On Saturday morning, two of America's most influential cultural figures were sitting in the bowels of Wieden + Kennedy, arguing about pictures of cats and My Little Pony fans, while several hundred people stared and took notes.
It was just one of many slightly surreal scenes at ROFLcon Summit—a spin-off of the larger ROFLcon Internet conference held every two years at MIT—which aimed to "bring together the leading generators, preservers and advancers of online culture."
On one side of the debate was Christopher Poole, perhaps known better by his online handle "moot" but most likely not known to the average person at all. Poole is the founder of 4chan (warning: so very NSFW), an anonymous message board known both as the breeding ground for many Internet jokes or memes—lolcats, Rickrolling, and the baffling popularity of the My Little Pony cartoon show amongst grown men—as well as the online activist group Anonymous. It gets over 7 million visitors a month.
On the other was Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Networks, an online empire of about 50 websites, the flagship of which is I Can Has Cheezburger (that's the cats), which republishes those Internet jokes, alongside ads in a format that's more palatable—and safe for work—for the average reader. Collectively, his sites draw around 340 million page views a month.
"I think Ben's business model is akin to an oil tower," Poole told WW. Thin and lanky, with a wave of blond hair falling over one side of his face, he spent much of the day in quiet conversation with circles of admiring young men gathered around him, with a low key presence befitting the tone of his website. "It's sitting on top of the web extracting value from it…. It's a content site, it's user generated, some of it onsite, a lot of it offsite and they throw ads around it and make money off it."
In the insular microcosm of online culture, it might have felt like Martin Luther butting heads with the Pope. But in a broader context, it's perhaps more akin to two Baptist preachers debating scripture and morality.
"All of us here actually want to do good," said Huh, an enigmatic Korean-born, Seattle-based entrepreneur with a degree in journalism and a penchant for colorful eye glasses. "We all want to leave the world a better place than when we started."
But cat pictures weren't really the issue. For some evangelists of the Internet, lolcats are merely representative of a massive cultural shift that they believe will inevitably change mainstream society.
"I think we're living in a transitory period between consumptive culture, which is taking everything in one way, versus participating in the culture creation, which is a two-way process," said Huh. "If you look at the 1950s and '60s, when televisions became the dominant culture. Before that, you didn't have rock stars—you had musicians and they played on the radio and you didn't know who they were; you just listened and appreciated it. It wasn't until television allowed you to connect with the artist by seeing them and connecting with them personally in a one-way medium that the rock stars were born. The Internet's having the same effect. We're changing how we see culture and pop culture. Instead of relying on television executives to tell you what you should watch, we're taking it back and sayings we want to remix it, we can add commentary. This idea belongs to everybody and I think it will become the dominant culture for everyone."
"I think places like this are incredibly important for people that like to take part in their media to not just passively consume, but inform each other about their preferences and about what they're making," concurred Chris Menning, a "viral media researcher" for website BuzzFeed, which tracks viral content on the internet and, for a fee, helps advertisers tap into the online market. Menning started out with Know Your Meme, a website dedicated to chronicling and researching the origins of each and every Internet meme. Menning says the debates over the monetization of user-generated online content are born from a place of genuine concern.
"These things that go viral tend to be born out of a community," he explained. "It's an artifact of culture. Any time you commoditize culture, people can get very upset. Anytime any cultural movement goes mainstream, that's received very negatively. When pop became pop punk, when rap music became background music for TV commercials, the people who were there for the onset feel like they'd lost something."
Despite "Never Gonna Give You Up" playing on repeat in the restrooms and a giant papier-mâché Forever Alone sculpture behind the panel, several speakers and attendees noted a more academic tone compared with previous ROFLcons. Panels discussed the Internet's role in geopolitics, how digital rights activists defend free speech online, and why the web must be archived (yes, even your old Geocities page).
But whether the topic was the Arab Spring or the Tron Guy, there seemed to be a shared faith that the Internet can and will make the world a better place—so long as it's kept out of the hands of the government and Mark Zuckerberg.
"I don't know when, but I do know what will need to occur and that will be for television to lose its dominance," said Huh. "Too many people watch too much television and give it too much credence for Internet culture to be dominant…. When the power of that degrades, is when diversity and weirdness become more normal."