Leadership: At Cheezburger Network, users take the lead

Or, how grammatically challenged cats pull in a seven-figure income.

By , Staff Writer

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    Ben Huh runs a network of more than 50 websites and a team of 87 employees. All the content used on the sites is user-generated – with a little encouragement.
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Who would have thought that grammatically deficient cats could be big business?

The Internet has long trafficked in photos of kooky pets, but few have capitalized on them as successfully as the Cheezburger Network. The company started with a simple gag: a photo of a goofy gray cat, mouth agape, with the superimposed caption, "I can has cheezburger?"

The joke exploded. Teens, housewives, and grandparents now upload their own cat photos, add intentionally misspelled captions, and share their creations millions of times over. The Cheezburger Network has grown to include more than 50 websites, featuring everything from examples of computer auto-correction gone wrong to photos of real signs written in comically poor English. This mix of charm and sarcasm, with a touch of schadenfreude, pulls in 18.7 million people a month.

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But the company doesn't hire writers, photographers, or comedians. All the images and jokes – all the reasons for visiting the Cheezburger Network – come from the audience. In this very Internet-age dynamic, leadership, according to Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh, comes from setting the tone and then getting out of the way.

"For us, the trend has been turning more and more of the company over to the users," says Mr. Huh. "I think what we're going to see is more companies trusting the user. And that is something that I find very much in parallel to being a leader in my company."

The network runs somewhat like an online newspaper. As new images roll in, Huh's editors select the best and publish them in the appropriate sections. These regular updates run alongside ads, which bring in much of Cheezburger's seven-figure annual revenue.

That money pays for Huh's 87-person team of editors and programmers but not the people who actually create the content. Without frequent, quality contributions from the community, the company would quickly evaporate.

That's why Huh stresses the importance of building a great playground but then letting the people decide how to enjoy it. Of course, this requires a lot of trust in the users. Few places bring out the dark side of schoolyard behavior quite like the Internet. But Huh compares this faith in the users with his faith in his employees.

"If you trust your employees, you have to give them leeway on their interpretation of your vision," he says. "The same actually goes for our community as well, which is, I expect that our community will put the best interests of the community at heart – that they will act within social norms. And if that is actually the case, than we should give them more tools so that they can make that happen."

The network receives 12,000 to 15,000 submissions a day. Of those, maybe 10 to 12 percent are funny enough for the home page, says Lisa Kacerosky, one of Cheezburger's senior editors. They regularly toss aside inside jokes and offensive humor. But the most unfortunate kind of reject, she says, are legitimately hilarious submissions attached to crummy or poorly edited photographs. While Cheezburger can't do much about blurry images, the company has built several online tools to make creating a joke as easy as possible.

For example, Ms. Kacerosky recalls one of the first big gags to emerge after she was hired two years ago. During the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, rapper Kanye West stormed the stage during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech, grabbed the microphone away from her, and declared that Beyoncé should have won the award for Best Female Video. For the next few weeks, the Web brimmed with jokes about Mr. West's audacity.

Cheezburger editors saw the wave coming early on, says Kacerosky, and met to discuss how best to ride the trend. "Do we need to prepare ourselves?" she remembers someone at the office asking. "Do we need to Photoshop [a cutout image of] Kanye to show people how this is done?" Users could then take the high-quality image of West and apply it to any scene they wanted.

This kind of subtle shepherding is common at Cheezburger. The editors help guide the creative process but allow people to stray from the herd. After all, that's how the network grows. Many of Cheezburger's 50-odd websites sprang from user submissions that didn't fit into any of the current sections. If there's enough good content, Huh says, then he's happy spinning off countless side projects. Of course, it's up to Huh to define "good."

This is one of Cheezburger's strong suits, says Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft who specializes in social media. Long before Huh bought the original Cheezburger site from a pair of Web entrepreneurs, grammar-challenged cats roamed Internet forums such as 4chan, an online community that somehow embodies everything that's wonderful about the Internet and everything that's terrible about it. Users on 4chan create, mock, innovate, and chew through Web culture at a rapid clip. But unlike Cheezburger, 4chan sets no expectation of decency. Sharp, incisive humor mingles with crass, offensive filth. This is no place to send your mother.

Yet countless Web phenomena have sprung from 4chan's primordial goo, explains Ms. Boyd. And once a joke evolves to the point that it's ready for a mass audience, the Cheezburger Network is there to snatch it up and present it to the world.

Compared with the wilds of 4chan, the Cheezburger Network is "much more thoughtful about creating [a community-driven website], curating it, and making it a fun, clean space," says Boyd.

Fostering this mom-friendly image is part of Huh's leadership by example, Huh says.

When his editors moderate visitor comments, "we look at it as if it were our house, and if a guest in our house behaves inappropriately, you kick them out," he says. "In our community, we expect you to abide by the social norms of our community. And we initiate those social norms."

Huh invites sarcasm but says that he draws the line at hateful comments. He gives the example of Wedinator, a Cheezburger site that he almost shuttered. The page gathers curious wedding photos – a bride in ice-hockey skates, a groomsman falling off a dock into the water, a guest conspicuously filming a ceremony with his large Apple iPad. At first, certain members sneered at the submissions and grew a little too mean-spirited.

"What happens, though, is the community starts to self-police," Huh says. "They start to [demote] things that they think are too mean."

Wedinator's sour tone has changed in the past few months, he says. Community comments are now increasingly positive. "You would think that being snarky and negative is the one thing that draws attention and traffic, because people talk about controversy," he says.

"But it turns out that communities are built on things that are rewarding, as well as funny. And so the positive community started to build upon that, and now [Wedinator] is more of a unique and interesting and kinda quirky wedding site that sometimes makes fun of bad stuff, instead of the other way around."

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