It’s been two days since the first-ever ROFLCon Summit took place, and I think at this point I’ve managed to put together enough sleep and perspective to begin to describe how awesome it was.
So what the hell is/was ROFLCon Summit? If you ask the official web site, the description says:
ROFLCon Summit is a spin-off of the wildly awesome biennial ROFLCon. It’ll bring together the leading generators, preservers and advancers of online culture so they can talk about where it’s all headed and what it means to everyone else. It’s an open discussion about why the very same communities that are good at making dumb, funny things online are having a real impact on the world. Join us on October 1st, 2011 in Portland, Oregon for the first-ever ROFLCon Summit to address the incredible potential of the Internet, virality, the blogosphere, and beyond!!!
That’s a pretty good summary, but it glosses over a few aspects that I think were really central to how much of a total nerdgasm the day became. First, there’s the venue, which was the global headquarters of Wieden + Kennedy (click that link to see photos of the insanity that place is). Just being inside the building fills you with overpowering chillness, design awe, and creative inspiration. Then there’s the attendance, capped at around three-hundred. You read that right. Three-hundred people and eighteen speakers, you do the math. It would be the understatement of the year to describe the whole situation as “accessible to brainshare.” Calling the event a summit and not a conference or convention actually makes a lot of sense, because in a sense everyone there feels like a participant.
I don’t know if this was by design or good fortune, but as a result of how the space was laid out (visually spacious, but very compact in the sense that you were never more than a few seconds and a dozen paces from anything else) it’s almost unavoidable that you would end up with facetime among the guests. By the end of the day, I ended up having extended conversations with no less than six of them myself…and to think I woke up in the morning hoping maybe to get a simple autograph from one. What happened, instead, turned out to be one of the nerdiest and more motivating experiences of my life.
For the staff and speakers, I’m sure the day began before dawn (or perhaps the night before, at the pre-party that reddit threw) but all I had to do was roll out of bed and onto the streetcar downstairs…gotta love living in downtown Portland! I actually ended up being a little early for check-in (there was no “registration” to speak of because the thing totally sold out in advance). There’s a Whole Foods a couple blocks across The Pearl from W + K, so I popped over, grabbed a quick breakfast, and wandered back just in time to camp out a spot right where I wanted to be in the auditorium.
Before long the place filled up, and as attendees swarmed about filling in the cracks I noticed a guy standing next to me and slid over. We started chatting, and he turned out to be Kevin Savetz, a Portland native and the proprietor of the Classic Computer Magazine Archive. Kevin was so friendly and outgoing that he completely set the mood for my entire day, and at some point I’ve gotta track him down and thank him for that. I have to admit, as someone totally unfamiliar with the “vibe” of ROFLCon, I was a little worried that my fellow attendees might include a smattering of cool, fun people lost in a crowd of stoic, elitist, competitive and anti-social jerks with slicked hair and sunglasses who all think they’re Neo because they discovered the command line.
I don’t know if it’s Portland, or just ROFLCon, or the unique combination of the two, but nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, the summit was more like a giant crowd of Kevin Savetzes with only one of “those” dudes alone in a corner (sunglasses, pomade, and all…not that I would look much different if you saw me at a KMFDM show). It began to occur to me that this is not any technology conference you’ve ever been to before. In fact, it’s more like if you stripped away everything one considers typical of those events and just ran everything like an anime con instead (or rather, the Platonic ideal of an anime con in which staffing, infrastructure, and logistics all come together as if orchestrated by some benevolent, omnipotent force).
Kevin and I chatted a bit about life in Portland, moving here, and some general geekery before I even realized what web site he ran (and even then, I think I was too sleepy to fully realize that yes, it’s that one I’d spend hundreds of hours on reading old magazines but just didn’t remember the name of). This is so emblematic of the feel of ROFLCon. There’s nowhere on your badge that says what company you’re from or what you do, and I feel like that has to be a deliberate choice. This isn’t a gathering about hob-knobbing and chest thumping and and scoring VC, though I’m sure plenty of that goes on offsite and behind-the-scenes as a result of relationships formed there. ROFLCon, it seems, is much more about nerds coming together in a very collaborative, non-hierarchical way as driven, passionate, talented equals. Every time there’s a break between sessions, you can hardly tell who’s a speaker and who’s an attendee the moment after the conference table empties.
The next amazing thing that happened was that as Kevin and I were chatting, Brewster Kahle sat down in front of us and Kevin introduced us. I think I would have been struck dumb, except that (if this is possible) Brewster was even more unassuming and affable than Kevin was. The three of us then set about brainstorming ways in which the Internet Archive (which already serves up web pages, books, films, music, and other media types) might in the future go about providing not just storage, but the experience of using old software. We tossed around various ideas about how one might balance what goes on at the server end of things versus the client side in order to avoid the inadvertent distribution of disk images while still providing a snappy interaction (think “remote desktop for an emulated Apple II”). I won’t derail my storytelling at this point with a deep dive, but suffice to say I later learned that someone on Brewster’s team already has the concept well in hand and this functionality is probably on the way…so just be excited about it for now while one of their devoted “dream armies” cobbles it together.
Eventually the first panel of the summit started and we turned our attention to the lively emcees and a hilarious slideshow of memes/in-jokes that united the crowd in good cheer and sparked some fun debates. My understanding is that ROFL will eventually post footage of all this stuff, so rather than try and describe all the panels and how they went (each could easily spawn a novella) I’ll wait for that content to come online and revisit all the actual meat and potatoes of the summit then. Suffice to say each event was independently amazing, and between the lively panel discussions upstairs and the more intimate AMA sessions downstairs, the whole event is a one-of-a-kind happening you really “have to see to believe.”
Over the course of the morning, I ended up sort of de-facto-hanging-out with Kevin and/or Brewster, the whole time feeling a little bit like the a kid on the first day of school in a new town (I kept wondering if I was bugging them, but they were such “regular dudes” that unless I was being really clueless, it seemed all good). We actually almost grabbed breakfast together, but when I decided to shoot back up the block for some more crunchy snacks from the grocery store Brewster opted for the food carts (which had magically appeared out front at some point since we all arrived) The kid-in-a-candy-store look on his face when he saw the hot dog vendor was hilarious, and reminded me of the nostalgic glee I feel whenever I step out of the subway stop at Coney Island and see Nathan’s Famous waiting there.
Back from my errand, swag bag stocked with munchies and drinks for the rest of the day, I wandered around the con on my own for a while taking in the amazing building and just generally feeling beside myself. It would have been a pretty wonderful day if things had just continued on like that until dusk, but then something completely unexpected happened. When the next panel ended and the official lunch break began, I wandered out into the street just as Brewster was walking by…flanked by Chris Poole and Jason Scott.
Now, as a quick aside, everyone who knows me well knows the whole reason I even found about, let alone decided to attend, ROFLCon Summit was because of Jason Scott. I’ve admired his work as a documentary filmmaker for years, to say nothing of his more considerable contributions to, how do I sum this up…the preservation of everything awesome ever. My primary goal for the whole day had started out as simply being “approach Jason, thank him for his work, try to ask for an autograph without being a fool…and if the con itself is interesting that’s extra credit.”
I’ve been mulling this over for two days now, trying to figure out what possessed me in the next moment. I really can’t even remember clearly, but I walked up alongside the trio on a relatively empty section of 13th Avenue with the intention of saying hello to Brewster again and hopefully, between then and wherever they were going, asking Jason to sign one of my DVD boxes (if an appropriate conversational pause occurred).
Instead, Brewster noticed me as I approached and said “oh hey, do you want to join us” and without missing a beat and somewhat amazed by my own voice I responded “well guys, if you wouldn’t mind, in support of Archive, Textfiles, and 4chan I’d love to take you to lunch.” That’s what I think I said, at least. I honestly don’t know for sure, it might have been something a LOT dorkier. However it came out though, that’s exactly what proceeded to happen.
Over the course of the next ninety minutes or so, Mr. Textfiles, Mr. Wayback Machine, Mr, 4chan, and an extremely humbled Mr. City-of-Virginia-Beach-and-once-Master-Pokemon-Trainer wandered around The Pearl and eventually sat down to munch giant organic salads together at a some trendy-looking cafe inserted into the side of a yoga studio. It was as if I had momentarily stepped out of reality and into the alternative-universe-version of Portlandia that syndicates only in the back of my own mind.
Here’s the thing though, the whole experience didn’t feel at all like I was just some lucky jerk who found a backstage pass on the ground that someone dropped at a rock concert. In fact, it was as far from that as I can imagine. It felt more like, for a serendipitous afternoon, I became single serving friends with three icons of the information age who also just happen to be utterly down-to-earth dudes who felt like hanging out. Either that, or they were being exceedingly patient with a hopefully inoffensive fanboy, which is probably something they face every time they go out in public near a lot of hackers. I might never know for sure (or in the future I may look back at this writeup and laugh at myself in one direction or the other). Regardless, I found the time we spent together to be inspirational and motivating in an unforgettable way…and honestly we barely even talked all that directly about technology.
When I started writing this monster blog post, I thought this was going to be the point where I rattle off everything that we did talk about. Now that I’m finally here though, I find myself actually feeling rather different, like there’s a bond of confidentiality I owe to the immediate, selfless respect those guys showed me. It’s not that we discussed trade secrets or deep personal secrets or something, but nonetheless I feel like I was trusted not to be a douchey starfucker, and now I’m feeling paranoid about being one so I’m clamming up. What I do feel a need to blather a bit about, though, is how this whole affair effected me.
I returned to the con after lunch feeling neither amped nor reflective, but just sort of calmly zen. The nearest thing I can compare it to would be back in my days inside soulless corporationland as a strategist, when I’d come back from lunch with Ted or Dwight…each an extremely accomplished and influential dude who has at heart a font of chillness, wry widsom, and good priorities. For the rest of the afternoon and evening, as I walked around the conference, I actually felt a lot less like a random schlub who bought a ticket and more like I really belonged there. Not like I was a celebrity, but more like, “hey wait a second, I’m no mainspring…but I’ve been a devout and productive cog spinning around in the machinery that made this whole culture happen for two decades, all the while outspoken and driven and mentoring and influencing people as well as creating my own stuff, so of course I’m here today, and no wonder it feels so comfortable that I’m chatting with these folks.”
Maybe that doesn’t quite sum up what went through my head, but I think it’s as close as I’m going to come to putting it in ASCII characters at least. Something just clicked and I just got really cozy and comfortable and if possible…started having even more fun than before.
For the rest of the afternoon and evening, I had the time of my life feeling like I was really participating in something. I constantly struck up conversations with random folks, I shot my hand up during every panel, and whenever a microphone didn’t find me I’d wander over to some of the panelists and staff during the following breaks and say hello. By the time the summit officially wound down, between the strange energy hanging in the room and the amazing architecture of the space, I found myself almost physically unable to leave. I was just so drawn to the place, like a little churning furnace of geeky glee in my chest just didn’t want this particular candle to ever burn down.
The auditorium emptied unusually quickly, and by the time I’d carefully rearranged my bag (containing foodstuffs precariously mixed with gorgeous artwork I wanted to preserve) the massive room was almost completely deserted. Since nobody seemed too preoccupied (except those energetically tearing down cameras and pulling up gaffing tape) I decided to at least walk over and congratulate Tim Hwang on how well the event had gone. He was super receptive, and seemed genuinely excited that someone with nerd-event-experience from both the planning and consuming side of things had feedback to offer. I threw out that if they managed to pull off one of these again in the Portland area or anywhere nearby, and wanted some volunteer effort from someone who’s helped found an anime con and wrangle Pokémaniacs, I’d love to help. He gave me a card, so who knows?
I turned around thinking that would be it, but on my way toward the door I bumped into Sherrod DeGrippo who was talking with Ben Huh about the final panel (which had distilled to a bit of a girlvinyl-versus-moot showdown as it wrapped up). I offered that to an outsider like myself, it had seemed like more of an ideological disagreement than a personal one. Ben seemed to agree and Sherrod and said she was starving, so I offered her one of my apples and she gave me a Voodoo Doughnut that a staffer had just handed her. Well besides being a nice treat (Fruit Loops are my favorite) a conversation then ensued that may actually have lasted longer than lunch did…I felt sucked into a sort of time warp at that point so I really have no idea. It was just pure nerdy fun!
Somehow, my intention toward not-attending the afterparty turned into hanging around downstairs with some guests for so long that it started without us. Within this temporal distortion, Rob Beschizza joined in and then Jason reappeared from having spent an exciting time hanging out with a hero of his own, Ward Cunningham (at least I’m pretty sure that’s who he said it was, I’m struggling to remember because I was a bit distracted by how meta it felt for yours truly to see such an amazing guy absolutely beaming like that about meeting someone else). The four of us, or five if you count Ben’s dog Nemo, had a great time rehashing the day’s topics and as a bonus I got an amazing earful of internet-celeb-gossip and insider discussion that I’ll absolutely never repeat to anyone (but thoroughly enjoyed).
Just as another quick aside, there was a distinct moment during all this when it occurred to me that among Sherrod and Rob, I was standing between an icon of LJ history and a brilliant, grounded nerd with a charming accent who vaguely resembles a hacker incarnation of Ron Weasley. It was in this moment that I wished above all things in the universe that I could fleetingly possess the superpowers necessary to teleport my friend Jules into the spot I was standing…because it seemed like some galactic joke that I was there instead of her.
Eventually, as the con completely emptied out save shutdown staff, we found ourselves standing in front of the elevators and decided it was high time to get up to the afterparty. Rob asked Jason if he could buy a copy of GET LAMP and Jason grabbed it from the speaker’s room. Rob looked about as excited to hold his very own adventurer’s coin as I was when I’d gotten mine in the mail. Jason then graciously autographed my DVD sets, and we all popped out of the elevator on the top floor next to the infamous Wieden + Kennedy bird’s nest.
The afterparty was in full swing, and there was an amusing moment at the security checkpoint when they asked for tickets and I was the only one who presented one (“um, these other guys are all guests”). That ticket, by the way, was actually a 1980s calculator watch with the alarm set for partytime. Yes, welcome to ROLFCon, the kind of place where that’s no more surprising than when you enter a bathroom and find Nyan Cat music or Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” blaring with JEFF GOLDBLUM IS WATCHING YOU POOP signs inside the stalls.
I didn’t intend to stick around the party very long, so I just snapped some pictures and grabbed some munchies and a drink and kind of wandered off (this building, seriously, is massive in a way that photos don’t communicate) where I thought I would be alone for a bit. I figured I’d sit around, contemplate the amazing day I’d just had, slow down a little, and then wander down to a streetcar stop. That didn’t last long though, I don’t know if it’s a west coast thing or just the alcoholic concoctions that were flowing from the balcony along with doughnuts, candy, and foodie treats…but it seemed like I was just constantly being approached by more friendly nerds who wanted to chat.
When I finally decided to call it a night, I looked at my phone and it had been over twelve hours since I stepped through the massive lobby doors that morning. I walked home slowly from my streetcar stop, in the northwestern drizzle, pondering just what the hell tomorrow was going to feel like after all this…and what I was going to do with all this inspiration and energy that had rolled off these amazing people like static electricity.
I’m still not sure, but I’m definitely going to contact Tim sometime soon. If there’s even a chance of an annually recurring version of this, I want to be a part of making that happen.