Sunday, May 25, 2008

ROFLCon: At Last

Handy piece of technology

The stun sticks around. One month later, and it's still hard for me to believe that yes, a few college kids and some brave believers made ROFLCon happen. I've already written about ROFLCon, a lot; in fact, if you've been reading my blog lately, you might get the impression that it's all I ever talk about. But since I bullied all my team members into writing "one month anniversary reflections" (a phrase made only marginally less absurd by the rapid pace of the internet), I figured that I should probably write one, too. Um. Another one. But different, this time.

The thing is: those two days, one month ago, were just two glorious days. 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 outlined the genesis of ROFLCon in some awesome detail here. She 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. Imagine a videogame, rendered in blocky pixels: there were these cyan puddles everywhere, and all of them (though round and chaotic) had inexplicably square edges. Organizing ROFLCon was like that. We jumped over the puddles where we could. We collected stars when we saw them. Mostly, though, we just tried to make it to the end; the pot of gold; the end of the CMYK rainbow. We made it, I think. It was worth it.

Working on ROFLCon felt like belonging to some alternate-universe braintrust. I have seldom in my life had the opportunity to work with so many absurdly talented people. The other day, I was talking with Christina about how everyone on the team seemed to have some unique superpower, whether writing letters to academics, amassing the world's largest store of knowledge about Soulja Boy, or powering through hundreds of emails a day. Every time we needed something graphic-designed, or some slick prose written up, or even just the sheen of real-world legitimacy, there was someone who stepped in to make it happen.

When I really think about it, this ramshackle braintrust has to be at the core of what made ROFLCon go. But over the past month, I've also had time to think of a few more things that I think made ROFLCon work, from a logistical standpoint. There are plenty of things I would do in the future; I'll write about those too, sometime, I hope. For now, though, we're looking back. So. Some aspects of planning ROFLCon that surprised and delighted me:

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1) Sharing documents through a free service. We used Google Docs, but anything will do. It's pretty incredible to be able to not just work together, but to peek in on other people's work, even when you're not directly involved in creating it. I, for instance, kept a running budget of guest travel expenses in one of my spreadsheets, and whenever Tim needed a budget update, the number were right there. He could see everything I knew. Another less-obvious benefit of shared documents through a web service: the tabbed browsing format. It was so nice to be able to lift a piece of information from my gmail account and copy-paste it into the Firefox tab next door, where the master spreadsheet was hovering. Also: free. I think ROFLCon makes a pretty strong case for the feasability of taxing simple cloud software to the limit.

2) Email trust. When you're running tasks through mass emails, it's important to know that your emails won't get lost in someone else's inbox. It's also important to be able to mobilize the "braintrust" quickly and effectively. I always just completely marveled at the fact that I could send out a fast question, seeking ideas or feedback or information, and within 20 minutes I would have responses from 7 team members. Maybe we're all on our computers too much, but I have to say that that kind of responsiveness is a phenomenal resource. Especially at 2am!

3) Taking everything seriously. But not too seriously. If it's not fun anymore, you're dead. We sometimes joked about how ROFLCon meetings almost invariably (d)evolved into watching crazy YouTube videos. Except, that was kind of the point, right? We never stopped celebrating and studying the kinds of internet culture we were assembling. The key is that we were celebrating it, first; studying was a side effect. I hope that ROFLCon felt a little bit like that for the people who were there: a celebration that also couldn't help but make them think. When you get a bunch of thoughtful people into a room, and give them something to observe, it's not like they just stop thinking. And maybe, they talk to each other, too. Thoughts + thoughts = ideas. If ROFLCon had a formula, that might have been it.

4) Occam's Swiss Army Knife: Simplest tool wins. ROFLCon may have been about the internet, but we planned about half of it on a giant whiteboard. (To be fair, we always drew in a "share" tab on the whiteboard; we couldn't really start work without one. Yeah Web 0.5!) During the conference, I ran around with tattered sheets of paper—printed-out spreadsheets full of names and phone numbers and schedules and room numbers. My jeans pockets stained them indigo; my tired hands bruised their edges. But everything I needed was there, and the simple act of trying to figure out what I would need to have around helped me to plan out the days. With computers, everything's always at your fingertips; it's too easy to do everything on the fly. Paper requires some forethought. And forethought isn't always so bad. That said, there was definitely some last-minute engineering that went on. As you can see above, my left hand on the second day of the conference was tattooed with names, times, and notes to self. I was exhausted, and if it was on my hand it was in my face. Screens make it a little too easy to hide information. Hands aren't afraid to tell you off.

5) Intense attention to the internet. Duh? Well, not so duh. Sure it was a conference about the internet, but it also took us a bit to really leverage all the awesome publishing tools and visual magic that the internet has to offer. (See: the Inexplicable Sheep of blog #1.) Now, mind you, this is not attention I paid. People like Dean and Matt and rockstar blogger/all-purpose founder Tim made everything happen in the leadup; days-of, photographers like Dave and Scott and the video team from Respectably French and our in-house superhero blog mod Dan did the documenting so that people like me could sit in things like LOLCats and Internet Cult Leaders panels for a few minutes at a time, dazed and happy, and know that the whole thing was being recorded for posterity by people much, much more talented at those things than I am. People like Rachel minded Twitter even as they ran around doing the other sundry tasks involved in activating ROFLCon. You know. Like chasing down Brawndo and poring over blueprints. I can honestly say that I barely even got on a computer for the 40-some hours of ROFLCon. And weirdly, that was totally fine. All of these incredibly smart and talented and web-savvy people jumped on board and made the whole online thing magically appear, right alongside the IRL version. Except, they were the magic. And I was completely, utterly enchanted.

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So. I will not say anymore, for now. This is already egregiously long. But do you know how much I loved ROFLCon? I loved it a whole lot. The whole thing.

We're talking about the future; we're sharpening our swiss army knives. We're not sure what we're getting into. We can't wait to find out.

Thanks to TrespassersWill for the photograph!