BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last weekend the Internet showed up for a happening at MIT. It was an A list of viral celebrities, like the father and son behind the David After Dentist video, viewed by 58 million people, in which Big David films Little David after he’s been drugged up.
LITTLE DAVID: Uh, I feel funny. Is – is this real life?
BIG DAVID: Yeah, this is real life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Also appearing:
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] The owner of the original Keyboard Cat, you know, the one with the blue onesie playing piano seen by gazillions?
CHARLIE SCHMIDT: I had no job, and I had – basically I had a lot of time and a cat and a keyboard [LAUGHS] and a camera. And I'm [LAUGHS] not trying to be funny. It’s just that that’s what I had.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They rubbed shoulders with the people behind inexplicably blockbuster sites like Regretsy, which mocks the worst handmade items on the shopping site Etsy and Lamebook, which mocks the users of Facebook, also, the now essential Urban Dictionary. The event was ROFLcon II, and radio producer Benjamen Walker is here to explain exactly what a ROFLCon is. Hi Ben.
BENJAMEN WALKER: Hey Brooke. So ROFL is one of the Internet’s oldest acronyms. It means “rolling on the floor laughing.” But it’s really just shorthand for stuff you like online. So ROFLCon is a convention/conference all about popular and famous stuff on the Internet or Internet memes. ROFLCon is organized by these two young Harvard genius, Tim Hwang and Christina Xu. And, you know, Harvard hosts a lot of big time real Internet conferences, but Christina told me some of these left something to be desired.
CHRISTINA XU: We’d go to conferences about internet culture and what we found repeatedly was that, as someone from the internet generation, we constantly were kind of wincing and being like, ooh, it’s not quite right, you know, they're not quite getting - it. And so, we thought what better way to help that dialogue than to invite the people who actually are the ones who are creating these things and get their voices out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how high does the voltage go when you put a bunch of internet stars into the same room?
BENJAMEN WALKER: Well, what everyone is trying to understand – and I'm talking academics, marketers, scientists, radio show hosts -
[BROOKE LAUGHS] – is why certain things go viral on the Internet. Pretty much every meme at ROFLCon has something accidental about it. Take David After Dentist. David’s dad simply pulled over to the side of the road to videotape his still high-after-dentist son [CHUCKLING] who was questioning the nature of reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I really love this one.
LITTLE DAVID: Why is this happening to me?
BIG DAVID: It’s okay, bud. It’s just from the medicine. Okay?
LITTLE DAVID: Is this gonna be forever?
BIG DAVID: No. [LAUGHS] No, it won't be forever.
BENJAMEN WALKER: And listen to college student Brian Govern tell me how he came to write his Amazon review for a t-shirt with three wolves and a moon on it.
BRIAN GOVERN: [LAUGHS] One night I was laying in bed looking for schoolbooks from Amazon.com and somehow Amazon’s recommendation engine suggested I might like this Three Wolf Moon t-shirt. It seemed absolutely ridiculous to me because it had nothing to do with books or law or any of the things I'd search for. And I remembered somebody I knew when I was younger who really, really was into wolf t-shirts. So I, I kind of imagined what that person would be nowadays, like what he'd look like, how he’s grown, and I wrote the review from his viewpoint.
BENJAMEN WALKER: The review Brian wrote suggested this shirt had magical powers for the Wal-Mart-loving trailer park resident who was supposedly writing it, and it inspired over 2,000 more reviews. But, even more importantly, the shirt is still an Amazon top seller.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so he was writing in the voice of a trailer park person. That sounds kind of snarky, to begin with. Are we talking about some sort of orgy of irony coming to roost online?
BENJAMEN WALKER: Well, this Three Wolf Moon t-shirt was made by this Bulgarian artist, Antonia Neschev, and she was at ROFLcon II. And she made the point of explaining that her shirt is - not ironic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She meant it.
BENJAMEN WALKER: Absolutely. And Brooke, I believe that if this shirt had been made ironically, this whole thing never would have happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Huh.
BENJAMEN WALKER: All these memes do have an authenticity to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David After Dentist, he is sincerely confused. [LAUGHS]
BENJAMEN WALKER: Yes, in fact, they've made a view other videos that – they're just not as good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They're not as good.
BENJAMEN WALKER: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, and if we go back to the keyboard-playing cat, the cat looks sincerely fascinated with the keyboard.
BENJAMEN WALKER: Absolutely. I think this is the ROFLCon meme that explained this authenticity thing the best. At the core is Charlie Schmidt’s cat Fatso playing the keyboard.
CHARLIE SCHMIDT: This is a video of my cat playing a real short, really cool riff that’s original music; she wrote it herself. And she clearly has an attitude.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BENJAMEN WALKER: Charlie recorded this in the late '80s and he put it online when he discovered YouTube. And then this kid Brad O’Farrell found this video and used it to create the meme “Play him Off, Keyboard Cat,” basically taking Fatso to comment on all kinds of people doing stupid stuff – a person falling down the stairs, a person, you know, running into a wall, a pet falling into the toilet. He created a template so anyone could take their own fail videos and attach the Keyboard Cat at the end, so the cat is making a statement. And this went viral. There’s, you know, thousands of these videos out there on the Internet. But the most amazing thing about this story is that Brad O’Farrell was at ROFLCon I, in 2008, as an intern. And he watched all these Internet celebrities onstage being showered with attention, and he decided that the next time he would join their ranks. And he did it. He - even wore a cat suit this time.
BRAD O’FARRELL: I figured I would fade into the crowd if I wasn’t wearing an outfit after my panel, so at least I can be like the Keyboard Cat guy all weekend, which is, you know, what I came here for, in the first place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If this guy in a cat suit was able to figure out how to make a video go viral, what’s going to stop the makers of Pepsi or Volkswagen or any other marketer from doing the same?
BENJAMEN WALKER: Absolutely, there was a lot of talk at ROFLCon about, you know, data mining and statistics and some of the science that’s being done with our behaviors online. And the talk is it’s not “if” meme science, it’s “when.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we're that predictable. That makes me sad.
BENJAMEN WALKER: Me too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Benjamen Walker’s radio show, Too Much Information, devotes a whole hour to ROFLCon. We'll link to his podcast at Onthemedia.org.