At the front of the room, one of the panelists is speaking: an asian man in a long fake beard, baggy hawaiian shirt and aviator sunglasses. He’s shown up in disguise, even though his name is printed in the conference pamphlet. The rest of the panel consists of one online humorist, one bubbly blonde vlogger, one ACLU representative, and one 80s-coiffed lady who achieved online fame for making dance videos in kitschy sequined sweaters. Amongst this bunch, I’m finding the guy wearing a disguise to be almost sage, which leaves me wondering: what kind of conference is this?
It’s the first-annual ROFLCon, and even its title doesn’t take a stab at defining it (ROFL is web-speak for “rolling on the floor laughing”). Some of the promotional materials say it’s a conference on “Internet culture,” which seems either vague or contradictory, depending on your viewpoint. I overhear people on cell phones telling friends they’re at an event about “internet humor,” but that’s no quite it either (witness the ACLU guy.) After two days, it becomes clear that this Harvard-organized conference is not about the Internet at all; it’s about the people at the conference themselves. People who live and breathe online, who speak in its jargon, who gain Web celebrity, and who worship it. They’re the hosts that breed viral videos, the dogged bloggers, the red-eyed coders; the people that read web comics, patrol Wikipedia, and have heard of every popular website at least two months before you. In the 80s, they were called poindexters, and in the 90s, they were called chat-room nerds. Now, they’re the demographic that every marketing company on earth would kill to understand, because they are the online tastemakers, and they are hipper and funnier than you.
The guy in disguise is named Ji Lee, and he’s an artist at a New York advertising firm. He’s apparently in disguise because he moonlights as a vandal, getting his kicks applying large speech-bubble stickers (ala comic books) to street-level advertisements across New York City (which is, of course, illegal.) He places them next to the subject of the ad – say, a model sporting fashionable jeans – and waits for passers-by fill in the bubble with their own scrawl. Then he photographs the modified ads, and puts them online for the world to see.
If what Lee is doing with the Bubble Project, as he calls it, seems at variance with his job in advertising, well, then, welcome to ROFLCon. It’s sort of like showing up at a gathering of environmentalists, only to find that no one’s carpooled; a sort of grassroots World Wide Web, courtesy of the makers of Big Internet. There are vloggers who’ve made it big on YouTube, animators who’ve done projects for Xbox or Wii, bloggers hosted on Google’s Blogger, web-comic authors with banner ads galore and a whole lot of viewers and contributors who keep this giant whirring Internet underbelly in motion by using massive swaths of bandwidth bought from TimeWarner or Verizon. I’m not saying these people are hypocrites, not in the least. But being at ROFLCon, you can’t help but sniff the irony of a cultural movement that literally has no platform without the kind corporations that cultural movements usually undermine. You’d think that would make for some conflict, right?
Well, sort of. At this same panel where Lee is speaking – the title of which is so jargony I won’t even mention it here – there is a certain redundancy of praise for an open, sharable Internet that shuns corporate manipulation. The format of the panel, in which audience comments and questions are taken with the same deference as the statements of the panelists, suggests egalitarianism. “The Internet is in a weird middle stage where no one seems to own it,” lauds Dino Ignacio, who founded the now-defunct humor site called Bert Is Evil (it is mirrored here.) He pauses, and goes on ominously: “But Hollywood might eventually gain control.” Justine Ezarik, the blonde vlogger, pipes in a few minutes later. “When you’re doing this to make money, we all see right through that,” she observes, talking about the many offers she’s had from marketing companies looking to harness her popularity and reproduce it for the benefit of a product — only to learn that the Web doesn’t really work that way. The panel seems to agree. Audience members pipe in with comments lamenting the temptation to “sell out,” but it doesn’t seem to bother them that the Burt Is Evil guy now works for EA Games, Lee for a major advertising agency, or that iJustine, as she calls herself, wears an Apple pendant around her neck. Somehow, they still have cred — even though the Internet, by the libertarian definition it’s given in this room, is anathema to a business world that plays by rules of copyright, banner advertising, sponsorship and other total bummers.
Being at ROFLCon, you get a real sense that the pride of the “Internet community,” if you could call it that, is its knack for the stuff that is least profitable and nearly impossible for marketers to replicate: funny user-made videos and cartoons. That pride doubles when something sneaks out of the internet realm and goes mainstream, without the mainstream audience ever knowing its origin (such is the case with Chuck Norris Facts, the concept of which was coopted by a jocular Mike Huckabee ad during his campaign.) That’s the duality of this Internet culture: it operates in spite of big business, but can’t operate without it; eschews mainstream media, but revels in its attention. This is the face of a new kind of cultural underbelly, reared in an age when large corporations treat their twenty-something employees like kings and pledge to “do no evil.” The subculture that can cohabitate with corporations.
At one point in the panel discussion, one audience member hints at that very irony. Isn’t it kind of stupid, he says, that we celebrate all this online self-expression, when a lot it is simply tripe that multiplies traffic, and makes money for big ISPs, Microsoft, Yahoo, News Corp and Google? The room goes quiet; it’s as if he’s stood up during a Disney ride and shouted that the scenery’s fake. People glare at him. Shut up, man. We know.
The discussion moves on quickly, bypassing the dichotomy of a grassroots movement that benefits corporate America. I think it’s because they’re largely at peace with it. In no other market are the relationships between advertising, marketing, humor, art, expression, distribution and accessibility so vitally and obviously intertwined as they are online. Amidst this group of Web culture devotees, that’s pretty much okay. So it makes sense that no one in the audience declaims the advertising artist/vandal Ji Lee for hypocrisy; he’s sort of a human metaphor for the duality of the “Internet culture” that ROFLCon has brought into focus.
A contradiction, however, isn’t necessarily a fault. In this case, it’s a feature of a live-and-let-live community that celebrates the clever stuff and is constantly hungry for more, more, more. Such is this new breed of subculture, which is accepting, ingenious, lighthearted, and at peace with itself. Pretty incredible for a community that exists in one of the fastest-moving, most profitable markets on earth. Maybe that deserves a conference – or is it a celebration?