Awkward Times at ROFLcon

ROFLcon III was a blast and all of the organizers should be very proud. It was particularly fascinating to watch the awkward collision of commercial interests and the defenders of the internet.

These collisions occurred throughout the conference as Ben Huh of icanhascheezburger was consistently heckled by more than one audience member. But my personal awkward moment came about twenty minutes into the first day. Jonathan Zittrain was giving the opening keynote and he was, as Dan Patrick used to say, en fuego. He was funny, witty, and endearing. And then he spoke of Hot Topic.

On the overhead screens, a giant image of a rage face t-shirt appeared. A scattering of boos could be heard. My face went a little red. (If you don’t already know, we here at sell rage face shirts. More on that later.)

Professor Zittrain briefly told the story of the FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU shirt, and how the internet had been outraged that a big corporation like Hot Topic had hijacked it for commercial gain. In response, the internet put together an organized effort to turn the Rage Face into the Racist Face.  (See the section titled “Operation: Black Rage” on this page.)

The idea was that the Rage Face had been taken from us and that we, the internet, would take it back.  And when we took it back, we would make it super racist. Then we could go to Hot Topic and say “What’s with the racist t-shirts? You are the worst.”

At the end of the story Professor Zittrain asked the audience: who here personally called Hot Topic to demand they take down this t-shirt? (At this point, it’s important to know that we were in an MIT lecture hall and there was a cameraman standing at the front of the class, next the professor.)

The gentleman sitting directly in front of me raised his hand and called out “I spoke to the CEO!” As the crowd cheered this person, the camerman whipped around and pointed directly at us. I’m not sure how tight his frame was, but I’m fairly certain that my face could be clearly seen in the background. The louder the crowd cheered for this hero, the redder my face was getting. I was wondering what these folks would say to me if I told them my company sells rage face shirts.

Professor Zittrain asked for the hero’s name and where he worked. He said he worked for Know Your Meme. The professor then asked for a round of applause for the good man. I’m pretty sure I clapped.

After the keynote, I was able to speak with the gentleman in front of me, and I asked for the full story. He said that he had called Hot Topic to get a quote for a blog post he was working on. He said Hot Topic was completely clueless, and had no idea about Operation: Black Rage.

I had to ask: “How do you, personally, feel about a company selling rage face tees?”

He responded: “Well, actually… at the time, we had a Know Your Meme Shop. In that shop, we sold rage face tees.”

This was interesting so I said, “Ah. That is interesting.”

He said, “Yeah, it’s kind of a tricky situation.”

I said, “Yes. Yes it is.” And then I told him my opinion. I don’t want anyone to feel ripped off. If that piece of art belongs to you, then I can’t make a profit from it. Does the concept of the rage face comic belong to any one individual (1)? Like he said, it’s tricky. But there’s another side of this: the customer. If there are people who just want to own a cool, custom rage face shirt, whose right is it to deny them that? If they want to own one, then they’ll probably need to buy one, and if they buy one, them someone needs to sell one.

In all honesty, that’s how works. Because of our design center, and our ability to quickly and easily save designs to our gallery, we can respond to trends quickly. We can find out where that demand exists, what kind of shirts people are searching for, save our own variations of those designs to our gallery, and satisfy that demand. Of course, the first thing we do is search the US Trademark Office to make sure the design is not trademarked. One day we noticed rage faces were in demand, and we tried to satisfy it.

My hope is that Hot Topic earned its vitriol partly because it is a big, faceless corporation with no clue what actually comprises a rage comic. They’ve never made one. They’ve never made an advice animal for nothing more than the precious, precious reddit karma. We certainly have. I’m not sure if that makes a difference or not. Maybe the most we can do is beg for the internet’s mercy.

What say you, internet?

As I sat there in that lecture hall, wondering if my face was on camera for this awkward moment, I imagined the hate that might rain down upon me if my fellow audience members only knew my secret. Would the heckles be clever? Would they arrive in the form of scumbag steve poems? If you agree with my imaginary audience members, and you think I’m a total scumbag then all I can say is: Dang. I’m sorry. I would love to read your calmly worded response. If you’re on the other side of the fence, and you think we are slightly less scummy, well, I definitely want to hear from you too.

(1) We did hear from one artist, Carlos Ramirez, in regard to trollface and we quickly complied with his take down notice. Well, technically we didn’t hear from him. We heard from the attorneys of, to whom he had sold his copyright of the trollface.

Photo credit: medigirol

Two notes: Professor Zittrain was a great speaker. He was not awkward at all. I was.

I don’t believe the gentleman in front of me meant to set himself up as the hero of that lecture. All he said was that he spoke with the CEO of Hot Topic, then things just escalated. He was a nice guy, and it was cool of him to speak with me afterwards.

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