ROFLCon, SXSW, and What’s Next
The mighty conference gods of SXSW Interactive have smiled upon us, so on an early morning a week from now I’ll be doing a panel with my long-time buds Christina Xu and Diana Kimball, on the making of the ROFLCon in 2008, its aftermath, and what we’re going to be doing with the conference into the future.
As far as nostalgia goes, I’ll admit I’m a little uneasy simultaneously that (a) that it’s already been three years since we started down that crazy road, (b) that three years is some kind of long enough period to start doing some kind of retrospective panel thing at conferences. I always kind of thought you’d have to be Usenet-old to qualify for doing that kind of conference panel.Though, I guess as an old Tim & Diana episode established, it’s always good to have a bit of pre-nostalgia scheduled in to your conference going, even if only to make sure you have something to do other than twiddle your phones and hide out at the SXSW charging station they always have under the escalator.
In any case, it should be a fun time — one of the great sides of ROFLCon internally is how widely divergent personality and interest-wise the initial team was (you’ll undoubtedly see that in the other posts and comments that are coming out today). There’s a neat trick of Captain Planet-esque synergy in there, and I’m more than certain those contrasts will be coming out in all their glory at the session.
One thing is for certain — what was previously a pretty empty field in 2008 is now crowded all over the place with people wanting to do “let’s bring together all these internet people” events of one sort or another. There’s Digitour, and out in the UK they’re doing KittenCamp, just to name a few. This happens on the level of the internet event, but also on the level of the media itself as well. 2008 to 2011 has seen the establishment of an enormous business infrastructure to develop, promote, and “leverage” internet celebrity across a whole variety of media from books to TV. It’s been talked about a lot within the ROFL-team that when we did the first conference, LOLCats were still up and coming. That’s a crap-ton of internet time, and inevitably stuff has changed.
As a result, what was once a series of pretty nicely delineated boundaries in bringing together speakers has now become a much more mixed field. The idea that internet culture is over “here” (Tron Guy, 4Chan, Mahir Cagri, etc), and all the regular culture is over “there” (American Idol, Two and a Half Men, etc) has been disrupted by the presence of organizations, personalities, and interests perpetually bleeding the edges of the two worlds together in the past few years. That’s not a bad or unexpected or even an avoidable situation, per se, because one of the reasons that “virality” happens on some level is that funny stuff on the internet is just some very good stuff. Like most popular things and, indeed, like the “meme” itself, the nature of most web content is that it gets everywhere and into everything, despite your best efforts to quarantine it into one box or another. That’s what makes it great.
So that leaves us in sort of a weird and exciting spot — struggling ever harder to find ways of slicing and dicing a speaker slate for putting a conference together. Would/Should Charlie Sheen qualify? To what degree should marketers (even successful Old Spice Guy type-marketers) be brought into the conference? We can’t ignore these developments as impacting “internet culture” broadly speaking, but inevitably they don’t seem to entirely gel with the overall culture that ROFLCon’s been good at bringing together either.
Ben Huh over at Cheezburger once referred to what ROFLCon does as “the industry conference,” which is funny on several levels, though I’ve been thinking a lot through that idea recently. While inevitably there will be an ever-growing market into the future for bringing the emerging obscurities of internet culture into the mainstream marketplace, there remains something that’s irreplaceable and valuable about assembling the tight collegiality and shared community of the people most deeply immersed at the core of the cultural ecosystems of the web. In fact, it strikes me that the very popularity of a culture creates a countervailing need for ever-more curated meeting points between people to address the bigger questions unavailable in more popular fora. In a world of SXSW Interactive and Web 2.0 Expo, there’s still room (perhaps even more room) for your TEDs, FOOCamps, and PopTechs. In a world of quick and awesome MemeFactory performances explaining and bringing web culture to the world, there’s still room for the depth of a MemeFactory book. In a world of reams of discussion and punditry about global problems, people still find the need to have get together at Davos and talk about stuff.
A World Economic Forum for the Internet? We know that the internet increasingly makes foreign policy, fields armies (of a kind), and makes cultural trends. Why couldn’t we do something like that? Don’t know what that would look like (yet), but that’d be pretty effing cool.