At first glance, Internet memes are funny stuff on the Internet, repeated bazillions of times. Noah Levinson, college student, studies them. A lot. He just got back from their conference: ROFLCon. It's at MIT. It's not a joke.
Remember the first time you received a text message, email or chat with the acronym "LOL" or "ROFL" in it? How about when someone first said it to you in casual conversation?
Get ready to add another term to your lexicon: one that defines that experience when someone takes something from the Internet and puts it into reality. The term is "IRL," or "In Real Life."
When people go online, it's a different sort of reality, one of anonymity, rapid stimuli and absurd silliness. Supposedly, it's different than the real world.
Yet this past May, I found myself in a jarring position, as IRL turned into really IRL at an annual meeting dedicated to Internet Culture called ROFLCon (short for "Rolling on the Floor Laughing Conference"). The two-day event takes place at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as Internet scholars, aficionados, users and creators come out to discuss the evolution of Internet culture.
Within MIT's sacred halls of learning alongside students and researchers producing things like needle-free pharmaceutical jet-injection and autonomous driving, ROFLCon holds panels, lectures, parties, games and multimedia shows, all about Internet memes. Even the most serious of these panels are lively with laughter and discussion, ranging from International memes in China, Syria, and Brazil, to a final panel called Defending the Internet.
Originally started by a group of Harvard undergraduate Internet lovers in April 2008 (they took the idea to MIT when Harvard didn't completely understand the idea), this was the third and final ROFLCon, for now at least.
And even though the memes will live on in a post-ROFLCon era, we have to stop and ask: What exactly is an Internet meme? Perhaps you've heard it in a newscast or online article starting with "There's a new Internet meme out there called ..."
What's so important about Internet memes that they constituted a conference where over 900 people attend? Perhaps an even better question: what's so important about Internet memes that I decided to write an extensive cultural studies thesis at the University of Pittsburgh on Internet memes? Sure, it justified my habitual Internet surfing addiction (I now call it research).
But to repeat an infamous Internet phrase: "The Internets is Serious Business."
I remember when curiosity morphed into fascination with my discovery of a video of a smiling Soviet-looking man singing a song whose lyrics went as so: "Trolololo, lololo, lololo, trolololo." He walked in front of a yellow-orange-brown color scheme background as the song went from odd to ridiculous to ludicrous. I became obsessed, sending the video to friends and family, singing the lyrics outside and even changing the ringtone of my phone to the hearty Russian tune.
The video in question, "Trololo," is actually a 1976 recording by Russian singer Eduard Khil, "I Am Glad, 'Cause I'm Finally Returning Back Home." After it was uploaded to YouTube in 2010, people began to use it as a viral prank video. (As it happens, Mr. Khil died on June 4. And as his New York Times obituary notes, the original song was about life on the American prairie, but he and the composer nixed the lyrics, fearing trouble from the authorities.)
A video going viral isn't the only prerequisite for an Internet meme, though. These individual videos are not Internet memes, but are only viral videos, their popularity aided by social media like Facebook or Twitter, or even email. Content turns into Internet memes when it becomes replicated.
The term "meme" was originally conceived by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene." As genes are the building blocks of genetic evolution, memes are the blocks of cultural evolution. Mr. Dawkins argues that things like religion and cultural fads are memes, but that's not as much what I or the ROFLers came to MIT to discuss.
Internet memes, as phrased eloquently in an interview with author Cole Stryker ("Epic Win for Anonymous"), act "as a concept (either visual: a video or image, or conceptual: a story, trend or joke) that spreads virally through the Internet via collaborative creation and imitation."
There's one called Nyan Cat, a cat with a cherry pop-tart body leaving a trail of rainbows behind as it flies through space. A clip taken from the 2004 Oscar nominated film called "Downfall" turned into Hitler Reacts, where a high-tension scene of Adolph Hitler reacting to a powerful defeat has been given alternate subtitles as Hitler reacts to things on the Internet like his Xbox Live account being suspended, and Tim Tebow leading the Broncos to defeat the Steelers. Mr. Stryker's own current favorite "is probably 'Rustled My Jimmies.' It's just a hilariously goofy phrase from the 1950s."
Then there's the language of the Advice Animal, a cute image of an animal in front of a colorful background giving advice. Originally, Advice Dog gave bad advice ("Live Wires. Are Delicious"). But now there is Paranoid Parrot ("Something Brushes Leg In Ocean. SHARK"), Socially Awkward Penguin ("Enjoy Your Meal. You Too") and countless others.
My thesis intends to compare anything that can be called an Internet meme and see what kind of cultural qualities it embodies. Sure, cute, silly and absurd come to mind quickly, but going further, my work hopes to find connections to mass culture, popular culture, politics and things happening In Real Life that may be affecting this wild and rapidly changing culture.
Hundreds upon thousands of excellent articles have been written about Internet memes on Wired, Gawker and many other blogs, and if you give yourself a good bit of time to Google-search places like Reddit.com, knowyourmeme.com and 4chan.org (if you dare, but prepared to be a bit shocked), then you can become a member of the meme community in no time. Just be open to new experiences and silly absurdity.
But perhaps the most die-hard and loving members of this community ended up meeting IRL (remember what it stands for?) in May at ROFLCon. They dress in meme-inspired clothing, speak sometimes in meme-phrases, and take as many photos as possible with Internet micro-celebrities, such as a man who's called Tron Guy, whose fame comes from dressing in a homemade costume from the movie Tron and overall being an extremely happy person.
Natalie Morningstar, a video/film/computer graphics technician from Rockville, Maryland, attended the conference and got to meet Tron Guy as well.
"Tron Guy is awesome! I think he enjoys being a symbol of Internet life and I truly hope he continues to breathe new life into all of us Internet nerds," said Ms. Morningstar.
Originally working in film and video editing and now moving towards computer engineering, Ms. Morningstar already misses the conference.
"There was never a dull moment -- and yes, my mind was overloaded at times. Literally all I had to do was open my eyes and look around, no clicking, pausing, pop-up adds, or scrolling required. I felt like I had reached the Great Valley of the Internet, like in the movie 'The Land Before Time.' "
Yes, perhaps the word "obsessed" comes to mind, but if ROFLCon proves anything, it's that the memes aren't going to stay online forever. Which means Internet Culture isn't staying there for much longer either.
Advertisements have been using Internet memes for as long as they have spread about the Web, but the usage has become much more rampant. Many advertisements are created with the specific intent of "How can this become a meme?" which in many ways is not the best way to go about creating Internet phenomenons (they more so, as many cultural fashions, create themselves).
Internet Culture is quickly finding its way into popular culture. Alongside more Internet memes finding themselves In Real Life, it also means that perhaps the qualities of Internet Culture will come along with. Movies are faster, as in more shots per minute in action films like the Transformers series, and plot-wise like how complicated the 2010 film "Inception" was in the first 15 minutes. And I bet that the reason "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" premieres this summer is the fact that an audience for that kind of content exists online. Advertisements are becoming wackier and more absurd. And politically, groups like Anonymous and WikiLeaks, and online activism of all sorts are becoming household items.
Internet culture has even found itself in Pittsburgh. Beyond Occupy Pittsburgh, my own University of Pittsburgh found itself in a bizarrely terrifying scenario this spring with 145 bomb threats, the majority sent via email. This sort of anonymous activity and culture has always been around, and always will be, but the methods are changing rapidly.
An online community formed to fight the anonymous threats and many times, the online commentary of the incident, especially on the Pitt Memes Facebook page, created Internet memes.
Perhaps the most famous phrase to come out of the bomb threats used the meme "Keep Calm and Carry On," the phrase and iconic imaging from a British poster commissioned during World War II and unearthed in 2000. The phrase morphed into, "Keep Calm and Hail to Pitt," and eventually "Keep Calm and Tell Others If Safe to do So," a play on the Emergency Notification System text message which alerted students to threats.
A decade or two from now, we may be looking back and saying, "Man, remember memes? What were those things all about?"
Nevertheless, it is fascinating that these hilarious sets of pixels are now flooding our culture. Regardless whether they go out of style, become old news or merit a Meme Museum, never have we had such a versatile, rapidly evolving piece of culture that can do so much in such little time.
So go ahead and take an hour to digest hundreds and hundreds of Internet memes. And you can try to bill me for the countless hours of work and sleep you are going to lose exploring this world, but know that you're witnessing a shift in culture in real life that you might miss if you blink. Or refresh your browser.
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Noah Levinson studies English and is finishing his undergraduate thesis in Internet meme culture at the University of Pittsburgh. After completion, he intends to work in the motion picture business, become an ad man, and/or not lose The Game (NoahDLevinson@gmail.com, or on Twitter @NDLevinson). First Published June 10, 2012 8:00 AM