What it takes to judge Web culture's best (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: Kelly Reeves, editor in chief of Web culture clearinghouse Urlesque, talks to CNET about the 2010 Urlies and Web culture in general. Justin Bieber was discussed.

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
7 min read

If it's the end of the year, that must mean it's awards season. And in the world of Web culture, there's one site that hopes to have the final word on the best of the year's offerings.

Courtesy of Kelly Reeves

That would be Urlesque, an AOL site that is becoming a must-visit for those interested in the latest and greatest Internet memes. In 2008, the site launched the Urlies, its first Web culture awards, and now, it is in the middle of collecting readers' votes for the best of 2010.

As you might expect, there are plenty of cat videos to peruse, and anyone who loves--or hates--Justin Bieber can look to an entire category dedicated to memes related to the Twitter trending topics stalwart. The other categories include best overall meme, best video, Facebook trend of the year, best celebrity Photoshop meme, and several others. Yes, the double-rainbow video is well represented.

Since Urlesque is currently in the middle of Urlies voting, it seemed like a good time to talk to Editor in Chief Kelly Reeves about the awards, and about Web culture in general. Yesterday, Reeves sat down for a 45 Minutes on IM interview to discuss just that.

Q: Thank you very much for doing this, I appreciate it. I want to start by being honest with you--an entire Justin Bieber category. That makes me laugh, and cry. Why do that?
Kelly Reeves: Ha ha ha. I have a lot to say about Justin Bieber.

I want to hear it!
Reeves: Justin Bieber and all the fandom (and anti-fandom) surrounding him on the Web was so huge this year that it was impossible for us to ignore him. As the team was planning the categories and nominees we found ourselves including Bieber-related items in several categories. (I'm probably to blame because I'm a total fan.) Since he's so polarizing and we didn't want to Bieb-ify the entire Urlies, we decided it was better (and possibly more funny) to stick it all into one category. But it's kind of interesting because the majority of the nominees are actually kind of negative or making fun of him.

And also a whole category is nice Bieber fan bait.


Well, another category I wished you'd broken out, but didn't, was cat memes, which got lumped in with "animals." Don't cats deserve the same respect as Justin Bieber?
Reeves: Oh man, cats get their fair share of coverage on Urlesque. In fact, we honored Cats with a Lifetime Achievement award in our first Urlies in 2008. And, earlier this year we had "Catfight"--a seeded, tournament-style competition to see who is the strongest Internet cat. But yeah, to be honest, there weren't a lot of strong individual cat competitors this year.

Well, let's step back a little. Explain the Urlies for those who aren't familiar with them, or might confuse them with other Web awards.
Reeves: Much like other categories have their awards ceremonies to recap the best of their world for a year, the Urlies are the reflection of the best in Web culture for the year. For now, every category and nominee are hand-picked by our trusty Urlbot editors to ensure that we highlight the biggest and best stuff from the year. First, we allow Internet fans to pick their favorites and after voting ends we will announce our picks as well. We mostly focus on the fun things we couldn't get enough of throughout the year.

Also, it's surprising how quickly internet time moves. Something that blew up early in the year can seem like years ago, so it's fun to recap these things for our readers and bring them back into the spotlight.

Back to this year's honorees, I have to admit that I'm amazed that in current voting, Double Rainbow is only in fourth place for best video. What does that say to you?
Reeves: I'm surprised that one is so far behind, It was hilarious! It's possible that the current leader, Antoine Dodson, had so much more exposure that by awareness alone he's getting the votes, despite the hilarity of quality of the video for itself. This year was a particularly interesting year for choosing meme of the year nominees vs. video of the year nominees as the Gregory Brothers and the popularity of their resulting remixes have really made an impact on viral videos. The editors had to stop and think, is it the original video that should be nominated or the resulting remix. I imagine that a lot of voters are thinking of the Gregory Bros.' "Bed Intruder" remix when they're voting for the original clip. Though I could be wrong.

This is the third year you're doing this. What have you learned from the previous two Urlies?
Reeves: The major thing we've learned is not to assume the readers will agree with who the editors think should win. The first year, we solely had editors' picks, and boy, did we get a lot of feedback saying that we picked the wrong winners. After that, we opened up the people's choice vote so readers could have their say. It's great because oftentimes the winners that we choose are different from the winners that the readers pick.

What's your personal favorite category?
Reeves: This year, I love the celebrity Photoshop meme category. We change up the categories each year because the Web is always evolving. It was great to see the prevalence of really funny Photoshop memes involving celebrities this year since it has such a mainstream appeal. And all the nominees are just so funny. I'm so happy that Sad Keanu stuck around for so long this year. He was like the gift that kept on giving.

This category is great because it's easy for anyone to understand, you can enjoy this meme with your mom even though she may not know what a meme is, and everyone can have a good laugh because it's a celebrity you recognize in a funny situation.

Tell me this: What do you think of the current state of Internet memes? Getting better? Same old, same old? Regressing?
Reeves: I hesitate to say this, but I feel like it's becoming mainstream. The timeline of when a meme starts to bubble online and when it's covered by different facets of media is getting shorter and shorter by the day. And of course I include Urlesque in that bucket, too. When the site started in 2008, we would be reporting on trends and videos that would never see the light of any other medium, but now we (and all Web sites, really) are competing with traditional, huge, media outlets to be the first to cover and uncover the people behind these viral videos and memes that start spreading online. If a video starts to blow up, you can guarantee that "Today Show" staffers are trying to find the source for the next day's show. Or Rick Astley (CNET: Yes, you're being Rickrolled) pops up in the Thanksgiving day parade. It's bizarre.

But the great thing about the Web is that memes will always be good and will continue to be reinvented because the Web and technology is always changing.

What's your favorite Internet meme of all time?
Reeves: I think I have to say Lolcats because I am a cat lady.

That's the right answer.
Reeves: And also because it helps to explain and illustrate what on earth I do all day at work. And they never get old. Ever.

Well, that makes me ask, How do you explain what you do for work to your parents?
Reeves: It's funny. My mom has become so Internet-savvy since I started working on Urlesque, though that was probably more of Facebook's doing. Believe me, it's become easier over the past few years. At first I would try to explain that I take the funny videos that they receive in their e-mail inboxes and put them on a Web site for all to enjoy. Things like Lolcats or Fail videos definitely make it easier to explain. But now that they "get it" and they're seeing viral video stars cross into their morning TV shows and news, they become fans of the site. They may not understand every post (and who can, really?) but as Web culture becomes even more ingrained in pop culture or in real life culture, it'll just be culture. Though I imagine there will always be the subcultures.

Your job sounds like a lot of fun. What advice would you give to someone who is interested in making a living writing about Web culture?
Reeves: It is! I'm so lucky. Honestly, the best advice would be to write about Web culture. Start a blog (they're free!) and do it. My favorite part about Urlesque and our bloggers is that no one is "more qualified" than anyone else. We're all just Web addicts that surf around all day to find weird and funny stuff. Pretty much all of our bloggers have been plucked out of the Internet because of work they were doing on their personal blogs. We wanted their particular sense of humor, their keen analysis, and their following or their ability to find things. Everyone has the ability to find the next big thing. We're all on a level playing field.

But the thing I'd stress is to do something different--don't just post a funny video and call it a day. Anyone can do that. Do something to make your take unique, like tying it together as part of a larger trend, re-enacting it, or getting a baby or cat involved (guaranteed Internet gold). That's what will get you noticed.

Well, we're out of time, so here's my standard last question: I love doing these IM interviews because IM lets my interviewees be more thoughtful and articulate than they might be face-to-face or over the phone, and because I get a perfect transcript. But also it's because IM makes it easy to multitask. So, tell me: What else were you doing while we were doing this interview?
Reeves: Hahaha. I checked my e-mail only once. I must've been typing slow. But I was also consulting the Urlies pages.

Fair enough. Well, thank you so much for doing this. I appreciate it.
Reeves: This was fun, thank you.