On the Philosophy (and Business) of Spreading Memes

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Cat photos, interesting t-shirts, and video game references are big business.

The New York Times recently profiled Ben Huh and his Cheezburger Network, a profitable empire built on wacky Internet humor. The profile sheds some light on the economics of Internet frivolity, but there's also some ideology behind spreading memes, as I learned from interviewing Neetzan Zimmerman, the man behind one of the network's newer member-sites, The Daily What. (The interview was for a media diet.)

Zimmerman has been blogging about Internet culture for years and was picked up by the Network earlier this year. He has a pretty keen understanding of the ecosystem, his competition, and the dual role he plays as observer and, in some cases, catalyst of memes.

TDW is already the 15th most popular site on the Cheezburger Network, according to Zimmerman and statistics from Quantcast, which he says is the traffic monitor used by the Network's sites. TDW reached 631,000 global visitors in the last month and, according to The Times, Huh's company has been profitable from the start.

Despite now getting paid to blog, Zimmerman remains philosophical about what he has always done:

I see the Internet as sort of being an ongoing conversation and I think it would be nice to see everybody in on that conversation. That's basically where it started from -- that sort of dime-store philosophy. I was doing it for the sake of doing it. I was finding things and putting it on the site, not really expecting something from it.

sad keanu is sad-wide.jpgHe sees himself as a facilitator, someone who lets outsiders in on the joke. (One particularly hilarious joke -- at least to me -- to which Zimmerman recently introduced his readers revolves around photoshopped versions of a snapshot of actor Keanu Reeves, right, looking particularly pensive and sad while eating a sandwich. See: Sad Keanu plays the vuvuzela.)

While Zimmerman's focus may not be on building a business, he has given a lot of thought to battling his competition and growing an audience. He uses the Tumblr platform because it facilitates the viral sharing of posts and content. It "allows for people to stumble onto your Tumblr and follow you and become a regular reader," he said. Blogging about nonsense on the Internet is a craft, he told me for the media diet:

You have to make sure that you're posting in the right order, too -- it becomes sort of a science. As silly as that sounds, there is a method. The moment something hits Boing Boing, you've waited too long. To some degree they're working on the defensive because they pick stuff up that's already trending. I won't get as much attention directed towards me if I don't post that first.

But virality is fickle, which is the paradox at the heart of what he and others do. Does a meme go viral because it's blogged about or is it blogged about because it's clearly going to go viral? "Disaster girl," who was photographed with an ambiguous, possibly evil, possibly innocent smirk standing in front of a burning house, was a huge success for Buzzfeed, a competing meme blog. "They really were the catalyst for that because they were encouraging people to do photo manipulations with that girl," Zimmerman said. "Without Buzzfeed, would the particular meme have spread?"

The answer to that question has a lot to do with the very essence of a meme. For better or for worse, its appeal has as much to do with the joke itself as being in on the joke, being a part of a community. Joe Randazzo, the editor of the satirical newspaper The Onion, lamented the popularity of memes in The Washington Post last month. In the process, he offered up a pretty apt, albeit cynical, description of their appeal:

Once an "enjoyable thing" becomes a "meme," we stop enjoying the thing for its own sake, but consume and regurgitate our enjoyment of it as a symbol of hipness, as if to say: "I am aware of this thing's popularity -- therefore I, too, exist!"

disaster girl.jpg
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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.
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