Last weekend I joined hundreds of internet nerds* at MIT for ROFLCon III, a two-day convention celebrating internet culture and all things meme**. Now a few days out from the numerous panels, lectures and social-outings, I’m left pondering the following key theme and associated takeaways from the event.
The Evolution of ROFLCon / The Mainstreaming of the Web
Having attended the previous two ROFLCons (2008 and 2010), I’ve noticed a not-so-subtle shift in the underlying theme/sentiment of each event. Described as the first ever Internet culture conference, ROFLCon was a true celebration of web culture when it occurred in 2008 as iconic content creators, editors and fans gathered together for the first time IRL (in real life). It was a who’s who of popular internet stars running the gamut from individuals who had achieved “internet fame” via YouTube (Gem Sweater girl), influential content creators (XKCD) and venerable web icons (Tron Guy). At the time, I vividly recall all of my friends giving me blank stares when I rattled off the attendee list and giddily shared highlights of the two days at MIT.
In 2010, I returned to Cambridge with high hopes for a repeat event – two more days of celebrating the joys of the web filled with lots and lots of lolz – but the tone of the event had clearly shifted. While still celebratory in nature, the main theme of ROFLCon II was the encroachment of the “mainstream” upon the formerly more exclusive corners of meme-culture on the web. What was particularly interesting is this “mainstreaming” was both embraced – David and his father from David after the Dentist and Christian Lander of Stuff White People Like were both popular additions to the conference – and strongly attacked – Ben Huh of the (I Can Haz) Cheezburger network was grilled (no pun intended) for his monetization of lolcats. Additionally, a common topic of conversation discussed among many panelists was the growing presence of brands and marketers entering the space and the fear around potential implications tied to their entry.
This past weekend, rumored to be the last ever ROFLCon, the conference centered around the general sentiment (in the form of passive resignation) that the internet has “gone mainstream” and now we must as a community ensure that it is protected. Many panelists from this year have snowballed their 15 minutes of Internet fame into sponsorships and appearances (Nyan Cat was in a Sprint Nexus commercial; Antoine Dodson had a chart-topping iTunes song and an appearance on Tosh.0; Paul “Double Rainbow Guy” Vasquez was in a Windows Live Photo Gallery spot) and with that commercial success (albeit likely only momentary), many at ROFLCon questioned if the web is beginning to lose its authenticity and creative spirit. moot, the originator of 4chan and a demi-god within the ROFLcon subculture, shared a somewhat bleak vision for the future of the web: “The web is being stripped of its richness. Memes are the instruments by which we make music. The way things are going, we’re going to lose our song.”
I personally disagree with this sentiment. I believe that as more people continue to gain access to high-speed internet and content creation tools, we will come to see even more niche communities sprout on the web. Yes, Facebook and Reddit have arguably replaced forums and AOL chat rooms, but advances in technology and connectivity have provided new outlets for many more creative minds. One of the more interesting panels at ROFLcon examined international “internet revolutions” in Brazil, China and Syria and the impact that meme culture has had in providing a voice to the people in each country. And the best part, what’s funny in Brazil or edgy in Syria is not necessarily funny or edgy in the US. The web is wonderful because it can offer content and utilities that are designed for mass consumption, but it can just as easily provide a voice to a solitary cause or community, or it can simply be a place where you upload your really awkward prom pictures or that video you made when trying to complete the cinnamon challenge.
There were still very many lolz at this year’s ROFLCon. And as an advertising guy, it was selfishly rewarding to see Craig Allen of Weiden and Kennedy (he wrote the Old Spice Guy ads) and Isaiah Mustafa (the Old Spice Guy) so warmly embraced during their Q&A. But in addition to the laughs, there were also many serious, important conversations around the future of the web – mostly re: intellectual property and the remixing of content. It was inspiring to see via a show of hands that almost all of the attendees had taken action in the recent SOPA debacle. And it was great to hear passionate debate around the broader theme of the “mainstreaming of the web”. I for one am excited for the next chapter of the web.
And as we enter that next chapter, my advice for marketers is don’t aim to create memes, and don’t simply cut and paste a meme into your advertising efforts in an attempt to be relevant or edgy. As a marketer, I’m incredibly aware of the lines between authenticity and blatant commercialization, and consumers can very quickly identify the differences between the two. As a brand, aim to create smart, engaging content, and then open the doors for your consumers to make it their own.
*I use “nerd” in a loving context – I consider myself part of the collective.
** From Wikipedia, an internet “meme” is used to describe any “concept that spreads via the Internet”