An Interview with Cheezburger maven Ben Huh
Often when journalists go online, they merely turn their beats into blogs and continue churning the chum of bleeding leads. But for journalist Ben Huh, a different path beckoned. “There was this idea,” he says, “about a cat website.
“I had a job I didn’t like and I wanted to leave. I might as well go jump in with the sharks,” continues Huh, the 32-year-old founder of the Cheezburger Network, a blog-based enterprise perhaps best known for propagating the “lolcat” phenomenon, which usually manifests as a photo of a feline humorously captioned with intentionally poor grammar (the “lol” prefix is a net-borne acronym for “laugh out loud” or “lots of laughs”). Huh formally launched I Can Has Cheezburger, a site dedicated to lolcats that he acquired from its founder-blogger Eric Nakagawa in 2007 after a brief collaboration.
“I figured that if I don’t do well, there goes my career, and if I do well, there goes my career,” Huh said during the Web 2.0 Conference, co-presented by Sebastopol’s O’Reilly Media. At any given point, Huh operates over 40 sites, each representing a crash course in internet memetics and user-generated content. The sites receive over 19,000 submissions a day, which Huh and his staff of 42 individually comb for appropriateness and to spot trends. Throughout, Huh says he asks himself, “Is this a thing?
“I’ve found that I’m no better a judge of what’s going to work versus anyone else in the world. So we’ve made it into a numbers game,” Huh says. “We make it as organic as possible. If users send in content that we see in large volume, we’ll attack those first.”
Given the low cost of launching a site, Huh experiments with combinations of content and community until he has a hit. Some sites last only weeks, while others flourish and draw millions of eyeballs a day, which he monetizes through ad sales and by hawking related merchandise. And like porn sites, each has its own community of fetishists ready to share and revel within their particular niche.
Take graphs, for example. Graph Jam, one of Huh’s more esoteric sites, is devoted to “life and pop culture graphed for your inner geek” and consists of an ever-growing collection of pie-charts, bar graphs and sundry other illustrations positioned as observational humor. A recent submission graphed the “Motivation to Paddle Faster in a Canoe,” with “Canoe rental time is almost up” and “To keep in control while negotiating rapids” represented as small slivers in a pie otherwise dominated by “You hear banjos.”
Deliverance meets PowerPoint — it’s precisely the kind of cross-pitch that would have one thrown off a Hollywood lot that’s the lifeblood of Huh’s empire. It’s also an indication that the way we both consume culture and create culture is changing. It’s a Mulligan stew atop the hearth of the creative commons, but the question looms: Who owns it?
The answer is fraught with implications for content creators of every stripe, particularly when they intersect in the cluttered byway of internet culture and traditional media.
“There’s been a recent example of a photo of a monkey that’s frowning while riding on top of a kid who is swimming, and it looks like the monkey is drowning the kid. So one of our community members captioned it with ‘Assassin Monkey Is Not Pleased with Its Dayjob.’ This photo went around the internet for a long time, and a major comics house picked up the photo and said, ‘We’re going to build a character out of this.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that was created by one of our community members, and they’re claiming it as their own,'” Huh says.
What bristles Huh and others in his position is the lack of reciprocity between traditional media enterprises — those who leverage their copyrights and trademarks — and the world of user-generated content. If the community member in question posted images from the comic that poached Assassin Monkey, he would quickly be served with a cease and desist order, suggests Huh.
“It’s a very unfair relationship,” he says. “They’re drawing inspiration from a community of people who are putting it out there in the public domain. Therefore, there’s some obligation for them to put it back into the public domain.”
The graph depicting the outcome has yet to be submitted, but one can assume it will make one laugh — or maybe cry.