IT'S BEEN TWO decades since I graduated from college, and I'm glad to be back, walking the halls of MIT. Not that I went to MIT — I couldn't have been admitted on a bribe. But I did not come to MIT this spring to further my education. I have come to meet the future, as embodied by the 850 or so cutting-edge types who have gathered here for two days. They are the stars of YouTube videos that went viral and others who've become online "memes," which I'll explain in a moment. There are mover 'n' shaker execs from the likes of Reddit and Google and Imgur, commerce seekers and ad mavens and television producers looking to cash in on the memefication of America, along with all the geeks and academics who celebrate and study this phenomenon.
We're here at MIT for the third biennial ROFL conference. For those sad few of you remaining who still prefer standard English to the Web jargon that is fast supplanting it, ROFL means "rolling on the floor laughing." As its very name suggests, ROFLcon is not a conference that takes itself too seriously. Which it is to be congratulated for. Not that it would hear you if you offered congratulations. Because the attendees here are the worker bees, Internet-famous celebrities, and leading intellectual lights of the universe known as Web 2.0, which is forever, reverentially, and loudly in the business of congratulating itself.
Rarely in history have so many truly smart people applied their intelligence to something as dumb as aggregating and propagating memes such as LOLcats (cute online kitty pictures featuring captions of cats speaking in misspelled baby talk — "I can has cheezburger?" being the ur example). The conference program is an elaborate, 95-page paperback, choked with in-crowd cultural references, from philosophical Web-centric questions about the early years ("Whatever happened to the Ate My Balls guy?") to de rigueur Star Trek implorations like "set phasers for awesome."
The program contains narratives and metanarratives, in-jokes and meta-in-jokes. One panel is even called "Metameme." Supercuts are one of the favorite subgenres of the memesphere, in which the supercutter might edit together in rapid succession every instance of the F-bomb getting dropped in The Big Lebowski, or every time some skeezer says "I'm not here to make friends" in a reality show.
Supercuts, you see, are meta-commentaries on our clichéd culture. Never mind that meme culture itself — which is still greatly dependent on remixing or remaking non-Internet-generated material from old-school media dinosaurs when not copycatting its own memes — is probably the worst cliché of all. Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier put it beautifully in his excellent book, You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier bemoans online culture, which he says has "entered into a nostalgic malaise...dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action."
But ROFLcon isn't just littered with YouTube celebrities like Double Rainbow Guy and supercuts auteurs. Plenty of sponsors and speakers come with blue-chip academic pedigrees, from places such as the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, which, in addition to its vital work launching Lady Gaga's nonprofit, harvests vast archives of research titles such as "Salience vs. Commitment: Dynamics of Political Hashtags in Russian Twitter."
Or there's Kate Miltner, who, as the ROFLcon blog put it, "got a masters in LOLcats" from the London School of Economics. She is one of two academic speakers specializing in LOLcats, the other being a linguist from Louisiana State University whose master's thesis is titled: "I Can Has Thesis? A Linguistic Analysis of LOLspeak."
I HAVE ALWAYS detested the word "meme," and not just because it was coined by Richard Dawkins, though that certainly helps. The concept was originated by Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, back when the Internet was still a glint in young Al Gore's eye. Borrowing from the Greek word mimema (something imitated), Dawkins was on the hunt for a monosyllable that rhymed with "gene." Loosely speaking — and there's no other way to speak of memes — it is "an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture" (the dictionary definition). Internet memes entail everything from video clips to animated Pop-Tart cats to "Advice Animal" image macros (like, say, a picture of a dog giving bad advice — essentially, a glorified caption contest) to intentionally misspelled words to whatever people can think of that spreads rapidly, if "thinking" isn't too strong a word.
One of the enjoyable aspects of attending ROFLcon is meeting the "talent," the viral-video stars who populate the panels and man the bars at the after-parties, these curiosities who put the "me" in meme. Most of them seem naïve and slightly disoriented, accidental tourists on the fame train who for whatever reason have gone from anonymous to universally known overnight.
I introduce myself to Charlie Schmidt, a former advertising designer and the originator of Keyboard Cat, which is a video of Charlie's cat playing keyboard in a blue T-shirt. Charlie shot the video in the mid-'80s. Uploaded to YouTube in 2007, it made him and his late cat Fatso, who left us in 1987, Internet-famous. (YouTube views: 23,989,789 and counting.)
Since his dead cat hit the big time, he's flown all over the world. He's licensed the footage for television and films. His new cat, Bento, whom he insists is Fatso reincarnated, plays keyboards in Wonderful Pistachios commercials. Charlie differentiates himself from the other viral video stars. He is a craftsman. Of cat videos, but still. "Many of these guys are insurance salesmen, and their kid falls in a bucket of poop, and the camera was running," he says. "It's different for me." He admits that going viral can spoil you. "It's like when guys go to the moon," Charlie explains. "They can't come back and sell insurance. Most go nuts and drink. Going back and trying to do something on purpose doesn't feel as promising as it used to."
Still, I need to know: What does it mean that a grown man can pull down a six-figure annual income making piano-playing-cat videos in America in the middle of the worst recession in decades?
"It means that people are nuts," shrugs Charlie. "People are just nuts. They are."
THERE IS A low buzz of excitement with all the virtual celebrities here, but not all of them are happy. Matt Harding of "Where the Hell Is Matt?" fame (in which he dances like an idiot in locations throughout the world — YouTube views: 42,740,939) complains that the Internet is losing its quirky individuality, that it's getting corporatized, and that the suits are moving in and taking over.
It's the eternal complaint of hipster subcultures: "It was great as long as it was just us, then they ruined it." But they are definitely moving in. And not just the meme aggregators — the Huffington Posts of the memesphere like the Cheezburger Network (a co-sponsor of ROFLcon). Even old-school television types are now smelling where the action is. The guys from Eyeboogie Inc. are here on behalf of their new YouTube channel, PopSpot.
YouTube has plunked millions into creating channels for content producers on their site, trying to further bleed viewers away from ailing television networks and film studios. While it's hard for novices to compete with the Madonna channel, the gentlemen from PopSpot, who brought us the Pop Up Video show on VH-1 in the '90s, are now going to be captioning viral videos with behind-the-scenes facts and interesting asides. It's an ingenious way of vacuuming up the traffic of those who've already created viral brand awareness.
At his open-bar after-party, I run into Ben Huh, another copycatter of memes. Huh's Cheezburger Network not only owns icanhascheezeburger.com, which serves as LOLcat HQ on the Internet, but 60 other sites. He is loathed by anti-commercialism types for putting his watermark on other people's original content and generally considered by hardcore geeks to be the locus of aggregating evil. To which he essentially pleads guilty.
"In the age of crowd-sourcing, aggregation and filtering provide more value sometimes than original content," Huh peppily explains. "There's too much information.…A piece of content may have merit, but there's millions of others that potentially have the same value." This is the rub of Web 2.0 disposability — everyone has a voice, but all voices tend to sound alike.
One guy who still puts a premium on the individual is Ben Lashes, the world's only meme manager, who represents the creators of Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat (if you have a cat meme, Ben's your man), along with a recently hatched meme named Scumbag Steve. I run into Lashes outside Huh's party.
Previously a music industry guy who had a hand in Rebecca Black's "Friday" — a so-bad-it's-good music video that's closing in on 33 million YouTube views — Lashes is naturally defensive of memes. A former garage rocker himself who roots for underdogs, he says that everyone wants to make money from memes, and "a lot of these guys don't know what to do." That's where he comes in, by, say, helping the Keyboard Cat guy get hooked up with Wonderful Pistachios, which also hired Snooki from MTV's Jersey Shore. "We blew her out of the water," says Lashes. "We got three times the video views she does." These aren't just Internet-fame's lottery winners, says Lashes. "The memes are art. This is the kind of s--- Warhol prophesied."
After ROFLcon concludes, a rollicking after-party is held at the Middlesex Lounge. Most of the memes take the stage to debut rap songs or to please the crowd by singing along to autotunes of Antoine Dodson's strange but hysterical lament about his sister nearly getting raped. (YouTube views: 101,883,932.) There's Dodson and Double Rainbow Guy, Scumbag Steve and his sidekick, Naked Dave — the usual MIT crowd.
I offer to buy Chuck Testa a drink. Testa is a California taxidermist whose local ad went viral, turning him into a beloved meme. In the spot, he parades life-like dead animals around. A girl wakes up, terrified, "Oh no! There's a bear in my bed!" Chuck pops his head up over the stuffed bear, and says, "Nope! Chuck Testa." It launched an Internet catchphrase ("Nope!") and has put Testa on the meme circuit, where I've just finished watching him backup dance during the "Scumbag Steve Overture."
I ask him what his taxidermist buddies and clients back home would think of what I just witnessed. He looks at me with slightly embarrassed resignation. "Nope!" he says, on cue. His life has changed a bit, due to his memefication. "I'm not just me anymore," he says. "I'm a...yeah, I'm a brand!"
As I'm about to leave, thoracic-cavity-thumping booty music starts pulsating over the system. Rapper Nicki Minaj, delicate flower that she is, croons "Kiss my ass... / Cause it's finally famous." When I used to think of Nicki Minaj...wait, who are we kidding? I never think of Nicki Minaj. But after ROFLcon, I'm starting to think that maybe I should.
Emily Dickinson, she ain't. But she might be the poet laureate of our time.
Adapted from the article "Attack of the Memes," which originally appeared in The Weekly Standard (WeeklyStandard.com) and is reprinted with permission. ©2012 by The Weekly Standard. All rights reserved.