The Mighty is a fairly standard San Francisco dance club, and 5:30 is generally known as happy hour the Western world over. But at the Mighty at 5:30 two Fridays ago, no DJ was on stage, and no one in the crowd yet nursed an IPA. Instead, a wiry guy wearing boxy glasses with orange curlicues for hair stood spotlighted on stage, a microphone in one hand, the other shoved in his pocket. Behind him, the words "Cult of the Unwilling CELEBRITY" and an image of a chubby kid holding a stick, his eyes masked by a black rectangle, illuminated an eight-foot-tall screen. For the next 4.5 hours, the Mighty was not your typical dance club. Then again, neither was it home to your typical lecture series on Internet culture. But there it was, ROFLThing. In the words of developer and consultant Sean Savage, it was "one of the strangest conferences I've ever been to."
ROFLThing, if you want to be a n00b (a newbie) about it, is short for "Rolling On the Floor Laughing" Thing. The acronym ROFL is one of the ever-expanding lexicon of terms bandied about on the Internet like ping-pong balls. LOL (Laugh Out Loud), GTG (Got To Go), and FTW (For The Win) have been adopted as new forms of net-speak just as quickly as hip-hop slang from crunk to hyphy have entered the vocabulary of MTV. ROFLThing was an event about memes: those cultural phenomena, most often links to videos or pictures, that get rocket-blasted around the Internet as viewers forward them to everyone they know, accompanied with messages such as: "You've GOT to see this!!!111!!!!!!111! LOL LOL" The word 'meme' itself refers to the way that certain trends spread of their own accord, causing people to propagate them like viruses regardless of whether the subjects are willing. Memes often glorify something so exceptional it seems unreal, or something so very real that it strikes a chord of utter hilarity — even if silly and mundane.
Andy Baio, the first speaker of the night, used PowerPoint to unleash the subject of his talk: Star Wars Kid. The video showed an overweight white kid, flailing and swinging a stick around to mimic a light saber. Imitating a nerd movie isn't anything special — betcha your little cousin is doing it right now, or that guy next to you on BART making saber-like noises. But a marketing agency called the Viral Factory estimates that the video has been viewed more than 900 million times, making it the most popular video meme ever. It struck an authentic chord with viewers: it's comical because those watching know this kid, either as themselves, a friend, or as a kid they bullied. And they can't help but watch his video train wreck because it's just too real, just too stupid-looking. Instead of watching Britney Spears crash and burn, we get to watch an average geek make a fool of himself.
The unfortunate kid in the video, Ghyslain Raza, was a fifteen-year-old high school student in Quebec when the video was put online by some classmates in 2002. In the years before YouTube existed, Andy Baio found the server space to host the video as millions of people flooded his site to watch it. Essentially, Baio kept the video alive. He watched the trend fastidiously, crunching page view statistics and noting whenever Star Wars Kid showed up in mainstream culture. Indeed, along with Star Wars Kid's rising popularity came references in Arrested Development, Family Guy, the Tony Hawk's Underground video game, and more. Star Wars Kid highlighted what makes the Internet distinct as a social medium: it encourages the spread of small, ridiculous things, including personal moments that you had hoped no one would ever see. The attendees at ROFLThing believe that the videos we find popular speak some truth about us. We laugh at Star Wars Kid because we're being mean, perhaps, but also because he represents the embarrassed Star Wars Kid in all of us. (In fact, Star Wars Kid ended up dropping out of school, entering therapy, and his parents sued the offending classmates.)
Welcome to the populist paparazzi, where anyone can find or post something on the Internet, and if it has broad appeal it will spread. And with the public eye comes academic, commercial, and legal attention. How will we apply the old morals and social norms? Will they hold up in this arena, which moves by its own natural laws?
The organizers of ROFLThing didn't set out to address such concerns. The gathering flowed out of ROFLCon, a conference organized by Tim Hwang and a small group of Harvard students on April 25 and 26. Hwang at first conceived of ROFLCon as a small event featuring maybe 200 people. But as he started receiving positive answers from Internet celebrities and attention from blogs, he realized they would need a venue at least three times larger than what they had planned for. All along, the ethic remained oriented toward having a good time. "That's the idea behind ROFLCon in the first place — do it because it's fun to do," Hwang said.
ROFLCon was like an intellectual Outside Lands, except instead of rock stars, it was professors, memes, and their unlikely stars who took the stage (for instance, Tron Guy, a pot-bellied, middle-aged, mustachioed man who created and wears his own glow-in-the dark Tron costume; Leslie Hall, a larger-than-life beehive-wearin' blond from the Midwest who makes gem sweaters and electronic music; and Justine Ezarik, a wide-eyed, lip-glossed young woman better known as iJustine, who webcast virtually her entire life online for about a year. It was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the MIT campus and attended by about 900 people. The opening keynote crowd was packed with bloggers, freaks, hipsters, nerds, and the usual sprinkling of local seniors with a healthy thirst for knowledge.