LOLcats: a New Yorker Caption Contest for the Masses

lolcats1LOLcats is, in simple terms, a website that has pictures of cats with funny captions. If you haven’t seen the site, go now because seeing it is better than any explanation.

The owner of the site, Ben Huh, spoke at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop last night. It was a reminder that even a deceptively simple concept such as “zany pictures of cats” needs the right infrastructure and a million factors in the right place in order to grow and have a foothold in the wide, woolly web.

LOLcats began when someone received a picture of a grey kitty looking up in a tutu, with the words “I can has cheezburger?” He thought it was so funny that he bought the domain name, put the picture on it, and sent it to all his friends. His friends started emailing him pictures to add to the site. LOLcats was born.

Or was it? It might have died there, like a million funny things your friends do or say- but one of those friends happened to be Ben Huh. He bought the site a few months later and grew it into the site it is today. LOLcats is often cited as an example of a “meme,” a term borrowed from linguistics that is now used to refer to a catchy idea that spreads through the internet.

If there was one central or recurring idea during the talk, it was that a meme is user-driven. Huh made this distinction and adjusted people’s views several times. Are you afraid of AOL or some large, powerful company taking your idea? No, because these things never start from the top-down. They are driven from the bottom-up by users and fans. How do you promote a blog? You don’t, you create value and that builds your personal credibility and keeps people coming back. People who know you, “power users” and avid fans tell people about the blog. How do you kill a meme? You try to control it and say what it is or what it can and cannot be. You have to let your users tell you what it is and what they want it to be.

Huh notes that he doesn’t take the pictures, write the captions, or even choose which ones make it onto the site (a voting system does that). He simply created a place where a community could form and where people enjoy it and have fun. Concisely, his goal is “to entertain people for five minutes a day.”

LOLcats has been written up on 8asians and referenced in countless articles. The book based on the website has been on the New York Times bestseller list. But a quick poll of my own friends revealed none who had heard of it. As popular as it currently is, LOLcats has room to grow and continue.

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About Lily Huang

Lily Huang is a writer of Taiwanese descent, who lives on the East coast. She grew up in suburbia completely oblivious to Asian culture, and is making up for it now.
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