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Internet Memes Invade MIT: ROFLCon 2012

Posted by Alex Pearlman  May 7, 2012 02:03 PM

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2012-05-05_09-45-06_597.jpgBy Kenny Soto
Paul Vasquez is a filmmaker who lives outside Yosemite National Park. He has never had a hit film or television show. He has never hosted a talk show or directed a commercial. But, at ROFLCon, Paul Vasquez is a celebrity. He describes himself as a guy with a camera who wants to make sure his “great, great, great, great, great grandchildren can see what I was like.”

This weekend at the third annual ROFLCon at MIT, Vasquez signed autographs, posed for pictures and spoke in front of a crowd of hundreds about his life and his art. Paul Vasquez is the “Double Rainbow Guy.”

I joined over 1,000 Internet fans getting the chance to meet their favorite “nano famous” stars including Vasquez, Nate Dern (The HUH? Guy), Antoine Dodson (Bed Intruder) and local favorite Blake Boston, AKA Scumbag Steve.

The event kicked-off Friday morning with keynote speaker, Harvard Law professor and “all-star internet smartypants” Jonathan Zittrain. I know what you’re thinking. A Harvard Law professor speaking on the same bill as Matt from “Where The Hell Is Matt?” and the artist behind “Me Gusta”? There are a lot of things that don’t make sense about ROFLCon. You just have to go with it. There is more to ROFLCon than meets the eye.

I spoke to Tim Hwang, 25, the founder of ROFLCon a few days before the internet's biggest and brightest came to town to learn more about the event and what guests could expect. “It’s a little bit about funny cats, but it’s also about some of the bigger issues that are going on with the Internet. Panels range from discussing funny things on the Internet to discussing pretty serious, sometimes political, forces.” While the joy of ROFLCon is asking the Old Spice Guy what scent he uses or asking the Double Rainbow Guy what he was on when he shot the viral video, the most interesting panels involved the people who host content, not the artists that create it.

In the wake of the PIPA and SOPA controversies, ROFLCon hosted panels of representatives from sites like Google, YouTube, 4Chan and Reddit. The main topic of discussion was intellectual property and how the Internet has changed the way artists deal with ownership of their work. Ben Huh (Not to be confused with Huh Guy), the founder of The Cheezburger Network, faced protestors during his talk about how to build a less restrictive Internet. Following a strong outburst from one protestor, Huh reminded the audience that while there are some pretty strong political forces at work, his site hosts pictures of funny cats.

One particularly thought provoking panel discussed how memes are not only good for lolz, but are also playing a large role in shaping politics around the world. Social media artist An Xiao Mina spoke about how Internet memes have allowed citizens of China to exercise political free speech despite restrictions on their daily lives, while Syrian tech blogger Anas Qtiesh discussed the role memes are playing in the Syrian revolution.

ROFLCon 2012 not only lived up to its name, but also left the audience with plenty to think about. While some guests like Antoine Dodson and Blake Boston truly became famous by mistake, others, including Paul Vasquez, are artists whose fame is the result of years of work and being in the right place at the right time.

Meeting and hearing from these celebrities was a joy, but the real stars of ROFLCon were the activists and site owners working to keep the Internet free of corporate and political censorship well into the future. Well, them and the Old Spice guy.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
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