The Internet recently descended, IRL, on the MIT Campus. There was Tron Guy, and David After Dentist; Huh Guy and the creator of Nyan Cat. Double Rainbow guy played with the new Keyboard Cat toy while Ben Huh of Cheezburger Networks walked past 'Addicted to LOLCats' signs.
The reason for this unusual gathering of Internet icons? ROFLCon, the third internet culture conference co-sponsored by Harvard and MIT.
Started in 2008 by then-Harvard undergrads Tim Hwang and Christina Xu, ROFLCon was the first conference devoted to 'discussing what makes memes work, why they work, and where it's all going'.
Four years and several events later, ROFLCon III had 900+ attendants and over 100 panelists, with talks and presentations dissecting everything from fangirl culture to the artistic merit of the animated GIF.
While the atmosphere of ROFLCon was one of lighthearted fun - the conference programme was a choose your own adventure book that came in a bum bag filled with a whoopee cushion and 'ROFLCondoms' - a major theme of the conference was, as the Memefactory put it, that 'The internet isn’t funny anymore'.
This was less an indictment of the current state of internet humour and more a comment on the fact that while memes may seem silly, their significance within global culture is far from it.
One common theme present throughout the conference was the social and political significance of memes.
In the Global Lulzes panel, for example, bloggers from China and Syria discussed how memes are used to express political dissent in a way that flies under the radar of the censors and other authorities.
In Lolitics: Memes and Politics, Latoya Peterson of Racialicious illustrated how memes and humour are used as a mechanism for addressing sensitive or difficult topics such as racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Another common theme was the business of memes. These discussions ranged from the difficulty of profiting from an unexpected 15 minutes of fame, to how to actively create those 15 minutes of fame, particularly for a brand.
One of the most popular panels at the conference featured Craig Allen and Isaiah Mustafa, the writer behind the Old Spice Guy campaign and the Old Spice Guy himself. Also in attendance was 'Huh?" Guy Nate Dern, who rose to unlikely fame after his one-liner in an AT&T commercial took off on Reddit.
So what can brands learn from discussions like the ones at ROFLCon? The first answer is that memes are a key way that we communicate these days, both individually and societally.
As was made clear in many of the panels, memes often act as a mirror for social and cultural anxieties - which means that they are an excellent place to get insight into the issues that may - or may not be - resonating in a population at a certain time.
On a micro level, advice animals, LOLCats, and animated GIFs are often used as emotional shorthand, a method of giving entertaining, personalised responses in both public and private conversations.
The role of memes in communication connects to the second key learning, which is that memes are not gimmicks that can be easily co-opted to pursue a marketing end.
In his keynote speech, Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center of Internet and Society remarked that memes take off because they take a solitary feeling and turn it into a group experience, allowing those who participate in a meme to perform a range of psychosocial functions including establishing identity and group identification and representing their lived experience.
This is why forced memes don’t work; their lack of authenticity prevents them from resonating with audiences.
As Lindsay Weber of Buzzfeed noted, the Old Spice campaign took off online the way it did because, on top of the fact that it was incredibly funny, the writers subtly signaled their intended audience by using the vernacular and style of online meme culture, instead of forcing a parade of meme references down the audience’s throats.
While memes and internet culture may seem like a new, potentially confusing frontier for brands, the underlying tenets of a successful meme are the same as those of a successful campaign: know your audience, and be authentic.
There's no magical formula for 'going viral', but getting those things right is a good place to start. Also, including a cat or two couldn't hurt.