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I Can Has Social Network: From Meme to Community

Written by: Bill Sherman on Thursday, 28 August 2008, 1:22 PM

What can a website devoted to cats and misspelled text teach us about social networks? Surprisingly a whole lot.


Today, let’s explore the world of LOLcats. Specifically, the world of icanhascheezburger.

When we talk about social networks, we often think about groups that are bonded by strong ties and shared interests. However, in the internet age, weak ties can become exceptionally powerful due to the web’s global reach.

Yesterday, Daniel Terdiman at CNET retold the origin story that he heard Ben Huh share at Gnomedex about icanhascheezburger. It’s a great read that discusses how a meme grows into a self-sustaining community.

LOLcats are simple. Put some ironic (or funny) misspelled words over a picture of a cat. Upload it to icanhascheezburger, and you have an instant LOLcat.

According to Terdiman, when Huh bought the original site for $2 million, his investors were skeptical.

“When you tell investors that the site we bought has pictures of cats and not only pictures of cats, but cats with misspelled words on it,” Huh said, “they call their lawyers.”

Now, icanhascheezburger expects to have over 1 billion pageviews in 2008. (And those once-skeptical investors are thrilled).

If someone set out to write a business plan that involved creating a LOLcat community that could be monetized through advertising, people would have laughed. They’d have treated it with less respect than Fred Smith’s undergraduate research paper (that later launched FedEx) but received a “C”. It would have been perceived as yet another piece of dotcom fluff.

icanhascheezburger didn’t originate the LOLcat, but they successfully developed a community and have expanded to dogs, graphs, and four other affinity groups.

At some point, the self-replicating LOLcat meme (as described by Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore, and others) became a viable business.

Mark Granovetter wrote about the strength of weak ties in finding a job. However, there’s a different type of weak-tie at play here. LOLcats are an entertainment business built around self-identified affinities and weak-ties. Most visitors are consumers who view the latest images for a few seconds, read a few ads, and leave. Yet, a percentage of the community actually produces more content for the site.

The owners served as stewards/gardeners to nurture the site. According to Huh, their mantra has been:

“Don’t friggin’ touch a thing. There’s a community here. Without submissions (of users’ LOLCats), there’s no content. And without content, there’s no traffic.”

It only takes a few minutes to create a LOLcat, but that effort scales when thousands of people each spend a few minutes each week.Even if a small percentage of people create content, it’s still enough to sustain the social network. Distributed social networks allow scalability. We’ll look at that more tomorrow.

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