The Grill: Ben Huh

This savvy Web entrepreneur believes techies have a sense of humor all their own.

As CEO and founder of the Cheezburger Network, a family of 47 comedy sites that's growing by an average of one site per week, Ben Huh is a funster with a serious mission: to make people laugh and make money, too. Recently in Boston for the ROFLCon Internet culture conference at MIT, he talked about humor and online business models.

What do you say to beleaguered network administrators who have to deal with the bandwidth-sucking comedy sites their users visit? Between Flash animations, photos and videos, if enough people send their favorite funny things around, it can seriously slow down or even crash a network. We never really considered that. We work in a high-bandwidth environment and assume others do, too, and that they have the bandwidth they need.

Why shouldn't companies block your sites? We occasionally get e-mails from people saying the site is blocked because of a corporate firewall. That doesn't happen often; it's not that big of a problem. But it's been well documented that taking breaks during the day can increase productivity. We need to educate more companies to look at the science behind that.

Do techies have a sense of humor, and where do they rate versus those in other professions? Oh, absolutely they do. But it's like pi -- it's not really on the same scale as other people. There's a subcultural humor that appeals to that technical audience. "I Can Has Cheezburger" is very popular with techies. Maybe that's because there's a higher percentage of techies who own cats -- just anecdotally, I've noticed that in my discussions with people. Maybe they own cats because techies tend to be introverted.

Is your network, or any of the sites on it, going mobile? How do you translate some of the more visual jokes into that medium? We want to cater more to mobile users; we're just getting our strategy together for this. Until now, our strategy has mostly been to ignore mobile. We have an official application, by a freelance developer in Florida, but we're going to take more ownership of this and will buy the app outright. We don't really measure data [in terms of who is viewing our sites on which device or platform], but we know we have a lot of iPhone visitors. Of course, with the iPad there are fewer restrictions [on visual humor] than with the iPhone or BlackBerry.

You've said that you've got so many page views on your combined network that you can't possibly sell them all. Does that mean you'll need to broaden out beyond comedy? We're pretty much focused on that category -- I call it "happiness drivers." It's not just jokes, but blogs and other things. Our mission is to make people happy for five minutes a day, and that's going to continue. We innovate very rapidly -- we add one site each week -- and the great thing is that we can fail quickly, learn from it and move on. Some things I can't predict; we just launched a site called "If Shoes Could Kill," devoted to women's weird shoes. I didn't like it and thought it would fail, but it's really taken off. It's already hit a million page views a month.

What sites haven't done well in the two-plus years since you've created your network? Around a dozen closed. One tried to boil down Wikipedia into a Twitter format, make any definition in 140 characters. A lot of people enjoyed it, but it never went mass appeal. I don't know why. Another was a video captioning system -- you could add your own captions to a YouTube video. But then YouTube released its own captioning feature, so there wasn't any need for ours.

There's been some movement toward creating other metrics to measure Web performance, broader than page views. Where do you see that going? We've just moved from page views to unique users. We don't measure engagement -- what percentage has been active in the past 30 days. That's a lot harder to measure.

You've recently published your fifth book, I Has a Hotdog. Is there a crossover audience who buys the books and then comes to the sites? Books are a relatively small part of our revenues. But it has a network effect -- they pass the books along to other people and tell them about us. The biggest sales occur in-store, not on our sites, so people are walking to the bookstore and buying the book.

We live in an increasingly politically correct world, yet you have sites that some might find offensive, such as "Engrish Funny." Are you worried that this kind of humor might become outdated or irrelevant at some point? Our data seems to [show] that people will share less but will still come to visit. People are very much in pursuit of happiness -- human beings do that naturally -- and as long as we can deliver on that promise, we'll still have an audience.

Are you at all concerned about contributing to the grammatical delinquency of a generation? I'm half-kidding, but educators do point to more "IM-speak" showing up in term papers and homework. And some of the names of your sites... [Laughs.] One of the beauties of the English language is its ability to adapt. We've been complaining about our children for thousands of years. It is a valid concern, of course, but that's how English works -- and the language will hopefully continue to grow.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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