Twittering the Manila Folder: My Experience at ROFLCon

What happens when you’re standing at the front of a room full of digital natives?

Better yet: what happens when they’re armed with laptops?

For the past 6 months, I’ve spent the majority of my time putting together a conference called ROFLCon. As one member of the ROFLCon team-a group of undergraduates from Harvard and MIT-I found myself at the center of something that quickly became bewilderingly huge. It’s a little bit out of the journalistic mode we strive for here at Digital Natives, but since this was such an unusual project, I wanted to take a moment to record some of my observations from the inside.

Last week, we heard from Sarah about her thoughts on ROFLCon. Her post-about the gender question at ROFLCon-incited a lively set of comments and responses, including some remarks from one of ROFLCon’s panelists, Adam Lindsay of LOLCode. Sarah just so happens to be one of my fellow interns on the Digital Natives project, and her post just happened to be really well-written and thoughtful.

But when you’re at a conference about the Internet, held at MIT, where the majority of the audience is under the age of 25 (the age we usually consider to be the upper bound of digital-nativehood), a cavalcade of instant blog reactions suddenly becomes the norm.

In fact, all barriers between real life and digital life seemed to collapse during the conference. In an audience full of laptops, iPhones, BlackBerries, and digital cameras, the volume of instant commentary created was enormous and baffling. But it wasn’t even just the audience: Adam Lindsay apparently live-posted much of his own panel directly to Twitter, between answering questions about LOLCode. And he wasn’t alone.

These layers of metacommentary were almost necessary for understanding the ROFLCon at all. At one point, I went up to the microphone at the end of a panel, to announce that audience members could organize interest-based dinners in our website’s forums. Someone yelled out from the audience: “Didn’t we already do that on Twitter?” (Twitter is a micro-blogging service where people can track each other’s thoughts and activities.)

The audience had self-organized; they had skipped right over the sanctioned forums. Since I had been running around for most of the day, sans screen, I had missed that entire subtext. The audience, at that point, was running their own experience to a remarkable degree. Their self-organizing skill was one of the highlights of the conference-certainly for me, and I hope for them as well.

Then again, I think that people who weren’t tuned into these substreams ended up feeling a slightly lost. At the end of the first day, a few audience members came up to me, wondering where the main dinners for the evening would be held. Since I hadn’t been tuned in to Twitter, and the forums were vacant, I didn’t know, and neither did they. When I exited into the lobby, I realized that someone (a few ROFLCon team members, I later discovered) had self-organized a solution: a manila folder with main dinner hangouts scrawled in black sharpie, taped to a concrete column. Although the solution ended up coming from the ROFLCon team, it could have come from anyone: another instance of digital/real life spontaneous interfacing.

So what is it like to stand at the front of a room full of digital natives? Surreal. But also exciting. The audience at ROFLCon was far more than just an audience. They were members of a network that was enthusiastically manifesting itself both online and off. Almost invariably, they were there at the conference (in real life) because they’d heard about it on the internet. They wanted to be there, make friends there, fill their blogs and streams and feeds up with information about the conference. They were out in full force, and that made it so thrilling to be right out there with them.

If you had asked me two weeks ago what I expected from the conference, I would have predicted a lot more negative commentary. But the amazing thing about standing up in front of a throng of self-publishing people (young and old alike) is that later, after it’s all over, you get to hear what they really think, unfiltered by the unbias of journalism. It’s not always pretty. But I think it’s real. And, whatever else it might be, it’s intoxicating to know that you were at the front of a room of full of people who were paying attention.

Well. Some attention, anyway. Can’t neglect Twitter, after all.

Diana Kimball

If you’ve got thoughts on this matter or any other, please do leave a comment, and / or email: diana dot kimball at gmail dot com.