painful to let go of ROFLCon and return to the library. Not being able to turn the corner and see all these cool new people I had just met anymore. Not having interesting events and hilarious surprises at every corner. The adrenaline crash after two days of constant running around. The decompression after this monster that had consumed most of my year was no longer taking up my time. The Brawndo withdrawal. I basically curled up into a ball for a week and pathetically scrolled through the Flickr pool, checking for new emails on the ROFLCon staff list every few minutes.
This picture from Scott Beale was my original reaction to “ROFLCon 2009?” I have a thesis to write next year. We never really expected ROFLCon to have a date suffix because it was never supposed to be more than a one-off thing. Frankly, we never really even thought this first one was going to work. It was go big or go home. Now that we’ve gone big, however, I don’t know if I can go back.
Word to your ROFLCon ’09!