SEATTLE--How does one build an empire on pictures of cats with silly, misspelled captions?
As most fans of the Internet now know, I Can Has Cheezburger has become one of the most popular sites online. Its daily collection of LOLCats is the source of endless humor, and you can be pretty sure that someone in your office is reading the site and chuckling to themselves right now.
But how did it happen?
At the Gnomedex conference here Friday, I Can Has Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh talked about the genesis of the site, and some of the milestones it has gone through as it has become not only a household name but the vanguard--if not the originator--of one of the most popular memes ever to hit cyberspace.
To Huh, the "Lolean Timescale" started several years ago, back when LOLCats were a much edgier phenomenon. Back then, a LOLCat was as likely to have a snarky, sexual theme as not. You may remember the famous, "Ceiling cat is watching you masturbate" LOLCat that began to make its way across the Internet a couple of years ago.
And in those days, there weren't really any sites serving as clearinghouses for the phenomenon. You'd get them sent to you via e-mail or on instant message. But it was hard to find good collections of them other than sites where dozens of them were roughly patched together and added to as more funny ones turned up.
On January 11, 2007, though, that all changed.
On that day, Huh said, the original founders of I Can Has Cheezburger, Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami, found a LOLCat with a now-famous grey fluffy cat meowing over the words, "I Can Has Cheezburger?"
For whatever reason, it struck a chord, and immediately, the two registered icanhascheezburger.com and started their site.
And while it wasn't a problem at the time, as they engineered the site to allow users to submit their own LOLCats and as the site has subsequently grown and grown, and become synonymous with the LOLCat meme, other have attempted to piggyback on its popularity by registering similar URLs.
"Let me give you a tip," Huh said. "When you buy a domain, buy all the misspellings...Because there's a million ways to (spell "I Can Has Cheezburger") and we don't own any of them."
In the early days of the site, its traffic was negligible, but it very quickly outgrew its available bandwidth and was regularly getting Nakagawa and Unebasami in trouble with their hosting service.
Huh said that one day in April 2007, I Can Has Cheezburger--which he hadn't heard of--linked to a page of his and the resulting flood of traffic took his site down. Nakagawa apologized and promised to take down the link, but a relationship was born.
Not long afterward, in July 2007, Huh said he offered to buy I Can Has Cheezburger and take the site off their hands, along with the headaches it was clearly causing the founders as it grew and gave them seemingly unsolvable server issues.
According to Time magazine, Huh and his investors paid around $2 million for the site.
By now, traffic was in the tens of millions of page views per months, but not long after the purchase, it seemed to stall.
"When you tell investors that the site we bought has pictures of cats and not only pictures of cats, but cats with misspelled words on it," Huh said, "they call their lawyers."
He admitted that in the early days of his ownership of the site, "we had absolutely no clue what the hell we were doing," but as they moved forward, they decided that rather than try to make big changes to try to improve traffic, it would be better to leave the site's huge community alone.
After all, it was the community that was making the site what it was. As Huh put it, "Don't friggin' touch a thing. There's a community here. Without submissions (of users' LOLCats), there's no content. And without content, there's no traffic."
And the decision turned out to be a good thing. Traffic had flat-lined, but by leaving the community alone, and encouraging the site's users to continue to make their submissions--many using the site's LOLCat creation tool--traffic once again began to grow.
Soon, in fact, it was edging towards 30 million page views a month.
Then, Huh said, "The same investors who were like, 'We're going to call our lawyer' were like, 'Wow, great investment.'"
By now, Huh explained, it was the end of December 2007, and as it became 2008, Huh and his team decided it was time to make some changes to the community side of the site.
In September 2007, he said, the site was getting between 50 and 100 submissions per day.
In March 2008, however, that number had risen to 5,000 per day. That, of course, was a bit of a logistical nightmare. So in March, the site hired full-time moderators to do nothing but review LOLCat submissions and choose which ones become the six or eight that are put on the site each day.
The site also inaugurated a system for users to register with the site so they could take advantage of a series of account management tools.
"Why the hell would people want to do that," Huh joked, "have an account on I Can Has Cheezburger, an account on a site you can't spell and have to bookmark" to get to.
But it worked, he said, and traffic continued to grow.
And in March, Huh and his team decided to launch new blogs, hoping "lightning (would) strike twice."
"Are we a one-hit wonder," Huh said, "or can we pump out memes. Can we popularize memes?"
As a result, I Can Has Cheezburger now has six sister sites. There's Pundit Kitchen and GraphJam, which focus on politics and graphs; I Has a Hot Dog, about dogs; Totally Looks Like, an entertainment-oriented site; Fail Blog, which I Can Has Cheezburger bought and which pokes fun at people's screw-ups; and Engrish Funny, a site with photos of signs mangling English.
Now, the main site is approaching 100 million page views a month and Huh said he thinks it will top a billion page views in 2008.
All told, it has more than 800,000 LOLCats in its database and now, and an I Can Has Cheezburger book is in the works. It will come out in October.
Which all raises one question. These days, I think we are less and less surprised by what becomes popular online. But can you imagine two years ago hearing that someone would have a blog with pictures of cats accompanied with silly, badly spelled phrases, that could do a billion page views in a year?
Me either. Teh tymez? Dey R Definutely A-Changin.