ROFLCon day one: funny, but not insightful

One of the major challenges of any conference on humor is that there are different modes for humor and analysis and in many ways they conflict.

You can stay inside the humor, enjoy the meme, and celebrate the cultural profusion – which is pretty much what day one of ROFLCon was all about – or you can try to set a context, understand what is going on in the humor, and analyze what the memes tell us about the culture(s) from which they originate, the culture(s) in which they succeed or fail, flourish or thrive, or even about the nature of cultural transmission itself.

The hope of ROFLCon, for me, was always that it would bring together these two modes: bringing academic, critical analysis into the same space with Tron guy, the Mozilla fox, Cheez, and other meme-originating microcelebrities:

Mix up a bunch of super famous internet memes, some brainy academics, a big audience, dump them in Cambridge, MA and you’ve got ROFLCon.

Day one essentially was devoid of the analysis and critique part. Weinberger’s intro did provide some context and implied a potential critique (the motivation behind some kinds of cultural meme spreading being hateful, condescending, patronizing, etc), the panels on LOLCats and the mis-titled “Pwning for the good of mankind” got stuck inside the memes.

While the LOLCat panel was well moderated, and interesting, the level of analysis stopped at speculations about what “cat people” are like. The panel:

PANEL: LOLCATS: I CAN HAZ CASE STUDY?: How do you see the development of the LOLCat? What do you think people will think of the LOLCat when they look back in 30 years? (Room 34-101)

Moderator: Alexis Ohanian
Panelists: “Cheez” (I Can Has Cheezburger), Martin Grondin (LOLCat Bible), Ryan and Arija (LOLSecretz), Stephen Granades (LOLTrek), Adam Lindsay (LOLCode)

Lots of wonderful sites I love – LOLCode and the LOLCat Bible in particular are creative take offs on the original ICHC.

During the Pwning for Mankind panel:

PWNING FOR GOOD OF MANKIND: How did you start doing what you do? What motivated you to use internet culture against established forces? What allowed you to mobilize attention against the non-internet world? Did it happen unintentionally? (Room 34-101)

Moderator: Lana Swartz, Comparative Media Studies, MIT

Panelists: Dino Ignacio (Bert Is Evil), Leslie Hall (Gem Sweater), Justine Ezarik (iJustine), Ji Lee (Bubble Project), Eric Schoenborn (ACLU)

Unforunately, the only real evidence of social critique was provided by the ACLU representative who brought up net neutrality and the daily battles against censorship, political repression, and the elimination of privacy on which folks like the ACLU and the EFF focus. (Ok, maybe the Bubble Project’s agenda to limit outdoor advertising is a social critique, but it was only briefly discussed). I don’ really know the Gem Sweaters project, but she never broke character or tried to explain what it might be about, other than getting people to wear gem sweaters.

I think Tron guy’s funny too, and I am a tremendous fan of LOLCats, LOLDogs, and every other manifestation of the LOL meme. But I came to a conference not to just surf the web and laugh about the absurd, creative, wonderful, insipid, profound, politically repugnant, progressive, mess that is humor on the web.

I’m hoping day two will restore the balance a bit. Based on the schedule, there’s some good reason to hope. (Not that only formal academics can do critical analysis, but they’re more likely to have those chops than, say, iJustine or the Million Dollar Web Page guy.