It started, as most viral phenomena on the Internet do, on 4chan. As much a paradox as a popular Internet forum, 4chan.org is the nursery for most of the Internet’s glorious silliness, such as the inexplicably infectious practice of leading people with false claims (“Check out this amazing video!”) to a music video by the 1980s pop star Rick Astley—a practice called the “Rick roll”.
Can has fame? Cheezburger honcho Ben Huh says cats are the chosen animals of the Web.
4chan is also a profoundly disturbing wellspring of content that is best described as “random”. In 2005, for reasons unknown, members of 4chan began posting pictures of cats with humorous captions every Saturday, later dubbed “Caturday”.
The tradition grew and spread to multiple sites until a single picture of a plump, grey cat appeared online in January 2007, showing an eager, happy feline asking “I Can Has Cheezburger?” Which, in turn, prompted Hawaiian bloggers Eric Nagakawa and Kari Unebasami to start a blog with the same name, and the Cheezburger network of blogs was born. In September that year, the blog network was acquired for $2 million (around Rs10 crore now). Its popularity has since skyrocketed, and it is now spreading beyond the Internet, with two books—How to Take Over Teh Wurld and Fail Nation—published by Penguin in the last couple of months.
“Because cats are great at conveying human emotion in their expressions, they are the chosen animal of the Web,” says Ben Huh, CEO, Pet Holdings Inc., which now owns Icanhascheezburger.com and the other blogs on the Cheezburger network. With its stated aim of “making people happy for 5 minutes a day”, Huh now oversees an online media empire of 1.2 million users, 1.7 million pictures and a readership of 1.5 million a day.
Visitors to the site are greeted with a series of posts, each featuring what is called a “lolcat” (short for “laugh-out-loud cat”). A lolcat is a picture of a cat with a humorous caption. The site updates multiple times a day, so most visitors check it often. Anyone can contribute a lolcat and almost all the sites rely on pictures submitted by users.
Huh’s handle over the uncertain pulse of Internet memes (as popular viral Internet phenomena are called) is impressive, and the Cheezburger network is home to a number of popular Internet staples. These include FAIL, the unscrupulous chronicling of incompetence and unintentional humour; Graphjam, which is the reduction of pop culture into amusing graphs and charts; and Totally Looks Like, which centralizes the favourite Internet pastime of searching out unlikely lookalikes into one, easily navigable blog. New blogs are added all the time, and Huh says there’s no internal logic to what might come next. “There isn’t a strict process. We just tend to select concepts that make us laugh,” he says.
Central to lolcat culture is lolspeak, the unique babytalk-meets-SMS-grammar language of choice for most lolcat images. While explaining the many intricacies of the said language may be impossible, most of it favours intentional misspelling, a disdain for the rules of grammar and a fondness for the letter “z”.
Lolcats may seem like a trivial Internet fad to many, but to Huh they’re serious business. “We take our work seriously. It’s hard work bringing laughs to millions of people. But the hardest work is done by our users who create our content.”
The network resembles a community more than a blog. Most posts lead to meandering discussions, and a voting system lets users appraise each other’s submissions. I Can Has Cheezburger stays afloat with ad revenue, but as proof-of-concept, Huh admits, it proves to be a hard sell. “No, I don’t think (marketing executives) necessarily understand us, but they certainly laugh,” he says. “We don’t give them presentations about our content. They can just go see for themselves.”
It’s not groundbreakingly new, or earth-shatteringly revolutionary, but Cheezburger and Ben Huh’s success proves an oft-ignored rule on the Internet. Huh says it’s a philosophy of the site: “The less complicated, the better.”