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!

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