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Could Technology Tame the Internet Meme?

•, Mike Orcutt
 Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain was the keynote speaker on the first day of ROFLCon, an annual conference and celebration of Internet culture taking place on MIT’s campus.

Zittrain’s message: Internet meme creators and remixers can be a force for good, in that they “look for a pathos in the world and try to capture it,” thereby exposing absurd aspects of commercialization and mass media; but it is increasingly important that those who love memes understand and deal with “the ethical dimensions that can come from our happy generation of lulz” (the made-up word that refers to the type of ironic humor many such memes embody).

The basis of the most popular memes, Zittrain pointed out, is often an unguarded, authentic moment—for example when the girl in this photo was photographed. “This is just a wonderful moment, right? She is not superimposed. She is actually standing in front of that house.” The bizarre nature of the photograph caused it to go viral once it was discovered online, and meme remixers had a field day with it.

But this type of authenticity often means that a real person is implicated when a concept goes viral. In this case, the little girl, named Zoe, embraced her role as fodder for a popular idea. But sometimes the reaction is quite the opposite. When schoolmates of a Canadian high school student posted a video he had made of himself emulating the light saber moves of Star Wars villain Darth Maul, the clip became in Internet sensation. The video’s subject, who will forever be known as “Star Wars Kid,” did not appreciate being meme-ified. His family even sued the families of the schoolmates who published the video, citing the harassment he faced once it went viral.

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