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The Internet, in real life

  • Story Highlights
  • About 800 people gathered at MIT in Boston for ROFLCon
  • Even offline, attendees found ways to highlight their favorite Web-based in-jokes
  • Live blog updates and video of events provided continuous updates
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By Anne Hammock
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CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (CNN) -- There's a certain detachment involved when you're surfing the Web, sitting alone at the computer, facing an inanimate screen. But there are real people to be found on the other end of the "intertubes."

"ROFLCon" is an Internet culture conference featuring Internet celebrities.

About 800 of them gathered at MIT in Boston over the weekend for an Internet culture conference called ROFLCon.

It was impossible to turn around without bumping into a meme, a meme-maker or a fan.

Here were content providers and ceWebrities manifest in flesh and bone, giving new meaning to the term "live chat."

As the buzz of conversation escalated decibel levels just before Friday's keynote address, a speaker approaching the podium caused a sudden hush. The mood was broken when someone shouted into the glaring silence, "This is what the Internet sounds like."

The laughter that followed set the tone for two days of panels marked by snarkiness, geek-love, and a level of audience participation worthy of "Web 2.0."

A certain amount of Net savvy was needed just to read the schedule.

Topics included "Pwning for the Good of Mankind," "Lolcats: I Can Has Case Study," and "Incubating the Mind Virus: Meme Infrastructures."

First up was "You Can Get Paid for This?," featuring the folks who gave us "Chuck Norris facts," Marmaduke explained, the Million Dollar Homepage, the infamous "This Land" video mocking the 2004 presidential election, and video blog Rocket Boom.

To a man -- and as one audience member pointed out, most panelists were young, white males -- they said their Internet fame was something of a fluke. And a few cited sheer boredom as their inspiration. Ian Spector, who some credit with resurrecting Chuck Norris' career, said he started 4q, the "original" Chuck Norris fact generator, while "sitting home alone one Saturday night when all of my friends were out."

Joe Mathlete, who meticulously deconstructs the Marmaduke comic, said he simply had nothing better to do at the office.

ROFLCon organizer Diana Kimball speculated that much of what makes the Web "weird and whimsical" can be directly attributed to "procrastination," as the people building sites, and surfing them, look to avoid what they really should be doing.

Conference activities were punctuated by announcements to "check online" for details about evening concerts, live streams and special fan-base dinners. Kimball, who often stood at the microphone, said it felt odd talking about the Internet without being on the Internet.

But even offline, conference attendees found ways to highlight their favorite Web-based in-jokes. The crowd outside one panel was "rickrolled" by a group of singers doing their best Rick Astley imitation. Watch more on "rickrolling." Video

All kidding aside, attendees were well aware that "The Internet is serious business," as the saying goes.

Ad sales and merchandise revenue were cited as the chief sources of income for many sites. Others are strictly a labor of love. David Lloyd, "DJ Pretzel" of OC Remix, said his site is a "dot org" rather than a "dot com" because, "We are definitely not for profit."

Later he asked his money-making co-presenters what he is doing wrong. Several panels focused on the elusive nature of commercial success online and the speakers tended to agree that it's all about building community.

In the months between its conception and execution, ROFLCon built its own community. For those not there "in real life", there were constant "Twitters," live blog updates and video streams of the events.

As the conference came to a close, the hundreds who helped create what Kimball called "the Internet in person," were buzzing about whether it would happen again next year. In the meantime, they've gone back to sitting at their computers, detached from each other by time and space, staring at inanimate screens and hoping. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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