Tuesday, March 8, 2011

ROFLCon: Origins

Tim, Diana, and Christina onstage at the closing session of ROFLCon 2008, by Doc Searls

On April 25th, 2008, the internet exploded. Jagged pieces rained down and landed, exhilarated and slightly askew, in a giant conference room at MIT—just in time for ROFLCon, a half-serious, half-crazy celebration of internet culture. But how did we get there? Next Tuesday at 9:30am in Austin, Texas, Tim Hwang, Christina Xu and I will be at SXSW Interactive talking about how ROFLCon began and what it's become. So we thought we'd open the vault a little early to give you a sneak preview of what's in store. Because if there's one thing we've learned, it's this: fact is stranger than fiction!

Everything started on on September 23, 2007, at the xkcd meetup in Cambridge, MA. The New York Times reports:
Back then [Tim] was finishing up degrees in economics and political science at Harvard, and he, Christina Xu, who was a fellow student, and other friends began hashing out their definition of “Internet awesome.” They were partly inspired by Randall Munroe, creator of the online comic XKCD, who used a coded message to invite fans to gather in a certain park at a certain time. Hundreds of people showed up. To Hwang, who later became a Berkman Center researcher, there was something curiously powerful about hundreds of strangers gathering in physical space to bond over a shared Internet obsession that most people had never heard of. “Wow, this is a culture in a real sense,” he recalls thinking. “It’s not just people fooling around online.”
xkcd meetup by Dan Bruno

And Christina tells it like this:
ROFLCon was an idea that Tim Hwang and I came up with while we were at the xkcd meetup last September. We were fascinated by the real world manifestation of this community that had been constructed around a piece of internet culture–the social structures it took on, the way people interacted with each other once they were face to face, and the Stone Soup mentality of the participants involved. It got us joking around about what the rest of the internet would look like in real life (Goatse and Tron Guy and Star Wars kid all in the same room?), which we quickly decided was the most horrifying idea we had ever come up with in a storied tradition of bad ideas. Then we decided to do it–it was just too epic not to.
My version, from the still-fresh perspective of disbelief in 2008:
During the conference itself, I ran around the whole time, clutching papers and making phonecalls and tracking down water bottles and tapping microphones with trepidation. It was a high-definition blur. It was amazing. It was over too soon. 
But the backstory is just as outrageous. Christina […] was there in the very beginning. Me? I was there in the almost-beginning. The not-quite. I'd only just met Tim and Christina; had only barely started to map my then-obsession with BoingBoing to real-world things, like Free Culture. And ice cream. I already knew, from my very miniature stained-glass window view into their world, that these kids could do anything. So when Tim sent out an email to curious comrades, wondering whether we'd be interested in making this ROFLCon thing happen, I said yes. It was a strong yes. It may even have been in boldface. But I was far from sure about what I was getting into. 
You know what, though? Nobody was really sure about what they were getting into. We made it up as we went along, which led to tripping on instances of ridiculous serendipity and also tripping over puddles of danger. 

But let's not get ahead of ourselves: in the beginning, there was a blog post.

 And We're Here
So we had this great (?) idea to do a conference with every single internet meme EVER this coming spring in Cambridge to talk about fame and celebrity online. 
This blog will track that effort over the next six months — the trials, tribulations, unexpected successes, and likely (but enlightening) complications that ensue. 
With any hope, the conference will be an irreverent celebration of the amateur insanity, the 15-millisecond celebrity, and outright geekdom at the (dark?) heart of the internet. 
It’ll be ROFLcon 2008. 
And yes, we’re going to try to get goatse. 
PS: Updated every other day, if not daily.
Once Tim and Christina got the idea in their heads, creating a blog was the first step to making it come true. And it was a surprisingly effective step; the blog, even with its sheep header and sage-green accents, lent the endeavor just enough legitimacy—or novelty—that when they started inviting internet stars, the stars started writing back.

On October 19th, 2007, Jay Maynard—a.k.a. Tron Guyagreed to come to ROFLCon. It was a red letter day, and the start of an avalanche. Over the next eleven days, as more guests started signing on, Tim realized it was time to rally some troops. On October 30th, he sent out a call to action. And that's where I come in.

The "simple, very organized" spreadsheet proved its worth: over the next six months, the ROFLAccommodations spreadsheet grew to incorporate over a hundred rows and a monstrously complicated color-coding scheme. But it was worth it: everything had a place.

One tiny fragment of the ROFLAccommodations spreadsheet

Let the record show that by November 6th, I had been assimilated, and had devoted myself to the mission. A brief conversation with nickd went like so:

By November 22nd, the transformation was complete. In an email to Tim, I wrote:

And on December 13th, we hit a very important milestone: our first sponsorship, from Scott Beale of Laughing Squid. We tried to stay professional and keep our cool, but behind the scenes, we were totally elated. Money was real, and that meant ROFLCon was undeniably real, too—it was happening. 

On January 9th, 2008, the day registration opened, Carrie nearly gave us a heart attack: what would happen if more than 250 people registered? It seemed impossible, so we decided not to worry about it just yet.

But sure enough, just a few days later, we were edging into the danger zone: registration #39.
At this point, we started wondering whether we might need a bigger boat. On March 2, we finalized the big move to MIT, which more than doubled our capacity—to our relief!

Meanwhile, ROFLCon kept picking up speed. Susannah ordered lunchboxes and ROFLCondoms. Dean and Jennifer designed the Rofflies. Rachel booked flights. And in the middle of April, Dean, Jennifer, Kristen Curtis and I traded ninety-three emails about the printed programs:

ROFLCon 2008 Program
ROFLCon 2008 Program, by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

The countdown had begun. Ten days to go.

But what's a countdown without some close calls? One day before ROFLCon was to begin, MIT's Campus Activities Complex (CAC) realized that something big was about to go down on-campus and expressed great concern. Fortunately, the heroes of MIT Free Culture were able to reassure the CAC just in the nick of time.

Crisis averted. Before we knew it, it was showtime. April 25th dawned early.

A/S/L by Brian Jepson

We hung out our corrugated shingle by the registration table: calling all MEMES.


We sold shirts like hotcakes:

Hai, by Dave Fisher—more of the team!

And met the Firefox:

Organizers and Foxkeh
Organizers and Foxkeh, by Dave Fisher

I took the stage to welcome everyone and introduce Ben Schulz (a.k.a. LEEEEEEROY JENKINS)…

Diana Kimball
Diana Kimball, by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Leeeeeeeeeroy Jenkins!!!
Leeeeeeeeeroy Jenkins!!! by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

ROFLCon Group Shot
ROFLCon Group Shot, by Dave Fisher


Tim Hwang, Christina Xu, and Diana Kimball on
Internets, How Do They Work? Lessons from ROFLCon
at SXSW Interactive

Tuesday, March 15 at 9:30am
Hilton Salon F/G
500 East 4th St.
Austin, TX

We'd love to meet you there!

Friday, December 31, 2010

One After Another


It was easy to let myself be vulnerable when my problems felt more admirable. As real as term paper panic felt in college, as difficult as it was to forever be struggling to live up to my own expectations, I at least had some sense of perspective. Expressing those fears, I could tell myself, allowed me to connect with others without really risking anything. Because what was I actually revealing? Only that I could afford recreational worry; life, in general, was in order and moving forward.

And then, my brother died. But even in the midst of misery, I felt a surge of recognition that his story needed to be told, too. At the time, everything was so dark that I had another kind of perspective altogether: writing about his death and the circumstances around it could never hurt me more than the fact that he was gone. So I was honest and it was painful, but that honesty also elicited empathy I desperately needed. I felt loved and reassured, even as I felt exposed.

As I tried to return to San Francisco, though, and a new beginning that had been violently interrupted by events beyond my control, I started shutting down. Everything still felt raw and I didn’t hide that from the few people closest to me, but I was also anxious to experience some semblance of normalcy. And normalcy meant not being so vulnerable; words I wrote in public became quieter, more oblique. I would post pictures of happy moments or publish fragmented, impersonal observations, but I had an incredibly difficult time articulating anything that felt true. In fact, the truth was this: I was already so vulnerable that “letting myself be vulnerable” felt like a hilarious oxymoron. At my best moments, what I let myself be was not “vulnerable,” but calm.

Yet the past few months found me restless. As I started to recover a desire to write but wrestled with finding words, I somehow misremembered what I loved about writing in public in the first place. “It was because everything was easier back then,” I would think, and reflect fondly on recreational worry and the long-gone luxury of thinking that maybe someday everything would be perfect. Thinking about it more, though, I’ve realized that’s not it at all. Things were hard then too, and I never shied away from that; it’s just that my difficulties felt more aspirational than basic. I at least felt sure that moving through those difficulties—understanding complex topics, discovering and articulating new knowledge, learning how to build relationships with others—would bring me closer to the person I longed to become. After Spencer died, though, that energy of proximity instantly became a distant memory. In its absence, I fumbled to accept that I’d somehow taken about a hundred steps backward—that I could no longer handle the simplest challenges with grace. And as hard as that was to experience, incorporating it into the way I represented myself felt approximately impossible. So I focused on what seemed knowable, tried to pick up the pieces, worked to stay connected to my family and a handful of close friends. Otherwise, I didn’t say much at all.

But that restlessness that crept in? I couldn’t name it until today, but I think I’ve been missing the connection that used to follow from letting myself be known, fearlessly and openly. It’s true that being fearless felt easier when there was less to be afraid of, but I’d like to work back toward being courageous in the only context available to me: the world I live in now.

The truth is, it’s a beautiful world. I live with someone I love, and every day we get to laugh and wonder together. San Francisco became home more quickly than I ever could have hoped. This year, my brave friends stared down mono with humor and courage and bicycled home in New Orleans at night. My brother Jordan dug deep and found a way to reach new heights academically, even as grief remained a stalwart companion; as he looks toward college, the world is more open to him than it’s ever been, and he’s more open to it. My parents have worked to replenish and lovingly renew the life and home they have, rather than racing to the ends of the earth seeking something new or a chance at escape.

As for me, I’ve learned a mix of hard and encouraging truths about myself at work and at rest; neither state comes as naturally to me as I’d like it to, but I’ve started to more gently accept that not everything has to happen at once. My hope for the new year, instead, is simply that things happen one after another and that I can approach them with honesty and curiosity. This is a resolution I can hold close.

With gratitude to Brené Brown for her life-shifting book The Gifts of Imperfection, and to the people I love for loving me in return.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Global Ambitions: Atlanta's 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition

The 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition

At dawn on September 18, 1895, the city of Atlanta stirred. Cool breezes meandered through town as late summer sunshine beamed down from a cloudless sky. Six a.m. brought the moment everyone had been waiting for: at last, the gates of the Cotton States and International Exposition were thrown ajar.

Above Piedmont Park, “[f]rom the tops of 347 flag staffs on the buildings around the grounds floated pennants and flags of the nations of the earth.” The main entrance at 14th Street led into a compact world, which in a bird’s-eye view appeared oblong and elliptical. The main green was flanked by the Georgia building and the Auditorium. To the left lay the Agricultural building, the Mexican Village, Lake Clara Meer, and the Midway; to the right, the Fine Art and Manufactures buildings. The morning trains brought a “great crush” of travelers, the latest influx in a series of locomotive arrivals that had already brought tens of thousands of guests into town. Bicycle messengers careened through the streets, each with a “pencil in…mouth and book in hand, splitting the wind at a 2:40 gait.” Down on the grounds, programme boys in crimson outfits, “silhouetted against the prevailing background of white and gray,” presented “a spectacle that simply ravage[d] the eye.” Greeting every visitor “the instant he passes through the turnstile,” the boys darted back and forth between the buildings crowned by foreign flags undulating in the breeze.

Journalists were among the first to push their way through the turnstiles. On the eve of the exposition, the Columbus Daily Enquirer-Sun observed that Atlanta was “full of newspaper men from all parts of the world,” including representatives from the New York World, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and “correspondents from scores of papers in other cities of this and other countries.” One such journalist, Bertha Damaris Knobe, edited the women’s department of the Chicago Tribune. According to an onlooker, her beautiful grey eyes and aquiline nose looked very well above her matching shirt and coat “of brown English cloth,” its fit and finish showing “the touch of a good tailor”; a “little Napoleon hat of black braided straw went along to complete the smart costume.” That very day, the Tribune published a preliminary review of the affair: “This exposition, the accomplishment of Southern enterprise, genius, capital, and labor, is worthy of the Southern people and an institution of which all Americans justly feel a pride.” News traveled quickly, and was manufactured early; the newspaper men and women who crowded the grounds made sure of that.

Once through the gates, the 30,000 opening-day spectators confronted a half-finished masterpiece. Even a week earlier, the situation had been quite dire: the avenues of the grounds had been “bare and unsightly” until covered with “a paving of limestone and crushed blue stone.” Though only a fraction of the exhibits had arrived, few of the opening day visitors complained loudly. The exhibits would all be in place by October, they assured themselves, and besides—the inaugural spectators had not come to be edified. They were there to look at the broad sweep, to bask in the sun and energy: to witness a moment.

Elsewhere, in the center of the city, the Fifth Regiment of Georgia Volunteers and twenty-four other military companies gathered in the early morning light. At noon, the soldiers assembled around the intersection of Broad and Marietta streets, flanked by the Estey Organ Company and a local business school. Meanwhile, at the tony Kimball hotel, “a rare congregation of women”—ladies of “highest social standing” and “literary fame” among them—gathered in the hotel’s parlors under foreign flags, hung in honor of the fair. Outside the establishment, carriages and tallyhos waited; the ladies boarded, “bedecked in the latest styles,” as their vehicles “fell in line with the long procession.” At one o’clock, the parade began. The soldiers marched “through an immense throng of people,” along Marietta and past the opera house, down Forsyth, across the Western and Atlantic railroad, and then circled back, past cabinet shops, perfumers, banks, and hotels. Their compact tour of the city’s commercial center complete, the troops looped back to Marietta Street, turned, and from there began the three-mile march to Piedmont Park, where the day’s revelries would take place. As they approached the exposition grounds, the military companies slowed and came to a halt, allowing exposition officials to pass into the grounds ahead of them. Finally, the troops marched in, paused at the plaza, and “were then taken to Sheriff Callaway’s barbecue stand, where they were the guests of the exposition for a short while.”

As the afternoon advanced, the warm air became sweltering, “threaten[ing] to pass the limit of comfort,” but “the buoyant crowds on the street did not seem to mind the temperature and good humor reigned supreme.” Meanwhile, the Exposition’s guests and directors filed into a brand-new auditorium. By 3:30, “the hall was packed to suffocation, 3,500 people being present.” As the crowd milled and bustled, Victor Herbert conducted a new and original musical number, “Salute to Atlanta.” Rufus Bullock, Georgia’s former governor, presided; his first task as master of ceremonies was to introduce Colonel Albert Howell.

Howell stepped to the front of the stage, paused; exhaled. In his hands, he held the words of Frank L. Stanton, a poet and frequent contributor to the Atlanta Constitution, one of the city’s main newspapers. Sonorously, Howell began to recite the dedicatory ode.
Behold today the meeting of the lands
In pride and splendor: from far foreign strands
Great state with state clasps hands!
Here, on this southern soil, supreme and free,
Meet now no hostile bands;
But all flags wave where one of Liberty
Shakes stars down like the sands!
And from sky-cleaving towers
Time strikes the thrilling hours
Of golden promise for the years to be!
Here, though a city opens wide her gates
This is no day of cities, but of States
Supreme and crowned with progress! Here all
Gathers its glories in the Georgian clime
And sea to sea replies
And from the farthest skies
The answering bells in one glad chorus chime:
“No North, no South—but a vast world sublime!”
At the words “a vast world sublime!” cheers erupted from the audience of thousands. The applause and cheers were so deafening that “several minutes elapsed before the Chairman could introduce the next speaker.” Having lifted his city and the audience’s spirits to majestic heights, Howell stepped from center stage and gestured to President Collier, of the Exposition Company, to take his place.

Collier, Mrs. Joseph Thompson, and Booker T. Washington spoke in quick succession. At this point, the heat and bluster were beginning to tax the audience; the Memphis Commercial Appeal would later remark of the oratory that “[t]his thing of making speeches every time you cut a watermelon ha[d] grown a trifle monotonous.” But one oration yet remained, and though the audience shuffled in their seats, they rallied the patience to sit through one more. Taking the stage, Judge Speer began, “Who can doubt the educational effects of such proofs of human advancement as this exposition? A lad can walk through these halls and acquire knowledge of which Sir Isaac Newton or Sir Francis Bacon were ignorant. He may behold dainty products from all lands, for which Lucillus might have sighed in vain…”

But even as Judge Speer extolled the edifying effects of the exposition, boasting of its broad view of the world, he issued a note of warning to foreign nations. The South stood strong: despite its crippling loss in the Civil War thirty years before, the section had risen once again, and was prepared to support the Union with fierce loyalty and matchless vigor. “Let no military staff or other nations,” Speer concluded, “when it is taking into account the military power of this American Union, fail to estimate the full fighting strength of the men who wore the gray and the sons of their blood.” As these chilling words reverberated through the auditorium, the ceremony came to a humid close. The audience gathered their belongings and made their way across the lawn to Machinery Hall, where the final spectacle of the day would take place.

At Machinery Hall, the engineer Charles Foster and his assistants stood waiting, next to the Frick engine and the four-million-gallon pump. The ceremonies had run late, and so Foster had been sitting by the engine, head close to the electric valve, for half an hour. Earlier, workmen had strung a wire from Machinery Hall to Gray Gables—the summer residence of President Grover Cleveland, in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts—and installed a gold-rimmed button in Cleveland’s home. In Atlanta, the crowds gathered around the banks of the exposition’s artificial lake, Clara Meer; an operator sent the signal to Buzzard’s Bay. When Cleveland pressed the button, electricity would pulse across the wire. The charge would open a small valve in the Frick engine, forcing a jet of steam against a larger one, powering the cylinders of the giant machine. The wheels would begin to turn, and the show would officially open. But for the moment, the crowd only waited. The day was not yet done.

* * *

Measured against other world’s fairs of its day, Atlanta's 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition was small. Between opening day and the exposition’s close on December 31, just over one million spectators made their way to Piedmont Park’s two hundred rolling acres. Only two years after Chicago’s 1893 World's Fair had welcomed over 27 million visitors to its six-month extravaganza, Atlanta's attempt paled in comparison. And yet, the exposition’s organizers were aiming for more than just success by the numbers. They saw the opportunity to make a name for themselves, and they intended to seize it.

That intention is the subject of this thesis. At the turn of the twentieth century, Atlanta’s wealthy white businessmen banded together to pursue global ambitions. Holding an international exposition would position the city alongside fellow world’s fair metropolises such as New York, Paris, and Chicago. Realizing that their city’s reputation was at stake, these businessmen invited even unfavorable comparisons to previous expositions—Chicago’s, in particular—in order to be mentioned in the same breath and judged by the same standards. These men wanted nothing more than to put Atlanta on the world map. They would accept nothing less.

Comprising an elite group of bankers, industrialists, politicians, merchants, and newspapermen, characters such as Charles Collier and Rufus Bullock embodied the spirit of a place they insisted on calling the New South. A rhetorical invention, the idea of the “New South” itself represented aspiration more accurately than reality: in 1895, thirty years after the close of the Civil War, the former Confederacy’s transition to an industrial economy from an agricultural one was not only not over; it had hardly begun. Atlanta, as an industrial center and railroad hub, was one of the few economic bright spots in an otherwise bleak landscape. And in the 1890s, amidst nationwide depression, even the relative promise of Atlanta fell short of expectations.

The difference lay in the expectations themselves: in Atlanta, stakeholders and enthusiastic boosters labored tirelessly to keep them high. The city’s energy was so pervasive and persistent that visitors could not help but find it worthy of exclamation. “Atlanta,” wrote W. J. Lampton for the New York Sun in anticipation of the exposition, “is the best town in the south, present and future…She doesn’t wait for other people to come along and reap the advantages, but she buckles right to herself, and the result is—well, it is Atlanta, the Imperial City of the Empire State of the South, the City of Unceasing Endeavor, the City of Get There, the City of Atlanta.” Lampton’s words acted simultaneously as evaluation and challenge: though it might be the Imperial City of the Empire State of the South, Atlanta and her stakeholders had a way to go before becoming an imperial metropolis not “of the South,” but on the world stage.

The world stage was precisely where Atlanta’s businessmen envisioned their future would unfold. As heavy investors in Atlanta’s streetcars, mills, newspapers, and commercial establishments, they each cultivated “more than a rhetorical stake” in the city’s prosperity. With the world order destabilized by widespread war and the economic upheaval of decades of depression and industrialization, and with technology advancing at a tremendous clip, predicting the future seemed all but impossible. So, instead of predicting the future, Atlanta’s businessmen decided to build it. On a dizzying array of fronts—including industrialization, race relations, and the cultivation of international trade—they raced to get ahead, unsure of which arenas would prove most important and so improving them all. The 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition would provide an excuse to court international partners in trade, put sectional reconciliation on display, and stage a hundred-day press event. Its most significant role, though, would be simply to mark Atlanta as a place where extraordinary things could happen: and did happen, every day.

Progress, in historical writing as in civic improvement, requires periodic reinterpretations of the past. Most accounts of the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition have examined the fair in comparative frameworks, aligning it with other Southern world’s fairs of the period or with other arenas of cultural and economic production. Yet comparative perspectives obscure as much as they illuminate: by lumping Southern spectacles together, they treat Atlanta’s 1895 event as emblematic of the South, rather than as a unique outgrowth of specific contingencies. The historical record suggests another line of analysis entirely: that Atlanta’s businessmen and boosters wished to set Atlanta apart from the South; in fact, to transcend state, section, and nation entirely. These individuals wanted to put Atlanta up for consideration on its own terms. In order to control those terms, the city’s wealthy white businessmen built a regulated environment, a careful diorama: an exposition. This city within a city would also be a world within a world. The exposition would present Atlanta as an oasis of progress, a gateway to the future, detaching it from geographical and historical inertia entirely.

This is the story, then, of the stories these men told themselves, and of the façade they built to seduce the world. Considering newspapers as records of power enacted through persuasive rhetoric rather than as artifacts of objective reporting, this thesis will assemble a narrative history of the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. By triangulating evidence found in newspaper articles published across Georgia and in major U.S. cities, it will endeavor to evaluate the exposition on its own terms, and to place those terms in perspective. The evaluative frameworks preferred and advanced by Atlanta’s postwar elite, of course, must be considered with a healthy suspicion. If viewed carefully, though, the aspirations expressed by these figures illuminate the motivating forces behind an ambitious age. This thesis will, to borrow a phrase from Barbara Fields, take these men and their words seriously, without taking them literally.

Between September 18 and December 31, 1895, the Atlanta Exposition teemed with lived experience. Every day, visitors from near and far entered the gates of the exposition; every day, workers arrived early and set the illusion in motion again. Their stories overlapped and collided as they navigated the built landscape of the fair. But the exposition itself was underwritten by years of careful planning and positioning. The built environment of the exposition was only the peak expression in a succession of manipulations. Expositions, after all, expose intentions. Atlanta exposed hers the moment she left her gates ajar.


Adapted from the introduction to my senior thesis at Harvard, Global Ambitions: Atlanta's 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. The process of working on this thesis (satisfying, but never easy) is chronicled in a post from April 2009 - The World of Writing. For footnotes or to read more, please write to diana (dot) kimball (at) gmail (dot) com.

This is the latest in a loose series of academic essays & historical adventures. Previously: Nightmares Exorcised in Dreamland, Bring Your Own Buttons, Algorithms and Avatars, Instructions for Everyday Life, Kodachrome, Fallout Shelters, and Practical Magic.

Monday, August 30, 2010

White Noise

skylight, by Diana Kimball.

Indoors, I keep a white noise machine and a sighing fridge; gray curtains hang like sofa fabric pulled away from window panes. Through the openings, billboards array toward a vanishing point. Laundry sits tousled just outside the frosted glass wardrobe. Vitamin bottles cast lunar shadows nearby.

Trying to escape the wind this weekend, I found a sheltered pond with a seersucker surface, and huddled nearby talking to my dad on the phone. I folded my arms. “It's like we all found these ways to exist when we first started trying,” he said, “and as long as those ways worked, we never changed. But sometimes they cost more than we know.” We talked about how ideas can enter and echo, becoming more than they were. Everything is better and everything is harder; so we search for placid things.