It was a quiet night for an epic battle in San Francisco. Beneath the twinkling Christmas lights of the trailer-trash-themed bar Butter, the competitors donned their furry, glossy armor; a Sylvester the Cat costume for veteran Chris Quigley and a Scooby Doo suit for newcomer Shaan Puri. This was the #kittencamp meme battle.
At stake was the Standing Cat Cup, a 13KB JPEG of a cat standing on its hind legs, and glory -- sweet, cat-video-laden lolz glory.
The two men were about to go head-to-head in an Internet meme competition. The event, meant to celebrate Internet culture and viral humor, is one of a series that occurs each month in different cities in the U.S. and overseas.
To compete, Quigley, the co-founder of the Viral Ad Network (VAN), and Puri, the CEO of tech incubator Monkey Inferno, individually submitted their best viral videos for each category, including kittens (duh), EPIC, and musical. The videos were pitted against each other, round after round, and played for the audience as they guzzled free beer. After each round of viewing, the audience held up "LOL!" cards to cast their votes.
("Pinky the cat," a classic YouTube video, was the winning entry for the "kittens" category.)
Quigley, also known as the "Chief LOLZ Officer" at work, has been to this type of fight before. He's hosted dozens of #kittencamp battles to celebrate memes. There's no real point to #kittencamp; the event is free, the beer is free, and nobody really wins or loses. It just promotes memes -- and being ridiculous just for the sake of being ridiculous.
Internet memes are ideas that take on a life of their own. People take them and change them to convey humor, and the more popular ones go viral. It can be an image with a funny catchphrase, like Grumpy Cat, or video footage that's been remixed or manipulated. It can also be a concept. One of the Internet's most popular memes, "rickrolling," is the act of tricking someone into clicking on a video of the 1987 Rick Astley song "Never Gonna Give You Up."
("FaceMashups: Will Ferrell & Natalie Portman," was another winning entry. It shows a popular technique called "face swapping.")
"They're random bits of genius," Quigley said of memes. He predicts that the next meme hit could be elephant kittens or something equally random and silly.
Though you may think a party for the Internet would have originated in techcentric, geektastic San Francisco, #kittencamp was actually born in London, where VAN is based. There, it can draw upward of 600 people each month. (In the U.K., Quigley wears a famous U.K. cat costume, Jess the Cat, instead of the American Sylvester, and his competitor dresses as Gromit, from Wallace and Gromit, instead of Scooby.) At first, it started as a hang out for those in the Internet advertising industry, but its appeal has expanded to other groups.
("Hardworking startup guys" made fun of the world of startups, and was appreciated by the audience members -- most of whom were probably from startups.)
In San Francisco on a Wednesday night, about 100 people, mostly from the startup community, filled Butter to watch Quigley and Puri compete.
In addition to gathering lolz, Quigley makes sure to invite some local tech scene companies to give a talk. This particular night included Alan Schaaf, the founder of Imgur -- the image-sharing site that powers most of the memes shared on forum site Reddit -- and Ernie Pang, the man behind Bread Kittens, a Pokemon-style iOS game based on the cat-breading meme. (Yes, it is a real game. It just hit 1 million downloads, according to Pang.)
The only other thing the night needed was some Redditors to shower people with Reddit Gold and upvotes (it's how people on Reddit show they like something on the site).
The over-the-top nature of the #kittencamp experience is a reflection of the Internet culture. This user-generated content, aided by social networks, leads to crowdsourced humor that just won't go away. At least, not in a world where Grumpy Cat has an agent.