The Final ROFLCon and Mobile's Impact on Internet Culture

A little late on this, but wow, ROFLCon III was amazing. I was there to moderate a morning keynote panel on the supercut meme with Rich Juzwiak, Duncan Robson and Aaron Valdez, three of my favorite supercut creators. It was a privilege to share the stage with these guys, who are all amazing at what they do. It ended with a debut of Duncan’s Three Point Landing, which the audience adored. Here’s the whole thing.

Every talk I saw was amazing. All the sessions are making their way onto YouTube, and are all worth checking out. I posted some of my personal highlights on Twitter, but if you missed them, here are my favorites:

Jonathan Zittrain’s introductory keynote was thoughtful and inspiring. Jason Scott’s solo talk on the Mysterious Mr. Hokum is a crazy story of a pre-Internet scammer. Flourish Klink’s panel on fangirl culture was eye-opening, a glimpse into a massive subculture of the web I know far too little about.

The most entertaining, hands down, was Craig Allen’s behind-the-scenes story of the Old Spice campaign, with a surprise Skype cameo by Isiaiah Mustafa.

The most underseen and misunderstood session was Wonder-Tonic’s pitch for Localoffrly.biz, a douchebag startup turned into comedy performance art. (Bonus points for actually launching a site.) Hard to believe, but some people in the audience weren’t sure whether it was a joke, and started to get frustrated when they stopped the gamified talk between each “level.” Brave.

And, of course, Chris Poole’s solo talk, which ended up inspiring my Wired column that was published last Wednesday. I reprinted it below, hope you enjoy it.

Early this month, the Internet invaded the MIT campus for ROFLCon III, the biennial two-day conference that brings together the subjects of net memes with those who study and adore them.

Among the meme celebrities — Tron Guy, Paul “Double Rainbow” Vasquez, Antoine Dodson, Scumbag Steve and Chuck Testa all attended — were those who are deeply invested in the future of Internet culture, both emotionally and financially. Founders of community sites like Reddit and 4chan, academics studying memes, and the cottage industry that’s capitalized on them, most notably the Cheezburger Network’s Ben Huh. And, of course, the whole audience participated in their propogation.

From the moment I boarded the plane to Boston there was an undercurrent of change running through the conference. I sat next to Whitney Phillips, a University of Oregon doctoral student speaking on a panel about her research on troll culture. She’d attended every ROFLCon since 2008, and realized that she’d have to revise her thesis in the next month — the meme landscape is in a transitional period, but it’s not clear what it’s transitioning into. She echoed something I heard repeatedly over the weekend: “It just feels different.”

It felt apropos that this was the last ROFLCon, with the organizers “putting this trilogy to bed and riding out into the sunset.” Or, at least, until “we can figure out how to continue doing it great justice.”

The Internet is still spawning memes at an accelerated rate — and they’ll never go away. But there are some major shifts under way that may fundamentally change the way they’re created.

Every meme, like folklore, shares two common characteristics: It must show reproduction (the ability to be copied) and variation (the ability to mutate).

These days, memes spread faster and wider than ever, with social networks acting as the fuel for mass distribution. But it’s possible we may see less mutation and remixing in the near future. As Internet usage shifts from desktops and laptops to mobile devices and tablets, the ability to mutate memes in a meaningful way becomes harder.

From the Interest Web to the Social Web

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a fundamental shift away from discussion forums and other niche communities to social networks and aggregators. In a 20-minute talk at ROFLCon, 4chan and Canvas founder Chris Poole characterized this as a shift from the interest-based web to the friend-based web.

Poole is concerned that the web is losing its emotional depth, a richness that comes from lurking, failing and learning before finding your place in a community. The difficulty gave it more meaning, and the resulting communities added far more value to the web than they extracted.

Now, aggregators like 9GAG and Cheezburger are ridiculously popular, but memes rarely originate there. Unsourced images are posted and watermarked by their new hosts, muddling their origins and diluting the context of the original image. As Poole said, “It’s hard to feel emotionally invested in 9GAG.”

To me, this is part of the natural expansion of online community. Reddit users hate 9GAG for stealing their memes, but 9GAG is popular because it’s easier to use, making it more inclusive to Facebook users than Reddit’s sprawling subgenres and somewhat esoteric community norms. It’s the same reason that, for years, 4chan users hated Reddit for stealing their memes and bringing them to a community that was much easier to understand.

Unlike social networks, each successive community doesn’t seem to cannibalize its predecessor, but instead simply finds a larger, newer audience. The original community stays largely the same, which feels like stagnation relative to the “next big thing.” With each new site, the mainstream base and shared knowledge we call “Internet culture” converges into a mixed cultural heritage.

But there’s one potential risk that affects the cultural production of memes.

Meme Mutation

Ever tried using 4chan on a iPhone? It’s completely impossible to upload images from an iPhone or iPad, immediately limiting your contribution to the community to commenting alone. Sites like Reddit let you post a URL, but modifying and uploading images to a public URL from a mobile device is, for the moment, not easy.

Also for the moment, it’s extremely rare for mobile apps to allow community remix and sharing. In fact, I could only find two iOS apps that supported posting your own remixes to a public community space: Mixel and Make Pixel Art. (If you know more, leave them in the comments.) All others only support sharing to your contacts or your own social network, but not the public, unmediated space that memes thrive in.

It’s not surprising, then, that the only memes that seem to originate on smartphones are text-based — autocorrect fail, iPhone whale, and texts from last night.

It feels like we’re on the verge of a breakthrough to unleash the creative potential of these devices, but mobile developers are limiting our options to mild tweaking, at best. Instagram’s filters made the simplest cosmetic changes, and you weren’t able to modify anybody else’s work. Draw Something let you draw, but only with a single person and no shared history. Where’s the Canvas, Polyvore, deviantArt, and YTMND of the app world?

In the absence of good remix apps, image macro generators like Meme Generator and Quick Meme have filled the gap, making it possible to instantly generate a new meme from a mobile browser in seconds. No tools, or time investment, required.

This is incredibly empowering, but also limiting. Your imagination, and the scope of the meme’s breadth, is limited to the capabilities of the meme generator.

It’s reasonable to think the shift from desktops and laptops to mobile and tablets will continue, especially for the new generations of young Internet users that typically generate memes. If the app ecosystem doesn’t grow to accommodate it, we may see remix participation drop, largely substituted by the lightweight interaction of likes, favs and comments and lightweight prebuilt memes from generators.

In his talk on Saturday, Poole said, “Memes are the instruments with which we play music. The way things are going, we’re going to lose our song.”

Memes may not go away, but I’m worried we may lose the concert venues where the music is performed — the quirky, difficult communities that foster creative expression and make it meaningful.

3 thoughts on “The Final ROFLCon and Mobile's Impact on Internet Culture

  1. The last part of your essay (Meme Mutation) very interesting. In the early days of the web (1997) I joined in the collaborative web project called Gridcosm (which is still running today). Essentially it is an ongoing remix of images with up to 7 other people at a time. Much of it was automated over the years but in the beginning the entry to “playing” was some facility with a program like Photoshop as well as a basic understanding of FTP.

    Why did the early days of the Web have this sort of collaborative artistic environment whereas Mobile does not? Reasons such as smaller screen sizes, lack of common image editing tools and the technical and financial hurdles of building an app come to mind. But there’s something else and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

    Perhaps it’s just that the mobile culture is still being defined on what it currently does better than the Web: social checkins, on-the-go travel needs, quick games while you’re waiting in line. If you want to perform music at a concert venue you have to be willing to put in the time to practice. Practicing means spending extended time with your “instrument”. The killer app for collaboration will be the one that encourages you to keep it open for two or three hours at a time (games not included) and then come back to it hundreds of times afterwards. It will be exciting to see how (or if) we get there.

  2. So you are explaining here why we have to keep the Desktop open – and how those who keep or develop the knowledge of distorting, munching and spitting textual or visual content out are those who define reality? What if that happens not only with funny memes but also with serious business?

    (btw, I discovered your blog because of a post about the Kleptones from 2004. This won’t happen in a mobile Internet and I think you are right, this is a very ambivalent development.)

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