Cats are out," quips Sherrod DeGrippo. "Dogs are in." She should know: DeGrippo founded Encyclopedia Dramatica (ED), arguably the web's first humor-based, user-generated site documenting internet culture and meme history.
Heavily influenced by the language and content of other online communities like the notoriously unsavory 4chan, ED housed ever-evolving articles explicating a wide range of internet terms, web-community history, and memes—everything from the playful "longcat" image macros to derogatory expressions like "newfag," a term used on message boards to call out unschooled maiden users.
When DeGrippo talks about cat memes, she's talking about the declining quality of the crowdsourced content on sites like ED; the lulz of Internets Past, Present, and Future. It's the topic she'll be speaking on at the October 1 ROFLCon Summit—a one-off on ROFLCon, a biennial meme-focused convention. Over a series of five panel discussions, the creation, evolution, protection, and geopolitical implications of online humor communities will be explored. DeGrippo will sit on a panel that's been referred to as both "Lulz on the Long Term," and "Internet Underground"; the thesis is, essentially, "What was underground meme culture is now mainstream meme culture." Amen.
"Lolcats aren't really enough to satiate people anymore," says DeGrippo. "[People are] looking for something more interesting and more complex. I know I am, anyway."
I'd have to agree: Image macros of cats have gotten pretty boring. But then again, these easy memes are still very popular, providing the lifeblood for plenty of active internet communities. Fellow ROFLCon panelist Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Network, is at the helm of many such online neighborhoods.
Huh facilitates the distribution and documentation of memes through various Lolcats-y type sites: I Can Has Cheezburger, It Made My Day, Know Your Meme, and dozens of others. It's fairly safe to assume that Huh would disagree with DeGrippo's qualitative assessment of cute image macros. (For ROFLCon's "New Memes on the Block," Huh will discuss emerging humor platforms with Chris Poole, founder of 4chan and a newer project, Canv.as, as well as VHX co-founder Jamie Wilkinson, Buzzfeed's viral media researcher Chris Menning, and Mike Rugnetta of MemeFactory.)
So we have folks like Huh aiding anybody and everybody in making memes on a scale of yawn to 10, and then we have DeGrippo giving thumbs down to the resultant floodwaters—all those unimaginative image macros that just won't stop "has"ing cats.
Perhaps DeGrippo is a few steps ahead of Huh. She started ED back in 2004, and the site blossomed into one of the earliest indexes of memes, internet phenomena, and online culture. And while the storehouse of user-generated articles grew into a fairly comprehensive resource, the collective tone became a language and content in and of itself. Imagine the 4chan-iest troll you can conjure—racist, sexist, homophobic, and in a flagrant embrace with indecent taste—and there you have Encyclopedia Dramatica's voice.
It was a great site. It was a terrible site. Like Wikipedia's mom's basement for geeky internet shit. Their "TL;DR" tab was a college favorite of mine, while "An Hero" was a bunch of unsettling 4chan babble about suicide, fleshing out the awful end of ED's offerings.
Alas, the shock-troll tone of the latter, and an increase of sub-par content, led DeGrippo to put ED to rest earlier this year.
In ED's place, DeGrippo started OhInternet, a safe-for-work cousin to the original site, stripped of the outright tasteless content. While OhInternet still houses user-generated articles about web culture and memes, submissions must stand up to the Grandma Test (would you show the article to your grandma?) and new users are corralled for a grace period between sign-up and editor access. Within ROFLCon's discussion of participatory online communities, ED's transformation into OhInternet not only speaks to the evolution of the memes that fill these sites, but the need for quality-checks and content curation if a community is to remain functional.
"I think it's really, really hard to keep user-generated content high quality while also not devolving into a walled garden where people are afraid to contribute because they don't want to deal with being bulldozed by others who are obsessed with rules," explains DeGrippo.
Corroborating ROFLCon's discussion on emergent communities and the relationship between quality and longevity is 4chan founder Poole, whose Canv.as serves as a platform for the in-browser creation and sharing of image macros. Like OhInternet, Canv.as has a PG-13 appeal, banning any pornographic content that might follow him from 4chan. But unlike OhInternet and 4chan, Canv.as charges its users with curatorial duties as well as content submission. Visitors drag digital stickers to posts of their choosing, thus categorizing and ranking the image macros served up on the site.
The value in curating user-generated content is nowhere more evident than when looking into the collective voting model of Reddit, the self-described "front page of the internet," whose general manager Erik Martin will be joining a ROFLcon paneled called "United Internets." Reddit is a link-aggregating site, and its content filtering mechanism is relatively simple. Essentially, rather than divide content generators and curators, Reddit puts everything in the user's hands.
ROFLcon founder Tim Hwang says that Reddit has democratized content and community so successfully that their geographically disparate virtual citizenry can now mobilize in patterns similar to nation-states. He cites Reddit's disaster relief efforts as an example, which he says have rivaled traditional philanthropic avenues in both speed and efficiency. Reddit's ability to mobilize its community is why Hwang asked Martin to speak on the "United Internets" panel—summarized as a discussion on "internet communities and geopolitics." Panelists will expand upon instances of collective action organized through online platforms, and flesh out how these occurrences relate to domestic and foreign policy.
Martin and Hwang both make one thing clear: Online communities are powerful. Yes, they function to entertain, but they also furnish a mechanism for like-minded people to quickly mobilize on any number of issues—be it Reddit providing disaster relief or 4channers organizing Anonymous DDoS attacks against PayPal for cutting off WikiLeaks' access to money-transfer services (PayPal restored WikiLeaks' account after the crippling attacks).
But the longevity and vitality of these online communities isn't guaranteed. In ROFLCon's "In Defense of the Internet" panel, representatives from Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, two public interest groups that work to protect a free and open internet, will be joined by Danny O'Brien of the Committee to Protect Journalists to discuss the legislative work that's being done to protect citizens of the internet and the communities therein. Similarly, in "Preserving and Archiving the Web," the relationship between archivists and online communities will be explored.
And while defending a free and open internet is vital, it doesn't necessarily protect these online communities from themselves. Revisiting the Encyclopedia Dramatica example, it wasn't the collective will of the users to shut down the site, nor some grand cyber attack or government intervention, but rather a more dictatorial aesthetic decision on the part of DeGrippo.
In other words, while we can set up legal and technological apparatuses to preserve the internet and protect the freedom and usefulness of these communities, and while we can build inclusive filtering mechanisms to generate the most compelling content, it's the users who will ultimately fertilize the nodes of online culture that they deem most valuable—and, if need be, fight for their existence. Moreover, it doesn't matter if it's Huh's illiterate cats or the anime porn of 4chan's /d/ board. These communities hold a worth greater than their declared functionality—they're platforms for the purest type of consensual collective action. And that's why discussions like the ones brought up by ROFLCon Summit are so important: If we better understand the potential of our online communities and the conditions in which they flourish, we can better ensure that they'll be around when we need them most.