[iDC] A ROFLCon Postmortem

Christina Xu kxu at fas.harvard.edu
Sat May 24 00:04:24 UTC 2008

Hi iDC!

My name is Christina, and I'm a junior at Harvard studying History of
Science. Perhaps more importantly, however, I was one of the co-founders of
ROFLCon (www.roflcon.org), and the following is a (not-so-)quick
introduction to and postmortem dissection of the conference...

ROFLCon was an idea that Tim Hwang and I came up with while we were at the
xkcd meetup (http://blag.xkcd.com/2007/10/01/the-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.

The tone of the conference was also 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. 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 of
running the conference 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.

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 a similar experience *with each other*. The I Can Has Cheezburger guy
was just as wowed by meeting Leeroy as we were!

Personally, I didn't get to see most of the panels because I was running
around the whole time, but the few I did see were pretty great. The
Anonymous panel was especially interesting. Not only was it great visually,
but it really offered insight into a very complex and often problematic
community. The "Meme Infrastructure" panel was impeccably moderated by Anil
Dash and featured an interesting diversity of guests who spoke to very
different communities and experiences. Watching all of the various
backchannels (Twitter, blogs, IRC, backchan.nl) was also really interesting.

I'm wrapping this up so I can go to our official post-ROFLCon celebration,
but I have plenty left to say and am happy to answer any questions you might
have. Were any of you there? What did you think? What do you want to see
next year?

Christina Xu
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