Two years ago, Ben Huh was just a guy in sweatpants trying to manage his new website, Icanhascheezburger.com, from his couch. Since then, the site—which features funny captioned photos of cats—has grown into a phenomenon, transforming Huh into an Internet CEO with the capability to launch over a dozen more successful sites, like Fail Blog and GraphJam. Just one day after the Oct. 6 release of Graph Out Loud, a GraphJam complication book (Icanhascheezburger compilation books I Can Has Cheezburger and How To Take Over Teh World, are also still on-sale), Huh sat down to talk to EW about the origins of Icanhascheezburger, its mythology, and why he doesn’t own a cat (le gasp!).
So I imagine something like this started as a bit of a lark for you.
It started off by me buying the website from the two co-founders from Hawaii. The reason I did this wasn’t primarily because I thought this was a great business model and we were going to become a humor empire. It was actually the exact opposite. I didn’t like my job, and I wanted to leave, and this was a great excuse to leave and have my own company.
What were you doing at the time?
I was working at a start-up, working on touch screen software. It was a good company, they were paying me well, but it just didn’t make me happy. So I thought, I have a degree in journalism, this is probably up my alley, I really want to do something in the consumer Internet space. So why don’t I do this?
What year did you come on to this?
I bought the site eight months after it was launched in January 2007.
So how did the founders come up with the idea?
The origin of LOLcats came from an Internet forum called 4chan, which is a NSFW place. And these images over the year had made it to other forums around the Internet. So when the two co-founders [Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami] came along, they didn’t know the origin. They just saw the images and they’re like, “I’ve seen these all over the place. I’m going to start a blog to collect them and keep them in one place.” They were pre-captioned images. And then they built a captioning system, and that’s when things really changed. People started submitting them, and it became a phenomenon.
The first picture posted has become pretty iconic—a photo of a fat, gray cat captioned, “I can has cheezburger?”
That’s right. The big famous cat. Kari had sent an IM message attaching that photo to Eric. And Eric laughed his head off and said, “This is so funny, I’m going to buy a domain name that spells exactly ‘Icanhascheezburger.’” And that’s how it started. He just put up a picture on a blog and then for some reason, the word got out, and people started coming.
How did the word get out?
He actually doesn’t know. I’ve asked him multiple times, “Are you sure you didn’t tell anybody?” He’s like, “I might have told some friends, but this wasn’t a public thing. This was a private thing between two people.” And people started coming and sending him pictures, or linking to pictures saying, “You should post this one.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll put up an email address,” and people started flooding him with emails.
You said you didn’t know the site was going to be huge. But you had to know you had something good, considering you’re dealing with extremely cute kittens.
I’m a dog guy. I have a dog. But I really wish I could also have a cat. And this was a great way to live vicariously through other cats. When I first went to the site in April 2007, I didn’t get it. I was like, “What the heck’s wrong with the spelling? I can’t read this. This is weird.” And for some reason, I went back. Still didn’t get it. But the third time I went back, there was a photo that made me laugh. And then I got it. And I realize that was part of the challenge of icanhascheezburger. People don’t really understand it initially, and they kind of dismiss it. But Internet’s a lovely place, where you forward stuff to your friends over and over again, and it’s happened to enough people that it created this great community around this site.
It’s not just a community, it’s a cult. People actually speak in lolspeak.
That’s right. One of the things that’s really fascinating is the language of lolspeak is that it’s basically a pidgin [language] that was formed purely online. It used to be that when you spoke a different language, or when you spoke slang, it was geographically limited by a subculture. But as an Internet culture, people started writing something across the globe in the same manner, pretty much the same time, without speaking it, and without any cultural connections. So it’s the formation of a new language basically through Internet, which hasn’t really happened before. In this case, there’s not talking. In fact, the voice that you have of a lolcat in your head is probably very different than the voice I have in my head of a lolcat. And in fact, when people ask me to read aloud a lolcat caption, I actually decline to do so, because I don’t want to ruin what they have in their heads.
And there’s also this whole lolcat mythology. White cats are called “ceiling cats,” and are synonymous with God, while black cats, a.k.a. “basement cats,” are synonymous with the Devil. It’s pretty nuts.
I think we gave people a canvas to pain their life lessons. And their canvas was a cat. A live cat really doesn’t take well to that. But a photo of a cat won’t claw you. So I think people just started putting what they’ve learned in life and what they saw in life. It’s very Seinfeld-ian. Nothing there is groundbreaking. It’s not like, wisdom from Andrew Sullivan. And I think that’s what makes it really fascinating.
Do you ever think to yourself, what am I doing? I’m helping people create an entire mythology about cats.
I think it’s fantastic. The whole ceiling cat-basement cat thing is really funny to watch, because people believe in the mythology. There was a news story over the year ago about a cat that was stuck in the ceiling part of a house. The firemen came to get him out of the ceiling. And I got 1,000 emails like, “Oh my God, they found ceiling cat!” And I’m like, I don’t know who you are, but you’re sending me these video clips of this cat getting rescued. The mythology is so fascinating to everybody, that they immediately associate a news event that had nothing to do with our site and say, “This is part of our mythology! We believe!”
Strangely enough, you yourself do not have a cat.
I don’t have a cat. I wish I did.
Do you ever feel like you should get one just for research purposes?
I’m pretty sure the cat would have me for research purposes. The allergy is pretty severe, though. And I tried taking allergy pills, but I also think my dog wouldn’t take too kindly to that now.
So once Icanhascheezburger took off, you expanded your network, right?
We launched two sites simultaneously. GraphJam and Pundit Kitchen, which was a political captioning site. We knew the election was coming, and we wanted to create a site where people could share their opinions about the news in a funny way. It almost killed me to launch two sites at a time while running a third one, but it worked. It was very surprising to form an entirely new community of people that just came out of nowhere and loved what they did. So GraphJam.com started out originally as a music lyrics site, where people would take musical lyrics and put them into graph form.
Were those two sites your brainchild?
To be honest, those are based on things that already happened. Nothing we do is completely original. The Internet is a big vast place where things have already happened, and you’re just riffing off of somebody else, like artists who riff of somebody else. So it was an evolution.
And then, of course, you launched your other phenomenon: Fail Blog.
We purchased Fail Blog in April 2008. It was a pretty small site when we bought it. So the site is vastly different than what it was before.
We’re much less R-rated than we used to be. We took some of that stuff off. We’re more rigid in our standards. It’s not about one person’s editorial judgment. It’s about what the users want to see. We added videos, which was huge for us.
And “Fail” has become part of the verbal lexicon as well, what with phrases like “Epic fail,” etc.
Fail Blog has been given credit for basically crossing that word over into mass popular culture. That’s pretty cool for word nerds for us. We try to do that with other things. We have a new site called It Made My Day. It’s the opposite of FML. It Made My Day is either really cool things that have happened in your life, or things that happen to other people that you laughed at. Like the douchebag who tried to bypass his truck over the median and got stuck. It’s like other people failing, the customer who complained about not getting the right change and leaving his wallet behind. Stuff like that. It’s schadenfreude. Laughing at the misery of others. We launched that a little over a week ago. And the acronym IMMD wasn’t used really in that form, and then immediately, the week we launched, we searched Twitter for IMMD, and there’s hundreds of people using it.
And you have your other sites as well, like I Has a Hotdog, ROFL Razzi…
There are 26 sites. I doubt you can name them all.
So you’re constantly churning these out.
We actually launch one new site a week. And we kill off the ones that don’t work.
How many sites do you plan on launching?
We don’t have any limits. We want to see how good we can get.
And some people have been pretty inspired by the sites. There was even an off-Broadway play inspired by lolcats.
I heard it was fantastic. It’s something that the community does, and we let them use the trademark and the name. We had a cheezburger night at the Seattle Mariners. The Seattle Mariners called us and said, “We’d like to do a cheezburger night. If you get 400 people, we’ll let you throw the first pitch.” I’m like, I can’t pass this up. So we put out a notice. We ended up having 1,200 people of the event. People came from all over the country.
What was the event?
It was a night at the Seattle Mariners. It was a game with a section of our own, we ended up filling five sections. We gave them free t-shirts, a cheap ticket, and access to an event beforehand where people could hang out. And we had a slideshow of lolcats on the projectors and people sat down like they were watching a movie. They were reading the captions and laughing. It’s like, “You love the website so much, you came to a baseball game to look at the website?” It’s awesome to see that. People were so happy. You couldn’t figure out what the demographic was. It was all over the place. [And] people dressed up. People wore cat ears. People had tails on. It was a lot of fun. It was like a little carnival.
Do you have any more plans for any of your sites for the immediate future?
We’re going to do a top ten fails of the year for Fail Blog, which should be interesting.
Any idea of what’s making the cut?
I’m trying to figure out if Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift is a Fail or a Win.
Exactly. Depending on how you spin it. It was a Fail, and then it became a Win for Kanye. He was able to milk the life out of that one. I was like, wow, that’s totally douchebaggy, but kudos to you man. He’s genetically engineered to find the spotlight. He’s like a cat.