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The Meme Generation

Hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your husband. The end is nigh.

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By MATT LABASH
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Cambridge, Mass.

Double Rainbow Guy and Tron Guy

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 college generally. At the accelerated pace of change these days, I expect today’s students to be wearing futuristic jumpsuits and commuting to class by jetpack. 

However, it’s still consistent with my early ’90s experience. Yes, everybody now looks at their smartphones as they walk, the real world holding less appeal than the virtual one. But there are the old profs, shuffling their dowager’s humps down the hall in tatty corduroy. There are the science labs with science-y gas burbling in science-y tanks (sorry, I was a journalism major, with a minor in film studies). There are all the familiar bulletin-board flyers advertising the Chorallaries a cappella group, the Queer People of Color Brunch, and the Gender Fluidity Meeting.

And there’s a guy pretending he’s ’80s singer Rick Astley, blasting “Never Gonna Give You Up” from a boombox, standing next to a man dressed up in an electric leotard and hockey helmet as a character from Tron.

Wait, what?

This must be the right place. For I did not come to MIT to further my education. Or rather, I did. Just not in the traditional sense. I have come to meet the future, as embodied by the 850 or so cutting-edge types here for two days in May. They are the stars of YouTube videos that went viral and others who’ve become online “memes,” 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 them.

This is the third biennial ROFL conference. And 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.” ROFL is not to be confused with the several hundred other permutations of online mirth such as lol, lulz, lulwut, ROFLcopter, and trollololol, the distinctions of which I’ll skip explaining to you in the interest of keeping us both awake.

First held in 2008, ROFLcon is the brainchild of 25-year-old cofounder Tim Hwang, a Harvard grad who’s now a Berkeley law student, and who has to skip the first day of his own conference. “I have an exam on Monday,” he apologizes. Affable and industrious, Hwang, like many of the young geniuses here, has about six plates spinning at once. He works with the Awesome Foundation, which “forwards the interest of awesome in the universe,” one $1,000 micro-grant at a time. He’s a cofounder of the Web Ecology Project, and the “chief scientist” of the Pacific Social Architecting Corporation. He’s a partner at Robot, Robot & Hwang, which is seeking ways “to replace [lawyers] with machines,” an advance even we Luddites can get behind.

Hwang’s been so busy, he tells me that he hasn’t even had time to tend to his blog, I tell him not to worry. Increasingly, we communicate with instantly digestible memes—a captioned cat picture here, a viral video shot by the father of a drugged-up child who just visited the dentist there. Whereas blogs sometimes communicate complex thoughts and ideas—which is so 2006. Blogs feature strings of words and sometimes even sentences and paragraphs. And paragraphs are so .  .  . wordy, I guess you could call them, for lack of a better word. The fewer of them, the better.

“That’s a little harsh,” says a good-natured Hwang of my facetious blog pronouncements. I hope I haven’t given offense, since I will doubtless be working for him someday on a meme-generation assembly line.

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.

If I sound like I’m implying that a New Dumbness has dawned, an era in which disposable Internet culture is subsuming all other culture as we know it at light speed—I’m implying no such thing. Rather, I’m stating it outright.

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