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May 5, 2010, noon

Tracking memes on their native turf: Viral anthropology at ROFLcon

If ROFLcon isn’t the world’s largest gathering of Internet celebrities, it at least appears to have the highest concentration. In the audience was Matt Harding, who danced around the world in his series of videos, Where the Hell is Matt? Brad O’Farrell, creator of the viral hit video Play Him Off, Keyboard Cat was around and in costume, as was the man behind the cat’s paws from the original footage, Charlie Schmidt. They were among the many creators and enthusiasts of viral web content meeting at the MIT campus last weekend for the two day conference.

Now in its third year, ROFLcon (Rolling on the Floor Laughing conference, for the n00bs) seems less like a discussion of some obscure online culture than a look at an edge of the mainstream. After all, 4chan was the answer to a question on Jeopardy. CNN’s played the Keyboard Cat video, and ABC Nightly News had a segment on Three Wolf Moon. Many of the best known web celebrities have appeared on late night talk shows or in ad campaigns.

This year, ROFLcon looked to the past to better understand the Internet memes it celebrates. Guests included Usenet moderators, FidoNet creator Tom Jennings, and Mahir, whose “I Kiss You” website dates back to 1999. But the climate’s different from the web’s earlier days, with the growth of Facebook, Digg, Twitter, 4chan, and other social media networks. That Neiman Marcus cookie recipe couldn’t last an afternoon if it were sent around today.

A viral Tumblr, single serving site, or a humorous web video can now see massive traffic in a short time frame. Tens of millions have seen Matt Harding dance. Over a thousand have added humorous reviews to the Three Wolf Moon Amazon page, and since the meme began, it has ranked among Amazon’s bestselling clothing items. But the behavior of sharing and linking content is difficult to predict.

The hunt for the heart of buzz

The huckster with a formula for making your brand “go viral” is the Brooklyn Bridge salesman of our time, but ROFLcon presenter Jonah Peretti isn’t your average social media “strategist.” The Huffington Post co-founder was invited to talk about the “social reproduction rank” measured at his other website, Buzzfeed.

Buzzfeed’s focus is on the media that gets shared, with buttons and traffic stats on posts indicating the trajectory of these memes. There are millions of people bored at work every day, sharing links with their friends, and that “bored at work network” is bigger than the BBC, NBC, or any media outlet, Peretti explained. High clickthrough rates don’t always predict lots of sharing: “Porn isn’t viral,” Peretti said. (Those who click a link to see “Lindsay Lohan sideboob” probably aren’t going to then tweet or blog about it.) Peretti also finds that what people search for online is similarly kept private. But while Peretti was clear about what doesn’t create a meme, what does remained something of a mystery. Certainly, engaging with groups of “maniacs” (Ron Paul voters, Justin Bieber fans) or providing an outlet for playful narcissism (“Elf Yourself“) can build crowds — but that still leaves a lot of high-traffic Internet weirdness still unexplained.

As for the meme makers, few had an answer for why their media had taken off the way they did. Most of them were not the sort of SXSWi-attending microcelebrities who were in the audience; as Matthew Battles tweeted, “unlike most conferences, the audience are the experts & the panelists are outsiders. And *they* are the creators.” One guest pronounced “meme” incorrectly several times, and two other panelists were unfamiliar with the term “IRL.” Given the lighthearted spirit of the conference, ROFLers seemed to regard this less as ignorance than further proof of their authenticity. They weren’t “trying too hard” (the worst insult to a meme maker.)

Tracking the numbers

Sharing wacky Internet memes seems driven by some of the same desires that lead to sharing news or more serious media. The gut-wrenching video of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death and the footage of ex-marine David Motari throwing a puppy off a cliff spread on the Internet as easily as Keyboard Cat. News of a celebrity’s death — real or not — gets “shared” on Twitter, and many people first heard about the earthquake in Haiti or the bomb in Times Square via social networks.

There may be no crystal ball to predict “virality” in advance, but media organizations can control how an existing meme gets aggregated and filtered. Trending topics and to-the-minute analytics like Chartbeat are essential for tending to traffic spikes as they happen. Peretti explained The Huffington Post keeps constant watch over every post, moving items up and down the homepage as pageviews rise and fall — even rewriting headlines when they don’t appear to work.

It is unclear why one cat video finds a million viewers and another never reaches a thousand. And success may only come once: At ROFLcon, Brad O’Farrell and “Dancing Matt” even made a video together, and at around 8,000 views, it does not appear to be viral. But if your content does go viral, you’ll want to be able to laugh along with the crowd when the traffic spikes— especially if they are laughing at you. Otherwise, you’ll never live it down.

POSTED     May 5, 2010, noon
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