I Can Has Internet Millions
The company behind lolcats and Failblog tries to turn memes into money.
Pet Holdings is constantly on the lookout for new memes, and it's constantly finding reasons for why things won't work. Huh declined to name specific ideas he's rejected, but he offered a hypothetical example: "Say there was a giraffe-necking site—beautiful pictures of these peaceful creatures, intertwining their necks, in love. And this site has lots of these photos. Fantastic, right? Maybe it becomes a meme, maybe people love these photos and it becomes viral—we'll still pass on that." Why? "Because there's only so many ways a giraffe can neck," he says.
Most memes we encounter online are such one-trick giraffes: If you've seen one instance of Rickrolling or a Mentos-and-Diet Coke geyser, you've pretty much seen them all. For Huh, the best Internet memes are like daytime soaps—endlessly flexible and full of dramatic possibilities. For instance, the idea behind GraphJam first came into being around song lyrics (a pie chart showing things that Rick Astley would never do, with the biggest slices representing "run around and desert you" and "give you up," appeared online about a year ago). But over time, people moved beyond music and began making graphs to describe the dangers of wearing Snuggies and why people write "first" in Web comment threads. "We've noticed that the best memes shed one audience while gaining an even bigger audience," Huh says. As they mutate from the specific to the general, they also leave the territory of fads and become cultural touchstones.
Pet Holdings is keen to expand. The company just launched Tofulator, a site that allows people to add captions to YouTube videos, resulting in bizarrely hilarious mashups. It's also working on a way to find the funniest things that people are talking about on Twitter. The project, called Son of a Tweet, is still in development, but the goal is to build a "poor man's Digg," Huh says—a way to collect the Web's best content without having to handle hundreds of thousands of voters and commenters.
When I told Huh that I wanted to write about him, he feigned reluctance—what if a prominent article describing his success spawned a competitor? But then he explained that it would actually be very difficult for a new competitor to take on Pet Holdings because it sat on a huge competitive advantage: a meme portal. By now his sites are big enough that when Huh spots something buzzy, Pet Holdings can quickly replicate the idea and then make it popular through links from Cheezburger, Fail, and his other blogs. Pet Holdings is not shy about copying successful memes outright. Last year the company was in discussions to buy Engrish.com, which has been compiling funny translations for years. When negotiations didn't work out (Huh didn't explain why), Pet Holdings started a competing site, and now it's almost as popular as the original. Huh says that he prefers to buy sites than to copy them, especially when established sites have a devoted audience that can proselytize an idea. There are, though, few legal implications to copying good memes—because such sites traffic in user-generated content that's amorphously defined (does lolrus infringe on lolcat?), it's difficult to trademark memes.
What's the next big thing for Pet Holdings? The company recently "seeded the Internet" with about a dozen memes that Huh won't reveal; the plan is to see which ones succeed organically, without links from the Pet Holdings' network of sites, and then to invest resources in developing those ideas. "That's the most interesting thing about this job—when people find out how big we are," Huh says. "They're like, Cheezburger's yours, and Failblog, holy crap! And then they're like, It's more than just you? They don't understand the scale of this. It's a proper sweatshop."
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.