When I met Charlie Schmidt, midway through ROFLcon - the convention of the accidentally famous - he was at the bottom of a lecture hall, surrounded by a small knot of onlookers. The owner of the most famous cat on the Internet was holding court.
"If you held her and kept moving, she'd go into a stupor," he was explaining. "But if you held her and didn't move, she'd bite you."
Wild-haired and garrulous, Mr. Schmidt was retelling the story of Keyboard Cat, his keys-playing, blue-shirted orange tabby who became a global phenomenon on YouTube last year.
He was divulging the secret behind the stupefied expression on the cat's face, the expression that charmed - or at least mildly diverted - untold millions, spawned thousands of remixes, tickled Jon Stewart and stormed CNN. For Keyboard Cat, mass appeal came fast and furious.
Mr. Schmidt, and no fewer than 1,000 others, converged in Boston two weeks ago for ROFLcon, an unlikely conference devoted to online culture - that lumpy stew of memes, running jokes, cat pictures and workplace distractions that simmers away on the Internet.
Once the preserve of freaks and geeks, online culture is increasingly the subject of the mainstream's fickle affections. And this makes people uneasy. Are the motley stars of the Internet the mass entertainment of tomorrow? Or still the laughing stock of yesterday?
I'd trucked down to Boston to see for myself, without any clear idea of what I was getting into.
The conference promised a discussion of how Web culture was going mainstream, but the mainstream is never as much fun as a niche-culture gong -show. One young man, in a nod to the Rickrolling craze, spent the weekend walking around dressed up as Rick Astley, hoisting a boom box playing Never Gonna Give You Up and narrowly avoiding the wedgie he so richly deserved.
Another panelist showed up in a full-body unicorn suit and proceeded to tell nothing but lies. Mahir Cagri - Internet-famous since 1998 for his barely coherent " I Kiss You" website - arrived and pronounced, incoherently, that he was still mad at Sacha Baron Cohen for allegedly basing Borat on him.
As much as anything else, though, the event seemed like a convention of people who had stepped on cultural land mines. One moment they were minding their own business, and the next moment the world showed up at their doorstep.
Mr. Schmidt's case was typical. Back in 1984, he wedged his beloved cat Fatso into a blue J.C. Penney baby shirt. Then he turned on a video camera and puppeteered the stupefied cat into plunking out a tune on a synthesizer.
It took a modest 25 years for fame to come knocking. Mr. Schmidt uploaded the clip to YouTube, where another man had the idea of combining the sanguine cat with videos of a man falling down an escalator. The effect was comedic. It spawned 4,000-odd remixes, millions of views and the fleeting attention of the mainstream establishment: national television, cable networks, itinerant newspaper columnists. Mr. Schmidt is now selling Keyboard Cat T-shirts.
Guest after guest told variations on the same story: The young women who founded the popular My Mom is a FOB website, where second-generation Asian immigrants gently mock their parents, got dragooned into speaking as experts on the construction of race on the Internet, despite having no real thoughts on the subject.
Then there was the young Irishman who, bored at work, started editing Garfield out of Garfield strips for comedic effect, until even Garfield's creator signalled his support for the project (in precisely one e-mail). And the two guys from Chicago who, on a lazy afternoon, started dubbing X-Men cartoons with the catchphrase "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!" - a phrase so catchy that the filmmakers wrote it into X-Men 3 (the movie was still terrible).
Unsurprisingly, much of the talk was about how to cash in. (Book deals and T-shirt sales are popular.) From what I gathered, the Internet-celebrity career path goes like this:
Step 1: Become accidentally famous
Step 2: Panic.
Step 3: Quick, sell something! (By common agreement, the faster one gets to step 3 , the better.)
Nobody seemed quite sure what to make of online fame. Here were all these people who had been picked up by the mainstream, whirled around the dance floor for their 15 minutes, and put down again, dazed and puzzled by what the wider world has made of them.
On one hand, they had the attention of millions, which is something few people will ever achieve. On the other hand, online fame - capricious, random, often entirely unwelcome - would be at the bottom of the celebrity pantheon had reality television not slipped underneath in the nick of time.
But Web culture is here to stay. The Internet itself is mainstream now, which means that its whims and fads will find an audience of millions each time, even if that audience is only using it to kill five minutes of an afternoon. And the often unwitting souls who populate this world will learn to play along.
Some of them will be confused, some will be bemused. And some, like Charlie Schmidt, will just have a good time. You could say that's the spirit of the Web.
"Have you seen the original shirt?" he asked. While Fatso had played herself off this mortal coil years ago, her shirt was upstairs, in a hall, framed in glass with a bronze inscription beneath: "KEYBOARD CAT'S ORIGINAL SHIRT."
Passersby were gawking. Mr. Schmidt grinned.
"It's like the Shroud of Turin."Report Typo/Error
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