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Leadership: At Cheezburger Network, users take the lead

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

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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.

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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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