Rob Walker | Essays

When Funny Goes Viral

One weekend this spring, close to 1,000 people gathered on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to attend a sold-out conference devoted to the question “What is awesome on the Internet?” While the event included presenters and moderators with respectable research credentials from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and the like, what they had gathered to examine, more or less seriously, is what might be called the ROFL universe. ROFL, which became familiar in the age of texting, stands for “rolling on the floor, laughing” and can serve as a shorthand response to the most ephemeral, silly and frankly unimportant-seeming manifestations of pop entertainment in the early 21st century: absurdly captioned pictures of cats, goof-off remixes of YouTube videos, unlikely Web celebrities, quick-hit visual jokes with unprintable punch lines and sporadic references to Rick Astley.

Tim Hwang, a clean-cut, 23-year-old go-getter from New Jersey, was an organizer of this event, called ROFLCon II, as well as its predecessor two years ago. Back then he 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.”

That said, much of what is discussed at ROFLCon events are in fact the artifacts of people fooling around. What the ROFLCon organizers meant by “awesome” was, for instance, Tron Guy, a man who is famous online because he posted pictures of himself dressed in an elaborate custom-made costume inspired by a 1980s sci-fi movie. Tron Guy received the first invitation to the first ROFLCon. He accepted. So did a variety of people who attracted cultish online audiences via YouTube or off-kilter sites like Chuck Norris Facts. A young man then known only as “moot,” founder of the notoriously profane Web site 4chan, agreed to appear, as did a clutch of academics and researchers to present papers that dealt with cultural co-optation and online status hierarchies — viewed through the lens of ROFL.

Hwang concedes the metajoke aspect of that first conference in 2008: wouldn’t it be funny and weird to create an event about things on the Internet that are funny and weird? The punch line is that their idea was prescient. Moot, the 4Chan.org founder, who has since revealed his name as Christopher Poole, recently gave a talk at a TED Conference, a gathering of tech and business insiders. There, he explained the origins of Internet foolishness like Lolcats and Rickrolling to its well-heeled, big-thinking audience. Hwang spoke at this year’s South by Southwest Music and Media Conference on the subject of “homemade-flamethrower videos” on YouTube. The department of media, culture and communication at New York University brought in a trio of performers for the main event at its undergraduate conference this winter to give a presentation called MemeFactory, a fast-paced talk with three slide projectors running simultaneously, addressing practically every stupid joke — or Internet meme, to use the common catch-all term — that’s ricocheted across the Web in the past 10 years.

Like practically everything else, people fooling around is transformed by the online context. Consider Rickrolling. As many (but probably not all) of you know, this involves suggesting that a point being made online will be backed up, or refuted, if you click on what appears to be a relevant link; instead, the link takes you to a video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” This prank became such a fad that it was referenced in the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, with Astley himself on hand to live-Rickroll the audience. Or consider Lolcats (LOL meaning “laugh out loud”), which even the most casual Internet user has probably come across: funny pictures of cats, made funnier by a pidgin-English phrase in big block letters, joined in what’s referred to as “image macro.” The Mona Lisa (or maybe the Duchamp “Fountain”) of Lolcats shows a chubby feline with a plaintive expression, asking, “I can has cheezburger?” A Seattle entrepreneur named Ben Huh, who now owns icanhascheezburger.com, has made Lolcats the cornerstone of a multimillion-dollar business, producing several books and a slew of similar sites. Not coincidentally, mainstream publishers have paid six-figure advances to total unknowns in hopes of converting ROFL to revenue; CBS is turning some guy’s crude-humor Twitter feed into a sitcom.

So, yes, young people have been messing around forever. But the results have seldom ended up attracting deals with major media companies, sparking discussions at confabs like TED or been included alongside Kermit and Santa Claus in a literal parade of broadly recognizable iconography.

There is, has been and will be no shortage of grand talk of the Internet’s potential. In his recent book “Cognitive Surplus,” Clay Shirky, the New York University lecturer and Web pontificator, suggests that the shift from passive media consumption to active and democratized media creation means we will all work in previously impossible concert to build astonishing virtual cathedrals of the mind, solving the world’s problems instead of vegging out in front of “Gilligan’s Island.” As it happens, he even mentions Lolcats. Because Lolcats are both made and shared by the Internet-­connected masses, they are examples of how Web tools have “bridged that gap” between passivity and activity. But this lasts only a few paragraphs (in which Lolcats are characterized as “dumb,” “stupid” and “crude”). He quickly pivots back to the more high-minded stuff about how “the wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource.”

Shirky is among the thinkers engaged in the popular debate over whether the Internet makes us smarter or dumber. And that question is interesting, but let’s face it: it’s not awesome. What Tim Hwang and his cohorts basically hit upon was the conclusion that, while that debate drags on, funny cat pictures and so on are really, really popular. And maybe another question to consider is what that means — to consider the Web not in terms of how it might affect who we become but rather in terms of how it reflects who we are. ROFL, after all, is not a seductive theory about what enlightened things democratized culture may one day produce; it is a pervasive fact on the ground. This is how sizable chunks of our cognitive resources are actually being deployed, so it’s worth trying to figure out why that is, what functions this stuff serves and how it differs from or falls in line with more familiar forms of entertainment. Perhaps, in other words, it’s worth taking ROFL seriously. Or at least sort of seriously.

People get hung up on whether it’s good or not; that’s not really important,” says Diana Kimball, one of ROFLCon’s original student organizers, who now works for Microsoft. “The best corollary is just regular popular culture. Is pop culture good? That’s debatable. But there’s a whole subset of people for whom the Internet is their pop culture.”

Some people enjoy common knowledge of “American Idol” or the Mets or rumors about Brad Pitt’s love life; some share common knowledge of Tron Guy or YouTube remixes or funny pictures of cats. Maybe this stuff doesn’t debut Thursday night at 9 p.m. on a broadcast network, but it is frequently amplified by megasites like boingboing.net and Fark‚Äč.com, which in turn are picked over by everyone from FM-radio shock jocks to staid newspapers looking for stories about the next nutty Internet fad. This is the pop-material side of Internet memes.

And at this point, it can’t really be described as just something the Web-crazy kids are doing. At ROFLCon II, I stood in the registration line with a guy in a suit who turned out to be a woodworker living in Maine. At first he was modest about his ROFL knowledge, but soon he was pointing out the various Web celebrities in the room. Plenty of people were college age, but many were a generation or more older than that. Of course, a number of attendees in all age groups were probably marketers, because it turns out that some people are taking the pop-material dimension of ROFL seriously by building businesses around it.

The Lolcat entrepreneur Ben Huh — recently crowned “the Internet’s meme maestro” by Wired magazine — says he thinks the market potential is vast. “What interested me the most was there’s this entire community of people devoted to following the rules and the system behind the framework of Lolcats,” Huh, who is 32, told me. “No one ever said, ‘These are the rules.’ But everybody said, ‘I know the rules.’ ” Huh has a degree in journalism and was in the touchscreen-software business before he persuaded financial backers to help him buy a popular blog devoted to Lolcats in 2007. Today his Cheezburger Network has 45 employees and owns dozens of sites where the goofing-off masses can submit their image macros or other bits of Web humor organized around various themes. The company makes money from advertising, and a couple of its Lolcat books have been best sellers.

To people under 30 or so, Huh contends, these tiny pieces of seemingly trivial Internet-specific culture are more relevant than most of what’s on television. “Just as the sitcom or the 30-minute news broadcast or the soap opera from radio were the hallmark of how a certain generation understood entertainment and culture — the Internet meme is one of those things,” he says. 

Huh is not the only person eyeing Internet memes through the lens of the profit motive. Hwang told me that while ROFLCon II was being organized, various marketing professionals and social-media experts pitched themselves as featured guests who could (supposedly) explain how to make brand-building memes. A lot of people who come to ROFLCon or are part of the ROFL universe or whatever you want to call it are worried about or uncomfortable with that. Hwang says: “There’s been this weird push around ‘Did ROFL culture sell out? Who owns all these spaces? What’s Ben Huh doing? This isn’t cool anymore because there’s people making money off it.’ ” And is it turns out, Hwang himself recently took a job at the Barbarian Group, a branding firm known for its keen interest in meme culture.  

If one function of ROFL
in the online ecosystem is to bring people together around something funny, it also draws lines. The memes of the moment change constantly; new variations are added to its language and older material is recombined to shift or add to its meaning. A MemeFactory presentation I caught at New York University was a dizzying blur: Boxxy, David After Dentist, Star Wars Kid, “Downfall,” Advice Dog, “Imma chargin mah lazer!” Crasher Squirrel, “This is Sparta!” multiple Japanese cartoon clips, a new Chat Roulette prank, Weegee and so on. Your reaction to that list — incomprehensible? kind of played out? — says something about your relationship to “Internet culture.”

This was a running theme at ROFLCon II. Internet memes are basically an endless series of in-jokes, a few of which occasionally cross over into the mainstream (where their origins are rarely known and probably a matter of indifference). A speaker, Kenyatta Cheese of the Web site Know Your Meme, passingly referred to those unfluent in ROFL (or “our culture,” as he called it) as “civilians.” Gabriella Coleman, an assistant professor at N.Y.U. and an anthropologist whose work has focused on hacker culture, law and technology, suggests that knowing your memes helps define “a geeky bunker of Internet culture.” That is to say, each bit of apparent idiocy is an in-group/out-group marker.

The most notorious in-group on the Web today is probably the “/b/” forum on 4chan.org. It has a somewhat unpleasant reputation, for several reasons. One is its association with so-called trolls, malevolent hackers who deploy dazzling technical skill to bully and harass strangers. Some critiques of 4Chan take on a “Reefer Madness” hysteria, but there’s no question that /b/ is obscene and frequently barely literate — a nonstop stream of language and imagery that’s often racist, sexist and homophobic. Its participants are fiercely protective of their bunker. I should note that /b/ has a reputation for responding to interest aroused by attention from, say, magazine articles by flooding the board with the most vile and repulsive material it can come up with, for the explicit purpose of repelling curious newbies.

Christopher Poole, the 22-year-old founder of 4Chan, is a trim, unassuming and articulate guy, who looks more like a young Ron Howard than the slovenly malcontent archetype of a hacker-geek. But if Ben Huh is a figurehead for ROFL as cheery, commodity pop culture, Poole stands for the value of online expression that defies all reasonable standards of taste and even the notion of authorship — let alone the traditional marketplace.

Poole did not set out to create a space for meme generation. He founded 4chan in 2003, when he was 15 and interested in Japanese pop culture. He discovered a Japanese site called 2Chan and was dazzled by the multiple-posts-per-second discussion, even though he couldn’t follow it. He built 4Chan, which continues to include boards devoted to coherent discussions of Japanese pop culture. But 4Chan’s “random” board, /b/, took on a life of its own; it accounts for about a third of the site’s traffic and is, Poole says, “the beating heart of the Web site.”

/B/ requires no registration, and many of its nearly 10 million monthly users simply call themselves Anonymous. It generates something like a million posts a day but has no archive, and this anonymous and ephemeral space has created a nothing-is-sacred attitude that can result in things both weird and offensive. Partly there’s a willingness to wallow in what many people might look away from, to riff on and one-up one another — roaring for “moar,” as spelled by /b/ participants, when a thread or meme takes off internally. It looks crude and reads dumb, but there is also technical skill and raw wit in the /b/ mire. Again, it’s largely young males blowing off steam via harebrained behavior, but doing so in massive numbers and egging one another on in a way that causes some of the results to spill out into the broader culture. If you like the upbeat metaphor of the Internet as a hive mind, then maybe /b/ is one of the places where its unruly id resides.

4Chan is not the only source of ROFL with no known “author” or the only Web site that is provocative. It’s hard to say, for instance, who should really get credit, or blame, for “Downfall,” also known as “Hitler reacts” or “the Hitler meme.” This involves a dramatic scene from the 2004 film “Downfall,” in which the actor Bruno Ganz, as Hitler, realizes his defeat is imminent and begins screaming at his subordinates. It’s in German, but the ROFL versions are each recaptioned so that instead of the fall of the Third Reich, Hitler is freaking out about, say, being banned from Xbox Live or the vuvuzela racket at the World Cup or the news that the film’s production company is trying to have all the “Downfall” parodies taken off YouTube for copyright reasons. Each video was of course made by somebody, but a conversation about the creation of any particular “Hitler Reacts” video with its maker, even if that person could be identified and located, would be meaningless. Only by way of the hundreds of videos and their collective thousands or millions of viewers does it enter the ROFL canon.

Internet anonymity has many critics, but Poole’s argument is that the pockets of anonymous space are crucial for the online ecosystem, particularly as Web users yoke their online activities directly to their real-world identities through services like Facebook. As awful as /b/ can be, its lawless-seeming atmosphere has “fostered creativity,” Poole insists; sometimes it’s when people are hidden away, unconcerned about their reputation or social identity, that they “say and do very interesting things.”

“Let’s go back to 1840,” Jason Scott, a digital archivist and documentarian, said to his audience at the first ROFLCon in 2008. Scott titled his talk “Before the LOL,” and a big part of his message was that interesting people have been doing curious, quirky, playful or offensive things with technology, outside the mainstream, since well before the phrase “the Internet changes everything” was coined.

The talk moved briskly from mid-19th-century catchphrases to telegraph-specific shorthand to ham-radio hacks to amateur Teletype art (nudes included) to Xerox 914-enabled images of Mickey Mouse making obscene gestures. A 1989 list of popular online bulletin-board slang included terms like L8ER and, yes, LOL. Scott’s point is not that nothing new or interesting has happened online since the mid-1990s, but rather to reject the commonplace assertion that contemporary Web culture has created unprecedented expression. There may be changes in degree and scale, but having fun by using technology in warped ways is more of a tradition than a revolution. “The biggest problem if you’re trying to figure out ‘What is this stuff? What are they trying to do?’ is that I think even they don’t completely have a grip on it,” Scott says. “This thing — the Internet, online culture — allows you to engage with interesting people who you otherwise might not be aware of or interesting people who are, themselves, unaware that they’re interesting.”

Internet expression coming from outside traditional media culture could simply be considered as a form of folk or outsider culture, but it’s more typically described as a kind of threat: political blogs opposing the mainstream media or Wikipedia serving as an alternative to the Encyclopedia Britannica. There was some talk along these lines at ROFLCon, but the way Internet memes work suggests a more comfortable synthesis, maybe even a codependency. Many riff off or simply appropriate familiar mainstream-media material. And these days the interesting things done by people who don’t know they are interesting can be instantly referenced on “South Park” or “Family Guy” or just reported as news.

Jonah Peretti knows something about this. Nearly a decade ago, his e-mail exchange with Nike about why its customizing site wouldn’t let him put the word “sweatshop” on his sneakers was passed around so much that he ended up on the “Today” show. Later he created an intentional bit of Internet humor with a site called “Black People Love Us!” Today his view is essentially that ROFL is just another element of the information cycle: he is the founder of BuzzFeed.com, a news-and-entertainment aggregator that’s partly devoted to these new sources of memey entertainment. BuzzFeed flings the mainstream and the grass roots together, so that an item about sea turtles dying in the Gulf of Mexico appears right next to one headlined “Kittens vs. Dinosaurs: A Comparison.” In fact, BuzzFeed is organized by its readers’ shorthand response to what they view — sections include LOL and OMG. “The way people interact with media is more about someone’s reaction, an emotional or even intellectual reaction,” Peretti says. “That is a kind of cultural shift. It’s not ‘I love to read the Style section,’ it’s ‘I love all the LOL stuff.’ ”

And current events don’t merely sit next to LOL material; current events often become LOL material. Thus, Joe Biden’s hot-microphone gaffe, expressing the import of health care legislation in salty terms, instantly became the jumping-off point for BuzzFeed readers to submit their own satirical image macros. The results were too profane (or stupid) to share here, but I can tell you that they fell into the LOL category. “You see the news break,” Peretti says, and “the next day or 12 hours later, people are hungry for the parody of it or the comic relief.”

This stream of bite-size distractions is just the sort of thing that Nicholas Carr, in his book “The Shallows,” maintains is undermining serious and sustained thought. In another recent book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” Jaron Lanier, the technology pioneer and writer, pointedly laments the “vapid video pranks” and “lightweight mashups” that mark what he argues is the disappointing lack of progress in the Web 2.0 era, part of a devolution into a culture of schlock and juvenilia, where recycling mass-media artifacts trumps true individual originality.

But maybe juvenilia has its purpose. “There’s something excellent about freeing the 10-year-old boy in all of us,” says Theresa Senft, a University of East London lecturer, who is writing a book about Internet microcelebrity. Senft’s work deals seriously with the politics and power dynamics of online identity and representation — and she loves ROFL without apologies. “It’s the doofus, the kid who dances in the rain and makes 10,000 fart jokes and laughs at every single one,” she says. “It’s very joyful.” People have a hard time, she added, acknowledging the irrational laughter that the body produces even when the mind isn’t sure why. “How come we can’t think of this stuff as ‘O.K., it’s stupid — but it’s also beautiful in some way’?” she asks. “It’s beautiful to be in the middle of 5,000 e-mails and stressing about your taxes and having someone send you an idiotic video — and just laugh.”

The closing panel discussion at ROFLCon II was “Mainstreaming the Web,” and it included Ben Huh, the Lolcat entrepreneur; Christopher Poole, the 4Chan founder; and Kenyatta Cheese of Know Your Meme, among others. The discussion was surprisingly earnest. (And despite some rumors about trouble­makers from /b/ who were planning to disrupt things, it was almost disappointingly civilized.) There was musing about whether memes signify a subculture and, if so, whether that could last; speculation about the nature of the meme consumer that would have fit in easily at a more traditional Web confab; and audience feedback making the inevitable suggestion that mainstream attention is ruining awesome meme making. Mostly there was consensus. Cheese said that Know Your Meme was founded in part because more mainstream sources (he mentioned Wikipedia) weren’t documenting Internet memes, despite the fact that ROFL material is “fast becoming our common language.”

Earlier, on an afternoon when I was supposed to be calling up media scholars and technology experts to get their take on this fast-growing form of culture, I instead sought a little entertainment online. I wasn’t consciously seeking out the happy distractions of ROFL material, but after the usual flitting around, I paused on a post on HipsterRunoff.com, titled “Keut Hipster Girl Watches White Guy Beat Up Black Guy on Public Bus.” HipsterRunoff frequently comments on Web culture in the texting-speak patois of an idiot-savant “author” named Carles. It can be read as nihilistic, searingly critical or just sort of ROFL. In any case, this post was about a recent “youtubable fight” on a bus in Oakland, in which “an old white guy wearing a fanny pack” pummels a younger black man. “The fight seems racially motivated,” Carles deadpanned, adding: “A cute lil hipster girl watches on, trying to pay attention to her surroundings, but more importantly, she is enjoying the music on her large headphones. Her purple American Apparel outfit and Converse lowtops clash violently with the racial tensions on the bus.” The video itself was as described — and fairly depressing.

But it was clearly getting sucked into the ROFL vortex. The anonymous users of 4Chan’s /b/ forum renamed the older white guy “Epic Beard Man.” They also created a nickname for the indifferent-seeming young woman in the headphones, “Amber Lamps,” inspired by the younger black man’s slurred request for an ambulance. A slew of image macros incorporated these figures and phrases from the clip into visual jokes using every conceivable ROFL trope, collected on Know Your Meme and Encyclopedia Dramatica. Many of the jokes turned on racist language, and the 75,000-plus comments posted to the original YouTube video (which soon had more than four million views) were a carnival of coarseness. The video was linked from BuzzFeed, and the crowd classified it as LOL and OMG. Somebody made a video of Hitler reacting to the incident. Somebody else created an animated version and someone started a site, Epicbeardmanfacts.com. Traditional media sources and “citizen journalists” interviewed both men, and videos of those conversations circulated and became part of the iterations online. The Huffington Post ran an item titled “Why ‘Epic Beard Man’ Is the Fastest Growing Public Fight Meme Ever.”


Awesome? Or appalling? Either way, the Epic Beard Man meme seemed like a good example of one last thing worth considering about “Internet culture.” Among the academics I eventually called was Gabriella Coleman, the N.Y.U. professor. Her research into hacker identities stretches back to the era of 1970s “phreakers” who figured out how to manipulate the phone system and continues through the contemporary trolls who rain grief on Web users they find stupid or bothersome or simply easy to pick on. A mantra in the latter group is that they do it all “for the lulz,” meaning for the LOLs, just because they can. The “for the lulz” attitude can be more broadly thought of as a rationale for the idea that everything is worth making fun of, nothing should be taken seriously, not even a guy getting punched in the face until he bleeds.

Coleman has a particular interest in the different and interlocking ethical codes of the groups she studies. One of the variations she has explored is the “informational trickster,” a formulation that relies in part on the writer Lewis Hyde’s exploration of creative troublemaking figures in the folklore and mythology of multiple cultures in his book, “Trickster Makes This World.” The trickster figures that Hyde writes about break rules, ignore mores and commit prankish acts of mayhem or mischief for selfish reasons. Sometimes the trickster goes too far and pays a price; sometimes the trickster reveals the hypocrisy of the game he just cheated. But invariably, the actions of tricksters bridge two previously divergent worlds, revealing each to the other and changing their relationship permanently.

The more traditional pundits and gurus who talk about the Internet often seem to want to draw strict boundaries between old mass-media culture and the more egalitarian forms taking shape online — and between Internet life and life in the physical world. But I wonder if the trick that converts a bus fight into hilarious entertainment for millions isn’t revealing such boundaries as false. Sometimes the pointless-seeming jokes that spring from the Web seem to be calling a bluff and showing a truth: This is what egalitarian cultural production really looks like, this is what having unbounded spaces really entails, this is what anybody-can-be-famous means, this is how the hunger for “moar” gets sated, this is what’s burbling in the hive mind’s id. But the real point is that to pretend otherwise isn’t denying the Internet — it’s denying reality. In some cases, then, maybe the payoff of ROFL isn’t just the pleasure of laughter, though that surely happens. Trickster expression, intentional or otherwise, doesn’t propose a solution but jolts you to confront some question that you might prefer to have avoided. Like what, exactly, am I laughing at?

This essay was originally published in
The New York Times Magazine, July 16, 2010.

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