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.
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, brosephstalin.com. 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.
The New Dumbness, however, is by no means a slag of its curators’ intelligence. Far from it. These are some of the brightest, most articulate people you’ll ever meet. On balance, their IQ scores will smoke yours, or at least mine. But rarely in history have so many truly smart people applied their intelligence to something as dumb as aggregating and propagating LOLcats (cute online kitty pictures featuring captions of cats speaking in misspelled babytalk—“I can has cheezburger?” being the ur-example).
It’s enough to make bad reality-show producers look like MIT professors, and vice versa. And one could hardly be faulted for confusing the two. But can we really be surprised that enterprising academics consider online memes worthy of study? Academics often feel compelled to go where the action is. Now that a good chunk of the country is Tweeting, Facebooking, and Tumblring itself—an exhibit that never closes—people are now spending more time online than watching TV. Academics are just aping the rest of us, figuring as long as you have a high-speed connection, why leave the house and get smudged by the sticky stuff of the corporeal world?
On its candy-coated surface, ROFLcon is all fun and games. In the concession area, an attractive woman with a creamy British accent stands in a lab coat, offering passersby Pop Rocks and Coke. Her name is Holly Clarke, and she’s the head of social media science for Unruly Media, a company that tries to cause the ads of its clients—everyone from Old Spice to T-Mobile—to go viral. Or as the company’s website puts it in the language designed to reap big consulting fees: “to identify the brand & content advocates that start conversations . . . to deliver the desired brand engagement.” As a child of the seventies who is well-versed in the urban legend of the lethal combination of Pop Rocks and Coke, I ask Holly if it’s safe. “Don’t worry,” she says. “If not, you’ll just explode, we’ll film you, and put it on YouTube.”
Registrants receive complimentary fanny packs, jammed with all sorts of hipster goodies, from old-school Viewmasters to ROFLcondoms. The program is an elaborate 95-page Choose Your Own Adventure paperback. (Remember paperbacks? They’re so retro.) Choked with in-crowd cultural references, it contains everything 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.” (Always a pleaser with such a geeked-out crowd, “geek” being a term of self-description and never a pejorative.)
The program contains narratives and metanarratives, in-jokes and meta-in-jokes. One panel is even called “Metameme.” Meta is perhaps the most overused word at the conference, second only to meme. Which in meta-fashion is acknowledged in the program. In the introduction to the “Supercuts” panel, the ROFLcon program even holds out hope that the panelists will “strip every use of the word meme from the conference video stream (current count: a bajillion).” 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. Take an ultra-popular meme like Nyan Cat (a viral video containing an animated cat with a Pop-Tart body running to an annoying Japanese song whose sole lyric is “Nyanyanyanyanyanyan” droned endlessly). This gives birth to “Nyan Cat 10 Hours” (the same punishing 3-minute video looped for 10 hours). Which begets “Nyan Cat Smooth Jazz” (the same Pop-Tart cat, now in shades, running to a smooth jazz soundtrack for 14 minutes). This is not a brave new world of blinding innovation and artistic enlightenment. Rather, you’re looking at a mirror of a Xerox of a parrot inside an echo chamber.
Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier put it beautifully in his excellent and courageous book, You Are Not a Gadget (I say courageous because he is a Microsoft consultant who has spent his entire adult life in tech world, and the first rule of Web 2.0 is never question Web 2.0). 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.” Lanier adds, “People will accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other form.”
But ROFLcon isn’t just littered with YouTube celebrities like Double Rainbow Guy (more on him later) and Supercuts auteurs. Beneath the candy coating is a chewy center. 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 helping launch 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 on the “Acamemia” panel 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.” And ROFLcon itself is coproduced by MIT Comparative Media Studies, a department that calls for a “new expertise” from the kinds of people who “think critically about media and their potential for circulating information and dispersing intellectual capital.” The department leads by example, generating graduate theses on the social dynamics of Dwarf Fortress (a computer game), as well as by throwing “sandbox summits” with titles such as “iPlay, YouPlay, WiiPlay—How Play Is Changing Media and Media Is Changing Play.”
Don’t let that last title fool you. When it comes to the memeverse, the academy isn’t playing. This is serious business. They’re not just pulling scholarship out of their rear ends—not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, some scholar somewhere, as we speak, is probably ginning up a doctoral dissertation on Goatse (a pioneer of Internet meme culture who is famous for planting his own two hands in the deep recesses of his derrière).
We are now 2,000 words into this piece—an admission that, in keeping with the ROFLcon spirit, is rather meta—and a good many of you are probably asking yourselves: What the hell is a meme? Good question. Memes proliferate like viruses of the brain-eating variety, not unlike Ebola. Which is why there are now entire websites like Know Your Meme, the Wikipedia of memes, that do nothing but keep track of the things.
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,” hence meme. 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.
In olden days, that was called “word of mouth”—too easy for Dawkins. As followers of the world’s loudest and most insistent atheist know, he never hesitates to lend his scientific authority to that which goes beyond ethology and evolutionary biology, his fields of expertise. In the case of memes, Dawkins took this very generic concept and spit-polished it to a high scientific shine, insisting memes are discrete units that contain our cultural DNA and that seek to replicate themselves, like genes. It’s a theory that had the scientific rigor of a Goatse video.
Dawkins’s throwaway metaphor rapidly became an entire field of soft science. So soft, in fact, that the science’s peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Memetics, has folded. Critics have scoffed, as critics will, accusing Dawkins and acolytes of quackery, pseudoscience, and worse. In his highly amusing essay “Why Memes Are Stupid: The Short Version,” Cornell professor William M. Briggs stipulates that the notion of memes reproducing for their own benefit is unlikely, since “it is impossible for one copy of a meme to benefit from other copies.” Briggs equates this to saying that “a chair on sale at Walmart benefits by there being copies of itself for sale at other Walmarts.” Philosopher Mary Midgley, who’s frequently boxed Dawkins’s ears over the years, dismisses meme theory as “a pretentious way of stating the obvious.”
Such common sense hasn’t stopped eager-beaver memeticists from writing books, and good lord, are there plenty of them. They have proliferated like, well, memes. I collected several, intending to read them for research’s sake. They have titles like Virus of the Mind and The Meme Machine and The Electric Meme. But after a test run through this indescribable turgidity, I could feel my brain dying, so I just took the Cliff’s Notes course with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Memes (not a deliberate redundancy, but part of the Idiot’s Guide series).
As for the whole what-is-a-meme debate, watching academics shoot each other for fun is a perfectly pleasant way to pass an afternoon. But it is, quite literally, an academic argument. Nobody else cares. Meme is now a catch-all for wildly popular Internet content, especially jokes. Some healthy skeptics don’t find it so amusing. Cracked.com recently complained, “Instead of going to all the trouble of humor, everyone just agrees on what’s funny and repeats it. It’s like a vast inside joke, except everyone knows it so it’s not ‘inside,’ and it’s not funny so it’s not a ‘joke.’ ”
Meme evangelists wheel out some pretty heavy artillery to defend stupid cat pictures. Just a few weeks before ROFLcon, I was listening to a favorite public radio show, On Point with Tom Ashbrook, which, coincidentally, was on memes. One of Ashbrook’s guests, Christina Xu, is a cofounder of ROFLcon and works at the MIT Center for Civic Media. Xu chewed over the question: “Is this building up our culture, or is this just a funny picture?” Her answer: “I would really argue there’s no distinction between the two. If you look back in history, how many of Shakespeare’s plays involved just, like, jokes about flushing the toilet essentially, right?”
Yes, host Ashbrook replied, “But they were that and more.”
“They were that and more,” agreed Xu. “And I would argue that Internet memes are that and more. There are a good number that are just not very meaningful and ways to pass the time. But there’s also some that I think will go down in history and I think are a way for people to express themselves about what’s happening at the moment in a very powerful way.” She cited the “Texts from Hillary” meme (fake texts from Hillary Clinton) as an example. Sample: Colin Powell texts to Hillary: “you aren’t coming to my party? it’s my birthday. . .” Hillary interrupts: “yo, colin. i’m really happy 4 u. imma let u finish, but i am 1 of the best secretaries of state of all time.” The Shakespeare of our day.
Xu was joined by Douglas Rushkoff, a Princeton-educated media theorist (nice work if you can find it) who coined the term “viral media,” and who never tires of making tech triumphalist pronouncements like, “In the emerging highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software.” Rushkoff seconded Xu, saying we are “living in a much more fluid memescape,” where not only will the strong memes survive (bless Dawkins’s Darwinian heart), but where “I think more and more people will be able to recombine these ideas— . . . memes having sex with each other—than you would [see] in a more controlled media space.”
It’s pretty heady stuff, living in this world of Web 2.0 ideas.
While I’ve been admittedly hard on the memeverse, 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 afterparties, 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—the hive mind deciding to spontaneously promote or ridicule them on sites like Reddit, good timing, dumb luck—have gone from anonymous to universally known overnight. They may have racked up 100 million YouTube views, but like so many in today’s digital culture, they often haven’t a clue how to monetize it.
I hang out with Tron Guy, aka Jay Maynard, from Fairmont, Minnesota. Maynard became Internet-famous for wearing an electroluminescent leotard modeled after the suit worn in the 1982 sci-fi film Tron. After photos were posted in an online forum that he “expected about 500 people to see,” he shot up the media food chain, pictures of his costume proliferating on sites like Slashdot. This resulted in juicier pop-culture plums, like making appearances on Jimmy Kimmel and being parodied on South Park.
Maynard has the same model of hockey helmet used in the original film. The rest of the costume, which lights up like a futuristic Christmas tree, he had custom-made at Renaissance Dancewear, a retailer where he used to buy tights for his Renaissance Fair costumes. He painted Kmart boat shoes to match. A swatch of Lycra on his chest is frayed where he errantly cut it. But he’s proud that eight years later, it still fits. “My weight’s been pretty constant,” he says. “But it stretches. As long as I don’t gain 30 pounds, I don’t think it makes any difference.”
It was difficult being famous at first. As anyone who spends time on the Internet knows, it’s an ugly, ruthless place, a snakepit where anonymity absolves people of responsibility, not to mention human decency. It’s a place that can bring out the inner troll even in your kindly, genteel grandmother. True, as the tech triumphalists often crow, everyone now has a voice. It’s become an article of faith that this is an advance we should all be grateful for. Yet about 50 percent of those voices, at any given moment, seem to want to say nothing more than, “You suck.”
At first, Maynard says, all his attention was troll-fueled: “It was, ‘Look at that guy in spandex!’ It wasn’t any fun.” But with the Kimmel appearances, he achieved a modicum of respect, even if he only ever made scale, moneywise. “They gave me the chance to talk about who I am.”
Who he is these days is an old meme, no easy fate to swallow. The folks at ROFLcon still love him like you love your eccentric uncle, but he doesn’t even rate a speaking slot. If you think regular fame is fleeting, Internet fame can move much faster, as the culture thrives on disposability, our overstimulated appetites for novelty now as boundless as our attention spans are short.
Maynard’s had a bad run lately. His computer consulting business dried up in the Great Recession. The Kimmel spots disappeared too, causing his agent to ditch him. An amateur pilot, Maynard had to give up his single-engine plane, and he’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Disney wanted nothing to do with him, promotions-wise, when Tron: Legacy premiered in 2010. And the capper: Maynard was banned from seeing the sequel at his local theater in costume, for fear the Tron suit’s lights would distract patrons.
He’s philosophical about what’s happened. When his visage first hit meme-spreading websites like Slashdot and Fark, “I learned a lesson from Star Wars Kid,” says Maynard. Star Wars Kid may be the most famous of all viral videos. A plus-size kid made a video of himself in a very intense light saber fight with an imaginary opponent, which unkind classmates uploaded without his consent, scarring him for life. The video is hilarious, of course. But imagine the most embarrassing thing you ever did as a 15-year-old. Now imagine a video of it getting 25,522,542 YouTube views, which is what Star Wars Kid’s video garnered. “There’s no getting rid of it,” Maynard continues. “You’re not going to be able to clean it off the Internet. So I’m sitting on a tiger. I have two choices. I can either jump off and hope he doesn’t turn around and eat me. Or I can grab his ears and enjoy the ride.”
But after riding the tiger, there’s a problem with his Internet fame, Maynard says: “What do I do with it? I’ve never really come up with a good answer to that. I really understand why movie stars get hooked on drugs. While you’re big, everybody wants to tell you how wonderful you are. Then all of a sudden, nobody wants to talk to you.” A young conference volunteer asks us to move. We’re blocking the registration line. I tell her to show some respect. This isn’t just any schmuck she’s dealing with. This is Tron Guy.
Since ROFLcon is crawling with memes, I decide to try passing myself off as one, just for sport. I think of the most asinine meme title I can come up with on short notice, then make the acquaintance of Charlie Schmidt. He’s 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.)
I introduce myself to Charlie, asking, “Keyboard Cat?” Yes, he responds eagerly. Then pointing to myself while announcing my fake meme, I say, “Good to meet you. I’m ‘Shorty, I Farted.’ ” Keyboard Cat man looks at me slightly confused. “You don’t recognize me?” I say, hurt. Yes, he does, Charlie says, now coming to. We’re big fans of each other’s work. Though I worry this false intimacy has just made us fake, showbiz friends.
A former advertising designer, Charlie has fared better than Tron Guy. 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 says he massages his cats in a certain way that makes them play. “Above the waist,” he hastens to add. He might spend his life making his cats play keyboard. But he’s not some kind of weirdo.
Charlie differentiates himself from the other viral video stars. (Most of the other stars do the same. They all like to believe they’re special, that their fame is a reflection of their creativity and individuality. That it’s not just the accidental result of bored Reddit nerds deciding they’re the next cog in the meme machine.) Charlie 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. It’s different for me.” But 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, meme to meme: What does all of this add up to? 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 present at ROFLcon. Hipster geeks tend to love live-action memes even more than they do ironic tattoos, hummus, taking yearlong sabbaticals, and Moleskine notebooks. (All of these I stole from Christian Lander’s excellent Stuff White People Like franchise. And though I wouldn’t put Lander in the same company with the majority of these memes, because he has something many of them lack—namely, talent—he is a moderator of one of the panels, making this paragraph very meta, meta being something white people like.)
The low buzz, however, becomes an electric jolt when Antoine Dodson shows up in a do-rag, mesh bicycle glove, and white skinny jeans. As most people who have Internet access know, Dodson set the web on fire two years ago in one of the most curious paths to Internet fame ever traveled.
In 2010, the Huntsville, Alabama, native was interviewed on the local news after a stranger broke into his house in the projects and crawled into bed with his sister. She screamed, Dodson ran to her room, a brief struggle ensued, and the stranger escaped out a window. A very exercised Dodson took to the airwaves, waggling a bus schedule in front of the camera and warning, “We have a rapist in Lincoln Park. He’s climbin’ in your windows, he’s snatchin’ your people up, tryin’ to rape ’em. So y’all need to hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband cause they’re rapin’ everybody out here.”
Not long after this very compelling rant started making the rounds, it was converted into an even more hilarious song by the Gregory Brothers of Autotune the News. “Bed Intruder Song” (YouTube views: 101,883,932) lodged in the Billboard 100 and hit number one in Sweden. Dodson was a bona fide celebrity. And all the celebrity spoils have ensued: reaping profits from a Bed Intruder Halloween costume, endorsing a “Sex Offender Tracker” iPhone app, working on a rap album, getting busted for pot possession.
At ROFLcon, he vamps it up for well-wishers who throng him, even singing along with the boombox guy when the latter gives Rick Astley a rest and puts on Antoine’s song, which is not really Antoine’s song, but rather Antoine speak-singing something he never knew would become a song. At a Q&A, Dodson, contemplating the weird life-turn that has brought him to MIT, seems bashful and ghetto fabulous all at once. He’s reluctant to put himself all the way out there (though everyone at this conference stresses the importance of embracing your meme—you don’t want to be like Star Wars Kid), while obligatorily playing the sassy black sitcom character that white hipsters so clearly enjoy. It’s hard to tell if they’re laughing with him or at him when they ask questions like, “Do you not have a wife, or are you just hiding her?” (Dodson is openly and flamboyantly gay, hence the joke.)
I ask a straightforward question: What was it like when he saw himself autotuned because his sister had nearly been raped? As the words leave my mouth, I can feel the room turn slightly against me. Someone nearby tsks. How dare I pop the irony bubble? Allowing real-world concerns to intrude on the memesphere is considered bad form.
Dodson gamely responds, “I was upset, you know what I’m saying, due to the fact that [it] happened to my sister. But when they kept showing me the video, I just kept laughing.” Sometimes in the memesphere, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Or worse, get talked about disapprovingly by the hive, like Star Wars Kid.
Not every meme buys all the way in, though, like the “Huh?” guy, for instance. “Huh?” guy’s real name is Nate Dern. I encounter him on the “Micro-Fame to Nano-Fame” panel. He leans toward the latter. His big moment came when he uttered one word—“Huh?”—in an AT&T commercial. The part-time actor, finding it funny that he’d been auditioning for three years and that his first commercial consisted of saying one word (which he improvised), posted it to Reddit. From there, as Know Your Meme reports, it hit the front page, and gained 500,000 views in its first 72 hours on YouTube. “Huh?” guy was on his way to memehood.
Dern proves to be thoughtful, as well as amusing. In addition to being an actor and comic, he studies sociology at NYU. He still reads books (books!), and actually recommends a few to me, such as my new bible, the aforementioned You Are Not a Gadget. It’s a book that I should’ve caught when it made a splash two years ago, as someone who writes semi-regular screeds pointing out that the Tech Triumphalists Have No Clothes (in the hope that computers can’t replace me when the time comes, as they won’t be able to replicate my cynicism). But I’d missed it. Probably because I was busy watching “Bed Intruder” on YouTube. Nobody’s pure.
“Huh?” guy seems bemused that so many people here and elsewhere are trying to figure out how to go viral, since most often, people go viral precisely because they weren’t trying. (See Antoine Dodson.) “I don’t think we’re quite at the end of the world,” says Dern. “You can find quotations from people who said the same when novels were coming out. But that being said, it is worrisome that there are so many structures in place that reward cheapness.”
Though Dern’s lament is utterly valid, it’s not one I hear often at ROFLcon. More frequent are complaints, such as those of Matt Harding of “Where the Hell Is Matt?” fame (in which Harding dances like an idiot in locations throughout the world—YouTube views: 42,740,939), 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 everywhere: “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 cosponsor 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 and Tony Hawk 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.
They’ve popped Antoine Dodson’s video, and are in fact responsible for bringing him here. As Eyeboogie strategist/CFO Chris Frisina nakedly admits, “We want to be the Hall of Fame of memes. What VH-1 did for rock stars, we want to do for YouTube stars.” In a back room at MIT, Frisina and Eyeboogie president Woody Thompson are shooting slo-mo promos with all the talent. They invite me to join them as the Vegan Black Metal Chef—a viral video star known for wearing lots of black and chainmail and speaking in a Satanic voice while giving recipes for pad Thai—hacks a lettuce head in midair with some sort of medieval blade.
Frisina makes everyone get behind a camera barrier, in case the chef loses control, and the blade goes flying. “That would be a giggle death,” I offer, as it would be hard for the minister to keep a straight face at the funeral of someone who gets accidentally butchered by the Vegan Black Metal Chef. “It would be a meme for sure,” says Frisina, already thinking like an old pro.
But it’s not all filthy commerce. If there’s one meme who seems to be on a spiritual journey, it is, unsurprisingly, Double Rainbow Guy, aka Bear Vasquez. Unless you’re Amish, you’ve probably seen his video. (YouTube hits: 33,866,753.) If you haven’t, “Double Rainbow” is simple enough. Bear, who lives in a trailer on a mountain just outside Yosemite, where he raises fruit trees, chickens, and marijuana (legally, for a medical ailment), spotted a double rainbow, and started filming. While his face never appears, he talks to himself in a series of oohs and ahhs and exclamations: “Oh my God! . . . Oh my God! . . . Double rainbow!!!!” There is squealing. There is crying. Not since the time of Noah has a man been so happy to see a rainbow. Though Noah never got autotuned. (Autotuned Double Rainbow’s YouTube hits: 2,927,475.)
Bear, coincidentally, is a bear of a man. He wears a rainbow shirt, and has rainbow bands throughout his long hair and beard. He is the star of his panel—the same panel featuring “Huh?” guy. He makes the crowd laugh when he insists he wasn’t high when spotting the double rainbow, though he was during an earlier video effort—Single Rainbow. Bear is not only being watched by the crowd. A habitual YouTube uploader, he is watching them with two cameras of his own as he speaks—one handheld, one on a short tripod. The meme is filming the crowd watching him be a meme, while the whole thing is being filmed by PopSpot. Mega-meta.
After his panel, Bear and I adjourn for dinner at a nearby pub. He tells me of the weird richness that is his life. “It’s trippy,” he repeatedly says. He relates how he escaped the violent East L.A. of his youth. He speaks of his different vocational iterations: as a firefighter, EMT, and security officer in Yosemite. He tells me how as a truck driver, he ended up putting on so much weight, he clocked in at over 400 pounds. To lose weight, he became an amateur ultimate fighter until getting injured.
He tells me how Jimmy Kimmel discovered his video, which got all the madness rolling. He speaks of the spoils of viral videohood. How Eastern European women come to visit him and pick fruit on his small farm as he films them. (It’s not porn, though maybe it should be.) He relates how a high school in Iceland flew him over, put on a play for him, let him sit on a throne as he watched it, and smothered him in affection as though he were a minor deity. “The principal made me the protector of the student body!” Bear says, both astonished and confused.
The next day, his Icelandic hosts took him to swim in a hot emerald lake. “Dude, it’s trippy,” he says. He didn’t know if it was appropriate to go swimming with these students. “I’m this old fat man, right?” But sure enough, everyone was okay with the protector of the student body swimming with their daughters. “All the girls under a hot waterfall. I’m holding them in my arms. They’re all surrounding me, putting this cream on me. It was mind-boggling. I was, like, wow!”
I tell Bear he leads a weird life.
“No s—!” he agrees. “And everything is all backed up on video. . . . Go to my [YouTube] channel. . . . It’s all there, dude. That’s why I make videos, because no one would believe it.”
Bear believes God has smiled on him. In fact, he believes the double rainbow that left him so genuinely awestruck is the eye of God. Perhaps winking at him, and the tent at the bottom of the frame, which was filled, he admits, with his medical marijuana plants. God, according to Bear, is pro-pot.
Bear says that’s what the video is about. Not pot. But the sights and sounds of being in God’s presence. “God was using my mouth to say s—,” says Bear. And with his newfound celebrity, he has a message to relay, which he covers in three bullet points:
• Love your fellow man.
• Walk gently on Mother Earth.
• Connect to spirit.
Not bad talking points for a meme, I admit. “I’m only a vessel,” he says modestly.
Bear is a man who has lived frugally on $6,000 a year. He doesn’t need much money, but it tries to find him now and then. He gladly did a commercial for Microsoft’s editing software, coveting the equipment, since he didn’t know how to edit beforehand. (“That’s why there’s no edits in Double Rainbow. . . . If it happened now, it’d be totally different.”) Chevy bought a $50,000 option just for the audio of Double Rainbow, for a commercial they never made. And he did make an ad with Jennifer Aniston, for Smart Water. “She’s amazing,” Bear beams. “I asked her if I could look into her eyes—they’re purple.”
The one thing he won’t do is allow YouTube ads to be superimposed on his video. “That’s sacred. You can’t put an ad on God,” he says. Wait, I stop him. “Didn’t you tell me you sold the rights to Chevy?” “That’s the audio,” Bear corrects. “God told me I could use the audio, not the video.”
It’s all been pretty fantastic, he says. He always knew he’d be famous, and now he is. He continues to post videos, hoping he might catch viral lightning in a bottle again, like so many of the other memes. But there is one downside. A pretty big one, actually. He didn’t see it coming, and it’s hit him kind of hard. It is this: Bear was a man who didn’t spend much time in the memeverse before he became one. He has everything he needs right in his own backyard. He lives on the side of a mountain. He swims underwater with big rainbow trout. He is surrounded by natural wonder.
But when he makes a video now, “It’s totally changed. I’m not alone anymore.” He no longer experiences things in order to experience them. He experiences them thinking about how other people are going to see him experience them. “When I shot Double Rainbow, I was completely by myself and didn’t have any expectation of anyone seeing it. Now, that thought is gone. It’s good that there are people who follow me and love me. But that ability to capture the perfect moment is gone. The perfect moment is not there anymore, because I’m not by myself. Everyone is watching.”
Despite the copycat nature of the memeverse, you meet all kinds at ROFLcon. Including the copycatter-in-chief, Ben Huh (no relation to “Huh?” guy), who I run into at his open-bar afterparty. He’s easy to spot, as he’s wearing his trademark zany Warholian glasses. Huh’s Cheezburger Network not only owns icanhascheezeburger.com, which serves as LOLcat HQ on the Internet, but 60 other sites (from Fail Blog to Know Your Meme). He is loathed by anticommercialism 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. As Huh will later say in a fiery Q&A (which hecklers interrupt, accusing him of “raping the Internet,” before they’re ejected): “We can talk meritocratically about what is quality. Quality is the enjoyment people have. Whether it’s misspelled captions on cats, or . . . videos where [people] get kicked in the nuts. . . . That’s not what quality content seems like to a lot of people. . . . Yet that’s what we as a society are starting to believe is quality content.” Huh, for all his entrepreneurial acumen, seems blissfully unaware that just because something is happening doesn’t mean it should happen.
One guy who still does put 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 32 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, who 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. Keyboard Cat is definitely cooler than a reality star. There’s something that gets in the fabric of people’s souls with memes.” These aren’t just Internet-fame’s lottery winners, says Lashes. “The memes are art. This is the kind of s— Warhol prophesied.”
Far be it from me, a guy who’s squandered countless hours watching brain-addling reality television, to lecture a meme manager or Andy Warhol or Ben Huh about what constitutes art. Still, Lashes’s utterance did put me in mind of a smart art-world novel, An Object of Beauty, by the actor and comedian Steve Martin.
In it, Martin ruminates over how Warhol and his silkscreens of soup cans could come to be valued, both critically and monetarily, as though he were on par with the great masters. That couldn’t happen, he writes, “if you were older and believed in the philosophy of art as rapture, and didn’t expect the next great development in art to be a retreat from beauty and an exploration of ordinariness.” However, if you had no stake in the past, or appreciation for the difficulty of paint versus the ease of silkscreen, “You saw the images unencumbered, as bright and funny, but most of all ironic. This new art started with the implied tag, ‘This is ironic, so I’m just kidding,’ but shortly the tag changed to, ‘This is ironic, and I’m not kidding.’ ”
If there is one panel at ROFLcon even more meta than the “Metameme” panel, it is when three staffers from Know Your Meme take the stage with Blake Boston (his real name). Boston had arrived with his posse—his mom, his meme manager Ben Lashes, and open-shirted Naked Dave, a childhood friend whom Boston’s mom tells to “button your shirt, I can see your pubes.”
Boston comes out to loud entrance music with handcuffs dangling from one wrist as though he escaped from prison. “I’m what you call a meme, whatever the hell that is,” announces Boston. Boston’s meme is known as “Scumbag Steve,” which he had nothing to do with. Though he has now so fully come to embrace the meme that he appears to have turned into some sort of human/meme hybrid. More than any other meme at ROFLcon, Boston’s/Scumbag’s is a curious tale.
When Boston was a teenager (he’s now 21), his mother loved to experiment with photography. Boston wanted to be a rapper, and even helmed his own crew, Beantown Mafia. Partly as a goof, his mother bought him a New Era Red Sox hat, told him to put on his gangster rapper rig, and she took some unfortunate photos of him, which she posted onto MySpace. “MySpace!” says Boston, to titters from the crowd, as though that were another lifetime ago, since who would use such a hick site now?
In 2011, years later, his photo was randomly found, lifted, and posted, unwittingly making him one of the Internet’s most famous memes, as the hive set about captioning away. The Scumbag Steve character is regarded as a mooch, a poseur, and an all-around dirtbag. So that the caption formula over his picture goes like “Pukes On Something . . . Disappears” or “Don’t Worry, Bro, I’ll Pay You . . . Next Week.” Not terribly exciting. Except the hive thinks otherwise. As Know Your Meme reports, Meme Generator alone (which provides macros so you can easily put your own captions on images) has had more than 150,000 Scumbag Steve submissions.
Boston is received like visiting royalty. He kicks off his tale with, “So I’m this little s— running around thinking I’m all gangsta, ‘Yeah bro, like let’s go to the pahhhty.’ ” He plays his character to the hilt, a suburban wannabe with a Southie accent. He has clockwork timing, with just enough edge to keep everyone alert, but not so much that he isn’t likeable. When moderator and Know Your Meme editor Brad Kim has trouble locating the questions, Boston lapses into Scumbag meme narration: “Scumbag Panel Shows Up . . . Doesn’t Bring the Questions.” He gets a huge laugh, one of many. “I’m here all day, ladies and gentleman,” he says.
Boston seems like he was born to be a faux gangster rapper, instead of what he was before his meme hit—a chef, who was studying criminal justice and who wanted to work with troubled youth. Those days are over, his mom tells me, now that Boston’s embraced the meme. He was angry at first. His mother was upset her son had become a stand-in for all scumbags. His father wanted to track down who did this and get them to take it down, as if you can eradicate a mind virus once it’s spread. His relatives would call, telling his parents how they had to get this removed. They don’t even know what memes are.
Finally, Boston just decided to roll with it. “You can’t fight the Internet,” he says. “It’s pretty much like going against Mike Tyson or Muhammad Ali. So what you gotta do is ignore it or embrace it. You can’t get rid of it once it’s there. It’s there forever.” The audience loves him for accepting his fate. They boo when a Pepsi ad is shown that ripped off the Scumbag Steve character with no mention of the real deal. They go crazy when Boston’s new rap video, “The Scumbag Steve Overture,” is shown. It looks and sounds like it was shot for a public access station in 1985. But 24 hours after hitting YouTube, it gets more than 1.2 million views.
Not everyone accepts their fate, though. Some people foolishly fight back. Know Your Meme’s Kim walks us through a cautionary tale, of “I Can Count to Potato” girl. A ubiquitous Internet phrase that for years has been used to mock people as though they have learning disabilities, it actually did come to mock a girl with Down syndrome, when the phrase was slapped over her photo, which was lifted from a support group site for parents whose kids have been diagnosed with Down.
The photo was taken years ago. However, her mother recently found it on a Facebook page that was making fun of learning-disabled kids. Unable to get the pictures taken down, the incensed and distressed mother went to the British media to complain. The entire room at ROFLcon seems to collectively roll their eyes. Everyone knows not to do this. Memes want to be free. And such culture-deaf behavior is a strict violation of what Kim says is known as the Streisand Effect (Barbra Streisand once tried to sue to get aerial photos of her house removed from a website, thus ensuring the photos spread everywhere).
Ever conscientious—he’s not defending the meme—Kim says he’s put his head together with colleagues, and thinks it might be advisable to start a “Know Your Meme guidelines or a manual to Internet fame,” since it’s “safe to assume” that unlike with Boston/Scumbag, “parents don’t know how, like, the Internet culture and trolls even work.”
I feel like I need to go to the school nurse and get my ears checked. Could I have heard that right? To recap: A mother, whose daughter with Down syndrome is turned into a ubiquitous Internet joke, gets upset, tries to get the photo taken down, goes to the media when she can’t, and it’s her fault?
I feel like I’m alone in my moral outrage, until I hear a voice from the back of the room, which starts putting the wood to Kim: “I think it puts you in a weird position to say how the parent should react when you’ve got ads next to her Down syndrome kid. . . . So who else should they go to, if they can’t go to the media? Who are you to say they shouldn’t be pissed off about it when you’re making money from an ad there?” The voice belongs to Ben Lashes, Scumbag’s meme manager. I don’t share similar philosophies with Lashes on most things meme-related, but right about now, I want to hug him.
“Crickets, crickets, crickets,” says Boston/Scumbag during the deafening silence.
“That’s an interesting question,” says a taken-aback Kim, momentarily stunned that someone would challenge rules of the game that have already been ratified. Ads aren’t his department. “We literally just stare at monitors 12 hours a day and do these things.”
Boston jumps in, saying that maybe Potato girl’s mom could learn from his example, so that she doesn’t feel so alone. As if it’s an option for Potato girl to cut a dopey rap video and open a Tumblr blog embracing her meme.
Lashes isn’t having it, and goes to war against his own client. That’d be fine, Lashes says, “if she could stick up for herself, but she can’t, so that’s the difference here. We all know what’s wrong with the girl, unfortunately. So why should we expect her to know what a meme is? And for her mom to even go through the trouble to get our culture, when we’re the ones who went into her house and took a picture of her daughter and are putting jokes on it.”
I jump in and help Lashes go to work on Kim. (Me: “You’re saying, ‘Here is a guide of how to act properly if you are violated,’ correct?” Kim, after awkward pause: “Right.”)
After the panel, I meet up with Lashes to commiserate. He is still fuming: “You notice when they show the Pepsi commercial, everyone boos, because that’s Scumbag Steve getting ripped off, and because it’s Pepsi and the guy sitting there we all love. But when it’s the girl with the disability, and it’s their website making money off it, then [the girl’s mom] is the bad guy for taking it the wrong way. She’s ruining the party, and their ad money that they use to stare at computers all day.”
If my fake meme, “Shorty, I Farted,” ever takes off, I’m hiring this guy.
After ROFLcon concludes, a rollicking afterparty 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’s hysterical lament about his sister nearly getting raped. 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 lifelike 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 behind Boston during the “Scumbag Steve Overture.”
Testa is about the most unlikely backup dancer you can imagine. 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 and my anus / 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.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.