How Internet Memes Went Corporate

The creation and perpetuation of memes is becoming a big industry.

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So when did this seismic shift happen? When did someone look down at his cat and determine that his furry companion could feed a photographic repository of funny cuteness, one that could generate ad revenue and profit?

Many would point to the launch of the Cheezeburger Network, which was founded by Ben Huh in 2007 when he and several investors purchased the company's flagship blog, I Can Haz Cheezeburger? Since then it has launched dozens of new verticals, and early last year tech blogs reported that the company had raised $30 million in venture funding.

"Huh was planning on hiring 20-30 new staffers by the end 2011, but now he's looking to take bigger risks and push up the hiring schedule," Mashable wrote when the news broke. Merely a year later, BuzzFeed, which until then had mostly focused on aggregating images and memes, announced it had received $15 million in financing and immediately launched into an aggressive hiring spree, sniping several veteran journalists to build out its editorial content.

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Not all have required outside funding, however. In February, Imgur, a site that lets users easily upload photos and galleries, won the "Best Bootstrapped Startup" category at the Crunchie Awards. The site, the host of thousands of funny memes and photoshopped images that first gained visibility on social news sites like Reddit and Digg, currently sees about a billion pageviews a month.

A few years ago, Jonah Peretti, the 38-year-old founder of BuzzFeed and a graduate of the MIT Media Lab, coined a phrase to describe the people who consume memes and other viral internet content: the Bored At Work Network.

This network, which he claimed is "bigger than the BBC, CNN, or any traditional media network," consists of the millions of employed professionals who work desk jobs that provide numerous five to 10 minute time capsules with which to crawl the Internet— while eating lunch at their desks, say, or when the numbers on their spreadsheets have been relegated into an impenetrable blur that can only be cured by a few moments of mindless web surfing.

These consumers are not as interested in a 10,000-word feature in the New Yorker as they are in bite-sized, snackable images or video that can be digested and regurgitated, in the form of a Facebook share or Tweet in between conference calls.

In a recent phone interview, Peretti says the market for this shareable content has only expanded with the advent of smartphones and mobile computing.

"It used to be that all the consumption happened when people were bored at work," he said. "And now you're also getting people who are stuck in traffic, or at a stop light, or waiting for an elevator, or waiting in line. So you have all these moments where you have to patiently sit and be bored that now are filled with media consumption."

The entrepreneur compared the commercialization of memes to a similar metamorphosis within the blogosphere. It used to be, in the early 2000s, that blogs were no more than personal journals and diaries, and what little advertising existed on them was slapped on as a mere afterthought.

"The big idea from [Gawker founder] Nick Denton was what if you took it seriously and you hired full time people and do something that normal people are just doing personally, except you have them do that professionally? That pushed blogging into a new form of professional content."

These days it's an anomaly to find a news outlet that doesn't incorporate blogging in some form or fashion, even as Gawker has moved away from the traditional blogging format and adopted a more newspaper-like front page.

Peretti theorized that the meme is prone to abundant social sharing because it plays into shared emotions and experience. A news article, while it may or may not be something in which your friend is interested, is purely intellectual and does not necessarily trigger any form of emotion.

"So laughter and comedy do well because it's fun to laugh with your friends, and it's fun to have an emotional experience with your friends," he said. "Media that facilitates that seems to spread more."



Correction: 6/28/13: A previous version of this story misidentified the founder of Quickmeme.