Cheezburger's Ben Huh: I can has Q&A?

Beh Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger Network, publisher of the hit blog I Can Has Cheezburger, sits down for a 45 Minutes on IM interview.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
9 min read

If you're reading this, there's a pretty good chance you've visited I Can Has Cheezburger, the Internet's foremost repository of LOLCats.

Then again, you might not even know what a LOLCat is. If so, here's a brief primer: At its simplest, it's a picture of a cat accompanied by a silly, misspelled caption. There might also--or instead--be a walrus and some variation of the phrase "mah bucket."

A few years ago, LOLCats began bouncing around the Internet and quickly became one of the fastest-growing online memes. In the earliest days, they might well have featured a snarky, sexual theme as something purely humorous. An early example would have been the "Ceiling cat is watching you masturbate" LOLCat that spread like wildfire.

Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

At the time, there wasn't a reliable clearinghouse for these joke images, but one place that you could reliably find them was on the community image site, 4chan.

Over time, though, LOLCats took on a much funnier bent, and on January 9, 2007, Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami noticed a new LOLCat, a large grey fluffy cat meowing out the immortal words, "I can has cheezburger?"

The two recognized magic when they saw it and quickly registered icanhascheezburger.com, which became a leading site where anyone could create and upload a LOLCat. A phenomenon was born.

But Nakagawa and Unebasami weren't prepared for the explosion of the site that quickly followed, and before long, an Internet entrepreneur named Ben Huh came along and offered to buy the site from them. Time magazine has said that Huh ponied up $2 million for the site, an amount that may have seemed crazy at the time, but today looks like one of the best investments in years.

Huh took the fledgling site, which had tens of millions of page views a month, and has turned it into an empire. Today, his so-called Cheezburger Network has dozens of individual blog sites, and employs more than 40 people, has millions and millions of users, and gets hundreds of thousands of submissions each month.

There are also now two I Can Has Cheezburger books, and there's even been some rumblings of a TV show. And it's not just LOLCats, either. The company's FAIL blog is a huge hit, as is its Graph Jam site, and the network is growing.

But in part because some, possibly those in the 4chan community, feel that Huh and his site appropriated LOLCats for profit, he has been the target of harassment and even death threats.

Still, the Cheezburger Network is growing and for better or worse, when people these days want to see LOLCats, they mainly head to one place: Huh's site.

Huh recently sat down for a 45 Minutes on IM interview.

Welcome to 45 Minutes on IM. Thanks so much for doing this. My last 45 Minutes on IM subject was author and Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow. And I realized there's a trend developing in the series: Important Internet figures with iconic, thick-framed glasses. What's that about?
Huh: We're fans of being bold, I suppose. I'm not sure what I can do beyond the glasses. I have to be more iconic.

So iconic glasses=bold?
Huh: It's as in-your-face as we can get, while being passive about it.

It's a few years now that you've been running the Cheezburger Network. What's it like to get paid to be in the humor business?
Huh: It's a lot more work than I imagined. That's always the case when you turn a hobby or passion into a job. But it's still very rewarding when you read the user emails.

i was going to ask about that later, but since you mention it, what's the most common email you get?
Huh: Some problem or issue within the company. But that comes with the job of running the business. But from the users, I think it's "Thanks for brightening up my day for a few minutes."

I'm sure you've gotten a lot of those--and I'll admit I've had that sentiment many times. Do those emails still make a difference in *your* day?
Huh: Absolutely. The Internet lets you get very personal and close with your "customers" and I relish that.

Have you developed an ongoing dialogue with any readers? Specific people whose messages you either look forward to reading, or that you dread?
Huh: I do keep in touch with many people on Cheezburger.com via our friend tools. I don't think there's anything I dread. I do look forward to user feedback when we release new features.

We know that we're not creating miracle drugs to cure cancer and there are certainly more important things in the world. But we have our role and purpose, and that's just to make people forget about their troubles for a few minutes a day.

Obviously, there's a lot of people who know what you do. But let's say you meet someone at a party who doesn't know about I Can Has Cheezburger or LOLCats. How do you get them to take you seriously when you tell them you run a company called Cheezburger Network--with "cheeseburger" spelled wrong, no less?
Huh: Usually--at the kind of parties I go to--someone else will step in and explain it. It's a strange thing to have happen, but I am grateful since it shows that I am not crazy. They get all excited and go "What?!?! You haven't heard of I Can Has Cheezburger? or FAIL Blog?" and then explain what they are. It's very infrequent that I have to explain what we do. And I have to thank all our awesome users for that.

You alluded to the fact that many users tell you that you've brightened their day. That goes to another question I wanted to ask you: Do you feel that LOLCats and Fail posts and all the other kind of posts you guys put up are doing good in the world? And if so, how so?
Huh: I'd like to think that we are helping people by helping them laugh or even laugh at themselves. We know that we're not creating miracle drugs to cure cancer and there are certainly more important things in the world. But we have our role and purpose, and that's just to make people forget about their troubles for a few minutes a day.

How has being involved with this changed or developed your own sense of humor?
Huh: I'm far more open-minded about what's funny. We try to teach our moderators and editors to put their sense of humor aside and do what's best for the community. And I have to live that example.

Tell me this: What makes a post funny? Why are some clunkers and others are just rolling-on-the-floor funny? Any keys to that?
Huh: It has to be somewhat unexpected, yet fall in line with the boundaries of that community's expectation. We think of it as a box of chocolates: You don't know what you're going to get, but it'll still be chocolates. It's a formula that's worked for us. And as far as we can calculate, it's helped us become the largest humor destination on the web.

What's the metrics?
Huh: We have more than 16 million monthly unique users. And more than half a million submissions each month as well.

Wow. And how many people vetting those?
Huh: We have more than 20 people on our content team. They don't just screen the content, but that's the content team.

You've said a lot of people propose ideas to you for whole new blog sites, and that you usually have to tell them you've probably already considered such an idea. How often does that happen?
Huh: It happens at every conference I attend. And what's fascinating is that I'm getting more and more people who are offering up their domain names they've owned for free. They have a domain, but they haven't turned it into anything and they would like to be a part of something.

That seems unexpected in a world where so many people *want* things from others.
Huh: Absolutely. In this case, I think knowing that you were a part of something big is better than owning a domain that goes unused.

Do you ever make submissions of your own?
Huh: I do. But they never make the homepage. I'm just not that funny, I suppose.

What category do you tend to post in?
Huh: I mostly create LOLCats.

Do you have cats?
Huh: Nope. I have a little dog that's not sure what he is. I'm allergic to cats. So I live vicariously through our community. It's kind of sad, really. I wish I could have a cat.

What's fascinating is that I'm getting more and more people who are offering up their domain names they've owned for free. They have a domain, but they haven't turned it into anything and they would like to be a part of something.

Give me an example of one of your own submissions?
Huh: http://cheezburger.com/I-Can-Has-Cheezburger/lolz
Huh: That's all the stuff I made. Some for testing purposes...
Huh: http://cheezburger.com/View/2701938176
Huh: Here's an example.

okay. fair enough
Huh: http://cheezburger.com/View/2319793408
Huh: some of my better works.

As the community has grown, what's your sense of the level of humor? Better? Worse? The same? Is it harder to find really good ones given how many are submitted?
Huh: It's more diverse.

How so?
Huh: We're not looking for "better". That's an arbitrary definition that's bound to create friction. We know that different people have difference senses of humor. And different context creates different opportunities for humor. So we create a diverse environment for people to be creative.

is that what leads to the creation of new blog sites on your network? To broaden the scope for people's ideas?
Huh: Absolutely. We think of ourselves as playground makers. We create playgrounds in different areas for people to play in.

You guys are icons in the Internet meme business, so can you tell me what your favorite all-time Internet memes are?
Huh: Actually, we don't consider ourselves in the meme business.

Huh: Very few of our sites are actually meme-based. Most of our sites are based on humor.

Fair enough.
Huh: Some are not even in the humor category, but in "smile-generation." But I can tell you about memes. I'm trying to think of a recent meme that I really enjoyed. I do enjoy LINK photobombs. Especially when they involve animals.

Talk about where you get your intellectual satisfaction from doing this job?
Huh: I love the business part of my job. We've grown from a "basement" operation to a company of 40-plus people. That's required an enormous amount of learning and patience and humility. There's nothing as scary as being responsible for people's livelihoods. It's an amazing learning experience. Another thing that I've learned is that I enjoy public speaking. I never knew that about myself.

Well, what's your standing these days with the 4chan community? Are you able to make peace with those folks at all?
Huh: I think we're at a "fabric of the Internet" status with 4chan. I see content generated by our community all the time in 4chan. The main value of our job is mainstreaming Internet culture.

How do you mean?
Huh: I'm seeing more friction between popular culture and Internet culture. Popular culture is top-down, ownership-driven, mass broadcasted media. Internet culture is bottom-up, everyone-owns, everyone contributes, meritocratic media. I believe in Internet culture. Most people who work online see this.

That said, any new info on whether there will be an I Can Has Cheezburger TV show?
Huh: LOL. I'd much rather concentrate on creating more communities. I think you'll be hearing more about Pop Culture vs. Internet Culture in the next year.

We're about out of time. But I have to ask the question I've asked all my 45 Minutes on IM guests. Instant messaging is a great medium for interviews because it allows both parties to be a little more thoughtful and eloquent than we might be in person, or on the phone. But it's also good because it allows us to do other things while the other person is typing. So, be honest with me: What else have you been doing while I've been typing?
Huh: Hahhaha. I've been working on a team budget. Nice ninja move.

Hey, it's what I do. Well, anyway, thanks so much for doing this. It's been a lot of fun.
Huh: Same here.