MIKE PESCA, host:
So, we sent our producer, Ian Chillag, up to Massachusetts. Made him run the Boston Marathon, did some stuff here. Then we sent him back up again for an even more demanding gauntlet. It's called ROFLCon, where heroes of Internet culture mix with lovers of Internet culture, trying to figure out why we love Internet culture. All right, Ian, you're at MIT. Five hundred people have somehow left their computers. They enter the real world. Set the scene.
IAN CHILLAG: I have to say, you mentioned the marathon. It was probably equally sweaty at ROFLCon.
PESCA: Did everyone dress in layers?
CHILLAG: No, no. There was a lot of costume. I was thinking about what it felt like. Last couple of days, I feel like I just woke up from this dream where the Internet had turned real. Tron Guy was there. Denny Blaze was there. Chuck Norris himself was not there, but the Chuck-Norris-facts guy was. It was just completely surreal.
PESCA: It's "The Wizard of Oz." And someone turned into the Wicked Witch. Well, on the blog, you talked about a panel which was supposed to be about making money on the Internet. But you know, on the Internet, you say it's going to be about this, and then it turns into something else. Is that what happened there?
CHILLAG: Yeah. And that was the interesting theme, it's like, I was really excited to see the fleshy versions of these Internet geniuses.
PESCA: Should we stop and define "meme"?
CHILLAG: Well, meme is like all those things you go crazy for on the Internet. Like, you know, the dramatic chipmunk or dramatic prairie dog, and these things that get sent around, forwarded, sometimes copied and remixed.
PESCA: It's like an idea or a fad.
PESCA: Any kind of thing.
CHILLAG: Pretty much anything you love on the Internet that you have sent to someone else is a meme. So yeah, there were kind of these things in person. But then the customs of the Internet kind of took hold.
Like, at this panel, someone at the beginning stood up and said, I can't help but notice all of you on stage there. You're all young white men. And the discussion completely changed from what it was supposed to be about. Kevin Driscoll, he's from MIT. He put what happened like this.
Mr. KEVIN DRISCOLL (Student, Comparative Media Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): People saw something that was wrong, and they didn't just, like, wait until the coffee break to gripe about it.
They stood up, and they were like, all right, this thing has barely started, and I already see a problem. Let me just tell you about it. And then a bunch of other people came in, and they, like, replied to the first poster. Yo, this is not good.
CHILLAG: So, you know, he put it in Internet terms, commenting on the first poster, and it was just so Internet.
PESCA: It was an actual person who said you're all white men, and the guy we just heard from called him a "poster." That's funny.
CHILLAG: Exactly. And there was a dinner that the organizers didn't plan, but you know, on Twitter, the attendees of the conference took over and planned it for them without any sort of organized - nobody told them...
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
CHILLAG: Well, no. It's really organized. It's just not directed.
PESCA: Well, it's interesting. That guy who talked about you're all white men. When you get send a funny chipmunk or Chuck Norris facts, you don't think of the demographic of the guy sending it to you. So they just constructed a panel of whoever's been sending around the most famous stuff. And it turned out these are all...
CHILLAG: Yeah, and they had worried about this. And at one point, Tron Guy stood up, and he was like, look, most of the people on the Internet are geeks. Most geeks are men. That's why it is. Nobody is saying women don't belong here. It's just the fact that we're nerds, and most of us are dudes.
PESCA: And when Tron Guy speaks, is it like George Washington at the Constitutional Convention? A hush falls over the room?
CHILLAG: It really is. Like, if Tron Guy is talking, everyone shuts up.
PESCA: This is the guy who dresses up like the Disney film "Tron." That's who Tron Guy is. I feel like we have to pull back and explain some of these things every once in awhile. So, was Tron Guy, is he the most famous guy? Who's the most famous Internet meme?
CHILLAG: Tron was big. There was, do you know Leeroy Jenkins? Have you heard of Leeroy Jenkins?
PESCA: Unless he's known as something else.
CHILLAG: OK, so his real world handle is Ben Schultz. He's the star of his YouTube video from "World of Warcraft." Basically, a group of players huddled outside a dungeon planning an attack. We can hear some of that.
(Soundbite of YouTube video)
Unidentified Man #1: It's a lot better than we usually do.
Unidentified Man #2: All right. Let's do this. Leeroy Jenkins!
CHILLAG: Seriously, that's all there is to it. Yet, the two most popular copies of that video have been viewed more than five million times. He was there. People were crazy for him. I asked him where the whole Leeroy Jenkins thing came from.
Mr. BEN SCHULTZ (Creator of Leeroy Jenkins Character, "World of Warcraft"): We were drinking 40s and just yelling at each other.
CHILLAG: There it is.
Mr. SCHULTZ: There is it. The down payments for that has been excellent.
MARTIN: So excellent.
CHILLAG: It's a fame that doesn't really translate so well to the real world. Soon after his video hit YouTube, this showed up on Jeopardy!
(Soundbite of TV show "Jeopardy!")
Mr. ALEX TREBEK (Host, "Jeopardy!"): This role-playing game, out in 2004, returns to the world of Azeroth, where heroes like Leeroy Jenkins do battle.
CHILLAG: Blank stares.
Mr. TREBEK: That would be "The World of Warcraft."
CHILLAG: Nobody got it. So it doesn't really jump to the mainstream. But he likes it that way.
MARTIN: Props to Alex Trebek for trying to make the leap, though.
CHILLAG: I think an intern got fired over that.
PESCA: Oh, oh, no. It's "World of Warcraft," no. I'm glad that our medium is threatened by that thing. Makes me feel good. All right, so let's talk about Denny Blazin' Hazen.
CHILLAG: Yeah. Now, this was a big meme a couple years back.
(Soundbite of song "Average Homeboy")
Mr. DENNY BLAZE: (Rapping) I have to work hard every day If I want the money to go out and play.
MARTIN: Yeah, I can tell.
CHILLAG: The chorus there, you know, he just says, average homeboy, and that's what it was all about. This guy made this video himself, sent it to record companies, really wanted to hit it big. A couple years ago, it shows up on YouTube, and people loved it. Not necessarily because it was great rapping.
PESCA: Not necessarily, right. The whole discussion, is this guy real? Is this like a hoax perpetuated after the fact?
CHILLAG: I can tell you, he is very, very real. It fits into this whole category. David Weinberger from Harvard spoke, and he said there are these memes that are really about, quote, "exalting in the inadequacy of being normal."
These are people like Tay Zonday or the Star Wars Kid, but basically, you know, they have ambitions. They have weird quirks like the rest of us. They just happen to be on video. Denny Blaze's attitude towards his fame is pretty much like this.
Mr. BLAZE (Internet Video Star): I don't have any regrets about it. If I was 18 years ago, I would probably make the same video, and everything happens for a reason. And I'm thankful that is finally has happened.
CHILLAG: Yeah, so the fame is pretty much an opportunity for him, you know, for people to hear his music. He actually performed that night on stage. Got on stage, Harvard hat, MIT jacket.
(Soundbite of song "Average Homeboy")
Mr. BLAZE: (Rapping) Every day, if I want their money I'd take 'em out and play. I played you like a toy.
CHILLAG: All right, so he kind of changed around the lyrics. And what he's saying there is, you know, you may think I'm a joke, but the joke's on you. You brought me here. I'm using you to reach a real fame.
PESCA: Why does it have to be so confrontational? They love the guy. The joke's not on them. They knew it was a joke.
CHILLAG: Yeah, but he is saying it wasn't really funny. It was really an opportunity to kind of reach the real ranks of hip-hop.
PESCA: With his message of hope and love, yeah. Here, if we're going to talk about crazy stuff on the Internet, we have got to talk about these lolcats. These pictures of animals with captions, as if, this is what a cat would be saying if it could speak. You went to a panel called lolcats?
CHILLAG: Yeah, this was pretty amazing. This was - there was the guy from icanhascheezburger, who - that's the big lolcat site. There was somebody who's translating the Bible into lolspeak. At one point, somebody raised their hand and asked, at first, the language is like baby talk in these little cats. It's this funny vernacular. Now, you're making fun of people with Down syndrome.
And so everybody on the panel was like what? What are you saying? And Ben - Ben Huh, who manages the big lolcat site, he said, you know, lolspeak is the first language that was written before it was spoken. So whatever voice you have in your head is your own. And I thought that was really interesting. He also said they get a lot of complaints from people who say their cats don't have bad grammar.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Did you ever "roll on the floor" laughing?
CHILLAG: Yeah, I was looking for it the whole time. It finally happened. Here's Dan Lurie.
Mr. DAN LURIE (Attendee, ROFLCon): People were breaking down panel by panel, this person can stay. This person, we're going to troll them. This person, we're going to do this. And for Soulja Boy, they said, like, we're going to lynch this panel.
PESCA: All right, Ian Chillag, he's our man at ROFLCon. Thanks a lot, Ian.
MARTIN: Thanks, Ian. Stay with us. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.