Today with MIT Civic Media Center’s Matt Stempeck and Stephen Suen, I’m live-blogging ROFLCon, a conference for things and people who are famous on the Internet. The livenote index is here.

Christina Xu, the event organizer, starts off ROFLCon to cheers. It’s an amazingly packed venue. “One out of eight people in this room have done something crazy on the Internet,” she says.

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Jonathan Zittrain

Zittrain on memes and society

Jonathan Zittrain is an Internet phenomenon. Emerging from humble beginnings as a longtime CompuServe forum sysop, he is now professor of law at Harvard Law School where he co-founded the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

He starts by saying that fame can be tricky: “Just before the talk, someone came up to me and said, ‘are you the huh guy? I thought you were the huh guy! I’m not that famous. I can aspire. In this room is the engine that makes the Internet sing … Who’s minding the store? Is this going to be a day without memes?”

“Where’s Tron Guy?” asks Zittrain. Tron Guy, in full costume, raises his hand, and the room bursts into applause.

Zittrain says he isn’t sure if he’s one of these “Internet ROFL people” — hence the tie. It’s hard to explain what you’re doing this weekend to friends and family who are not part of this tribe, he quips.

But he does have some background in the Internet. He shows us a picture of him using a Texas Instruments home computer with a 300-baud modem, with the obligatory model rockets, and the Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus — just because you might run out of words.

Zittrain used to work for CompuServe and also got involved in politics. He threw his weight behind Mondale/Ferraro 1984. “At least I carried Minnesota,” he says. “And the District of Columbia.” When he wasn’t doing those things, he was usually spending time stuffed inside a locker. “Whatever that does not stuff you so that you die, makes you stronger,” he noted.

Zittrain thinks the image of a nerd stuffed in a locker helps us understand memes — the dramatic moment of pathos.

“They’re all crazy; I’m normal … they’re bad, and we’re good. And here’s to us for being good,” he says. But that opens us up to the charge that this culture, the Internet, is not real life, and is rather a form of retreat. At the base of a lot of memes is some authentic, unguarded voluntary moment, Zittrain says. There’s artifice around it, but there is often something authentic beneath it. That’s not always the case — consider Dramatic Hamster. Sometimes a hamster isn’t a hamster. But there are other times that it’s striking closer to a certain chord.

Wires can be crossed when this culture is commercialized. The nerds struck back against Hot Topic when they produced a T-shirt of Rage Guy.

unstaged authenticity

There’s something about commercialization which is always at arm’s length of Internet culture. Zittrain talks to us about the most recent Calgary Comic Con, where they invited the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Going to the cons involves waiting in lines to get your photo with the cast. It has an Apple Commercial 1984 feel to it — take a photo with the cast, you cannot touch the cast. He tells us about one of the least proud moments of The Oatmeal, a contest for advice features. There appears to be a negative attitude towards those who intentionally try to “engineer” a meme. People don’t like being prompted — it feels like trying too hard, feels inorganic.

We like unstaged authenticity, like Disaster Girl, who grins deviously as a house burns to the ground behind her. She rather enjoys the attention, and we are pleased to see her embrace her inadvertent success, but there are still lines that you can cross. The point at which you’re running your own network and have a store— maybe not.

Internet Fame is like winning the lottery — it seems good until someone gets killed. What better example of this ambivalence than Star Wars Kid? So far as he knew, this was an exercise that would be completely private. He didn’t realize that when he turned the camcorder in at school that it would be posted to YouTube. Jonathan shows us the video of the the Matrix Version of Star Wars Kid. In Wikipedia, there’s a debate on the talk page on whether or not it is right for Wikipedia, the knowledge repository of record for humanity, to include his name in the page. Ultimately, they decided not to name him, despite the fact that the mainstream media has done it several times. And people on Wikipedia fell into line— upholding the process with which they disagreed.

Can we build an infrastructure of meme propagation that respects people’s preferences. He shows us one of the Awkward Family photo sites, with an image that says, “Image removed at request of owner.” There are enough yuks to go around, so why not take down private content when someone asks us to?

Jonathan would love to see an infrastructure built native to the web which makes it possible for people to opt out of the celebrity of being a meme. This isn’t DRM, but maybe something like robots.txt (a directive that tells web crawlers like Google which subdirectories not to index). Search companies respect robots.txt. No Internet organization created this. But people and companies respect it anyway— a way to say, “Do you mind?” This is often used with court documents. How could we build this into our technology and our culture? One guy made a T-shirt that reads, “I do not agree to the publication of this photo.”

In short, how can we enjoy the culture of Lulz which also respecting people’s wishes?

A longer version of this post can be found on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

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