Posts Tagged ‘memes’

Newsflash: Funneh Cat Site Iz Serious Bizness

October 12, 2009

Spend enough time on the Internet, and odds are you played a part in circulating a meme. Yes, you probably did, even if you didn’t know that’s what it’s called.

A meme (rhymes with theme), Merriam-Webster tells us, is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” On the Internet, every time you forward, repost or retweet you could be giving life to a meme.

YouTube is filled with memes, like the one parodied on last week’s episode of “The Office.” You might know them better as “viral videos.”

Media scholar Henry Jenkins calls such communications, which can also take the form of music, still images, catch phrases, even clothing, “spreadable media.” “Meme” and “viral” understate the role of the audience, he says.

Whatever you call them, memes can make you a lot of money. The just-released low-budget horror film Paranormal Activity built a marketing campaign around them.

Ben Huh has built an empire around them.

He’s the guy behind wildly popular user-generated meme sites I Can Has Cheezburger?, FailBlog.org, spinoffs I Has A Hotdog! and My First Fail and several others.

Just over a year ago Huh told a Web 2.0 Expo NY audience (video above, presentation .pdf here) some of the secrets of his success. My classmates and I, it turns out, would have said roughly the same thing. And our speaking fees are much lower.

Asked by our Theory and Audience Analysis professor to list qualities that, as Jenkins would put it, make media spreadable, we honed in on many of the same aspects as Huh.

Memes, we said, tend to be simple, discussable, brief, relatable and easy to share.

Huh, earning his speaking fee, I suppose, captured the first two elements in a single soundbite.

“We perceive Web. 2.0 as this complex environment, where there’s lots of filtering, lots of stuff going on,” he said. “But really what it boils down to is there’s two people sharing a piece of content or an experience.”

Think of it as the “Hey, dude check this out” test.

Brevity, meanwhile, is at the heart of the irreverently captioned cat pictures, known as Lolcats, on I Can Has Cheezburger?, where the goal, Huh said, is “to make people happy for just 5 minutes a day.”

The importance that content be relatable explains Huh’s early discovery that many of the submissions to I Can Has Cheezburger? aren’t explicitly about cats. They’re about eBay, drinking too much, everyday annoyances or whatever else users deem topical.

Finally, what really helped I Can Has Cheezburger? take off, Huh said, was the lightweight tool that enables virtually anyone with an Internet connection and basic computer proficiency to upload their own captioned photo. It took a part-timer less than a weekend’s work to put the widget together, but it’s a big reason Huh’s site went mainstream when others like it did not.

“We try to lower the bar for content creation,” Huh said, “because the more you allow users to remove the technology… the better content you get.”

Some tips from Huh that apply to any Web company are to consistently update your site — I Can Has Cheezburger? features six new posts every day, the first coming as East Coasters are arriving to work, he said — and, this will sound familiar, “Groundswell” readers, to listen to your audience. I Can Has Cheezburger?’s handful of full-time employees spend much of their time interacting with users, Huh said.

What’s that? Time for one more Lolcat? I thought so.

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