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By Mark A. Shiffrin

NEW YORK, 12 FEBRUARY 2009 - "I got a crush on Obama Girl." That says a lot about ROFLcon, celebrating its first anniversary by holding ROFLThing NYC, a conference on the Culture of the Internet, (as contrasted with this publication's diet of Culture discussed on the Internet). This conclave of geeks - featuring people who have developed Internet prominence for themselves or their creations, along with wannabes, will bes, and fellow travelers - came together in TriBeCa in a delightfully eccentric synergy on a Saturday afternoon so frigid that it must have left the poor coat check wondering why the fates conspired to force the participants to keep their coats on indoors.

There was Obama Girl, the lovely Amber Lee Ettinger, a former lingerie model who achieved great renown lip synching the song "I Got a Crush on Obama." It became quite a viral hit on YouTube, with millions of downloads, and has given substance to the website Barely Political, as well as a bit of a boost to President Obama in what has proved to be the most successful marketing campaign yet in the 21st Century.

On Amber, more to come, but first there is Ian Spector, Brown University senior, founder of a campy website with sophomoric humor (probably appropriately developed his sophomore year) addressing the mythology of Chuck Norris - the B actor with a lantern jaw and a martial arts facility - star of what has to be George Walker Bush's favorite TV show, Walker, Texas Ranger . Ian wrote a bestseller about Norris and is also a symbol of young Internet entrepreneurs on the make. He spoke at last year's first ROFLcon and networked at this conference, where he greeted me at the after party at a SoHo hookah bar where the traffic in tech ideas was thicker than the smoke. That's part of the ROFLcon ethos, the earnest and fun spirit of "Hey, kids! We have a barn! We can all sing and dance! Let's put on a show!" Everywhere an idea, a discussion, an air of anticipation that something new is about to come and an interest in being present at the creation.

There is Greg Marra, a student at Olin College in Massachusetts, the recently accredited specialized engineering college in the Cooper Union model. Greg might be typical of the atypical crowd at ROFLcon, the sort of student who chose to go to a new college you might never have heard because it had an idiosyncratic curriculum that appealed to his intellectual sense, someone who boasts of projects like an online video on robotics with over a million hits and a Google internship as an undergraduate. I suspect we will hear from him, too, because intelligence expressed with that kind of inner compass and the willingness to follow it is central to this geek world view.

We will hear from many of the people brought together through an enterprising recent graduate of Harvard, Tim Hwang, who works at Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. He demonstrates the wit of Internet culture with this ROFLThing NYC, packing the first ROFLcon last year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a conference in San Francisco last summer, and sallying forth this year in Manhattan as the pied piper of geek culture. He creates these events for himself and his fellow travelers and comes to them for the same reason they come - the Internet is to them what an Oldies radio format was to an earlier generation, "the music of your life," and his innovation is to put out the welcome mat online and let the family come home for a visit.

The people who converged here would tell each other that we - yes, I include myself in this crowd - all get it. In this circumstance, "get it" means understanding the power and techniques of the Internet and not being afraid to be somewhat wacky in how we use this new medium, knowing that there are others who will get it even if we may seem alone pinging into cyberspace.

When I saw the room listening rapt to the concluding talk by Vince Connaire, the inventor of the Comic Sans Font discussing his creation entering ubiquity courtesy of his former employer, Microsoft, I knew that this conference is of a kind that would not have been possible but for the Internet. It came to my attention by a posting on Thrillist, a daily e-mail for self-selected hep people (presuming it is hip to be hep) in New York. And the conference maxed out early. A full house of people who attend something like this because the Internet can bring together a critical mass of any subset of a free society, in this case the folks who rooted for and identified with the Nerds.

That means geeks converge and listen to discussions of such things as comic fonts, or the twittering life of Sockington the cat (doubtless you've heard of him if you are a cat fancier, a Twitter fiend, or someone who knows what will be the obscure cultural footnotes of our era, what will become the touchstones we remember like we do Saturday Night Live's now resurgent Mr. Bill circa 1980).

With the Internet, any group of any merit or lack of merit can self-select and self-define, good and bad, benign and malignant. None of us who crave community is ever alone anymore, even when before our screens in seeming privacy. In ROFLThing we see this geek community of those who love the Internet and the cool things (well, at least to those who think them cool) of this mouthpiece of pop culture - a love that is reborn with every posting by people with inexpensive virtual printing presses that disseminate whatever they wish to share with the rest of us in real time.

The proponents and creators of this pop culture are the people who see better living through technology the way some of their parents (grandparents?) once saw better living through chemistry. These are the people loosely coming together and coalescing to form the common culture of our age, as others once wrote dramas, or operas, or Broadway musicals that captured different moments as the popular culture of different eras.

Which brings me back to Obama Girl. The geeks used to be the smart kids who usually wore pocket protectors, browsed Radio Shack, and never got a wink from a girl like Amber, who would be a cheerleader off with the captain of the football team. High school is always unfair and part of us always dwells there.

Here, in this new era, Amber's cameraman came up to me and introduced us, asking to interview me (apparently looking for a straight man, but did I care?) as her Web career moves from the world of politics to the world of the Internet and technology. When I said that I'd love to have a picture with her for my Facebook page, she graciously offered her own camera and e-mailed it, something I consider of a piece with a photo I once saw in an antique store of a man standing with Dagmar, a now-obscure pop sensation from the early years of TV.

In the world of the Internet, Amber is also a geek, and she knows it. She is part of this culture, celebrating it and being celebrated by it. She wasn't radiating or receiving patronizing difference but consanguinity. And, at ROFLThing NYC, the geeks all came together, each to his or her role on self-defined terms proclaimed in the Internet's culture of acceptance.

Even the cheerleader loves the geeks and has become one. Beauty is simply her eccentricity in a community of eccentricities finding common purpose, maximizing every individual's moment of appearing on the Internet on their own individual terms, and matching them with those who will join in celebrating their moment.

I understand one might be ROFL that I can be serious about this. Too bad, because this is popular culture being created today by the young innovators of our time, both the vaunted and the vapid. In a real sense, they are just like precursors with Hair at the Public Theatre, the Beatles, or Andy Warhol in 1967, as well as lots of culture that withstands the test of time less well. Like that TV blonde of the Fifties you never heard of, Dagmar. LOL.

Mark A. Shiffrin is a lawyer who has been Deputy General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Education and Consumer Protection Commissioner of Connecticut. His articles and opinion editorials have appeared in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Boston Globe, Washington Post, and Industry Standard.

External Links


Barely Political

Berkman Center for the Internet and Society

Obama Campaign Website

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