CAMBRIDGE, Mass. This past weekend, MIT hosted ROFLCon – a two-day conference devoted to understanding and celebrating Internet culture. The weekend was jammed with entertaining and thoughtful panel discussions, early Internet throwbacks and dozens of Internet celebrities. But more than singing Pop Tart cats and auto-tuned news segments, ROFLCon was a chance to really examine Internet’s role in society.
Something Is Happening Here
After a fascinating keynote address by Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain on Friday, where he discussed the role memes play in our culture, a group of international panelists formed the “Global Lulzes” panel. Not dissimilar to Zittrain’s keynote, at the heart of the discussion was the role Internet memes play, but focused on memes sprouting in countries outside of America. One of the panelists, An Xiao Mina, was there to talk about memes in China and how they are used to subvert censorship there.
“Because of censorship it’s very easy to stamp out seditious and potentially subversive messages,” she told me in an interview after the panel, “but these memes kind of morph and change. They change keywords, they change images, and so it’s very hard to catch them.”
Mina gave some examples, including a meme of the “Shawshank Redemption” poster modified to allude to the escape of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. In the poster, the artist added black sunglasses — a reference to the black sunglasses worn by Guangcheng.
But after a short while, that meme evolved into another meme — a drawing of a scene in “Shawshank Redemption” when the prison guards discover the prisoner had escaped. Only, in this drawing the guards are replaced as pigs and the original meme is strategically placed in the background.
This kind of evolution happens very quickly to avoid being caught and stamped out. And in the case of Guangcheng, this strategy to avoid censorship has proven to be quite effective.
“When he was released, [Guangcheng] thanked ‘netizens’ for raising awareness of the case,” she said. “He identified one of the memes by name — so it played a very important role in raising awareness about his case and making sure other people know about what was happening, because his name was being stamped out by most media.”
This is just one example of how Internet memes are becoming a serious communication medium that conveys a single idea created, distributed and sustained by an online community, and that actually influences change.
But What Does It Mean?
These memes are inciting emotion. It’s clear that the proliferation of certain kinds of content online are doing something to the way we perceive and interact with the world. And it’s much more than just a place to satisfy one’s inner Internet nerd and revel in the appearance of semi-famous pop-up celebrities. What came out of ROFLCon is the sense that there is something going on here. In fact, there’s something massive going on here. We’re not too sure exactly what it is yet, but organizations like ROFLCon, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and Expert Labs are taking us in the right direction by gathering minds to think of what exactly is happening — from not only a social and political perspective, but from a psychological and business perspective as well.
Creating and spreading Internet memes and interacting with a community online is no longer anti-social behavior, relegated to nerds or outcasts. Internet culture is a worldwide phenomenon that affects us in nearly every way possible. And no, we haven’t quite figured out yet, but the important thing to know is we’re trying to.