Lolcats are those Photoshopped pictures of cats with ridiculous captions that are so pervasive, they’ve spread beyond inboxes and blogs and message boards to the mainstream media. Time, the Houston Chronicle, and dozens of other news outlets have attempted to explain the unexplainable.
Well, if you’re a lolcat fan, your first stop on the web is very likely I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER. And if you’re a lolcat fan in Hawaii, you can be proud that Nakagawa, one of the site’s co-founders, lives right here in Honolulu.
Now, lolcats have been around for years. Hardcore fans will be quick to tell you that wacky captioned cat photos first surfaced at 4chan, an active and irreverent (to say the least) community of anime lovers. Every “Caturday” — ostensibly the day before Saturday, until it was decreed that every day was “Caturday” — members would post their cat-based creations, basically looking to one-up each other in humor or outrageousness.
It wasn’t long before these pictures escaped into the wild, and they started popping up on other sites more and more frequently. Enter Nakagawa, who found a picture of a hungry looking feline bearing the caption, “I CAN HAZ CHEESBURGER?” He set up a website in January to showcase it, and the next few cat photos that caught his fancy. He dubbed them “lolcats.” Only then did the meme inexplicably explode. Suddenly, Nakagawa’s site became the hottest spot on the web.
Nakagawa was as surprised at the popularity as anyone else. He was profiled in Businessweek, which described him as “an accidental entrepreneur.” He and his anonymous partner started selling ads, and investing in new features. It wasn’t long before Nakagawa quit his full-time job in the bowels of a local health care firm and started wrangling lolcats full time.
Nakagawa knows that Internet memes are random and ephemeral, and that at the heart of “viral” and “buzz” is newness. He’s already got big ideas for his next act. Now that I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER has liberated him from the confines of corporate cubicles, the sky is the limit.
You can download and listen to Jay Fidell’s interview with Nakagawa via the ThinkTech Hawaii website. Note that he also stuck around and joined the online-only aftershow discussion on lifecasting. For a transcript of Nakagawa’s remarks, read on.
Fidell: You know, anybody who surfs the web knows there are countless websites and blogs to explore. Some are standard fare, others are creative, unique, and attract a niche audience or user group as it were. Our next guest runs a blog emanating from Hawaii, done in Hawaii although not everyone in the world knows that, and it’s called I CAN HAS CHEEZEBURGER. (Spells it out.) Strange name. And it’s mostly about cats, I think, funny cats, if not downright really funny silly cats, go figure. Eric Nakagawa launched his blog about a year ago, and it’s been surprisingly, amazingly successful. It typically, these days, receives about half a million national and international hits every day. Eric Nakagawa joins us in the studio tonight to tell us the secrets of what he did and how he achieved this viral success in such a short time. Welcome to the show, Eric Nakagawa.
Nakagawa: Hi Jay. Thanks.
Fidell: So why cats? And what’s the public attraction that draws people to the site?
Nakagawa: Well, actually, I’d like to say that the site started maybe six months ago, where we just did it for fun. So it was basically, my partner sent me a funny picture, and it just so happened to have been a cat. It’s hard to explain, but when you see a funny joke, you know, it doesn’t really matter what sort of animal it is. Apparently, after doing some research and gathering a bunch of these images, it turned out that a lot of them happened to be cats. So it followed that if we were going to organize them, we would do them based off of whatever was available, and at the time it was cats.
What exactly is the public’s interest in this? I have no idea. I can’t tell you what the essence is, I mean there’s a lot of things… it’s kind of like the elephant story, we’re trying to figure out what it is you’ve got your hands on, and we have a lot of people that are offering opinions. But what it turns out to be is, it’s funny, it’s easy to share, and we constantly update it. We update our site about 4-5 times a day, that means 4-5 pictures a day, and we get so many submissions. It’s hard to really explain.
Fidell: Whimsy. It’s whimsy. Let me take a wild guess and say it’s whimsy, humor, this kind of pidgin talk that you’ve got on there… It’s a little bit of a challenge, and it’s unusual. It’s the unusualness that makes it warm and fuzzy and friendly.
Nakagawa: I would say yeah, I do think that the idea is, it’s novel to a lot of people. You already think… Okay, if you’re a pet owner, you already talk to your animal. I mean, if you don’t you’re crazy, if you do, you’re normal. It just goes hand in hand, you’ll talk to your dog as if it’s a human, and you’ll start to anthropomorphize the animal as if they were a human being. It just follows that they would have a language, and it just so happens that the public believes the language of cats is whatever we have. And it’s constantly evolving. So a lot of people who submit stuff, I mean we get about 500 submissions a day. Right now I have to approve about 25,000…
Fidell: And you pick the ones that fit within the taste of the site.
Nakagawa: The way it started was… No, I didn’t have anybody to really go through… We had to find them all. People started sending them in, and then we just started cherry picking. And it’s basically become a cherry pick where people submit stuff and we cherry pick the best. I mean it’s hard to say what makes a good joke, but if you have a sense of humor, I think you can figure out a pattern. If you can copy that, go for it. A lot of people have tried to do that.
The funny thing is that, now we’re giving it back to the people to vote on. Sort of like, if you’ve ever been to Digg.com, it’s like a website where you can choose what the best thing is. And so we’re using that sort of model to apply it to funny pictures. Right now people go in and they constantly spend hours on the website, voting voting voting and voting, and hoping that their animal will make it to the front page and be internet popular, or internet celebrity, for a nanosecond.
Fidell: So you’re drawing them into this interactive experience. It’s participatory.
Nakagawa: Yeah. It started off at a blog but in reality it’s more of a community. I mean it’s a bunch of pet owners, a lot of them at present are cat owners, and a lot of them aren’t. A lot of them are just people that like humor. So it’s hard to really pigeonhole who exactly comes to our website. But it’s evolving to the point that we get so many different submissions for animals that aren’t cats that we might just have to create a dog version of the site.
Fidell: You know, cat people and dog people are not the same, Eric, you know that.
Nakagawa: Yeah, I don’t think they are the same. I think it’s different types of personalities. I don’t truly understand why people choose one pet over the another. But I think it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of language evolves from the dogs.
Fidell: So, talk about business model for a minute. So, here you have this viral thing, it’s going half a million hits a day. How do you make a buck? Do you make a buck? I understand you do make a bit of a buck on this. What’s the business model?
Nakagawa: Well, the basic business model is that, we have all these eyes. And we have the opposite problem of most businesses, which is, “We have this product that we want to sell, how do we get people to the site?” We have the opposite. We have all these people coming, they don’t stop coming, and we love it, people keep coming to the site. Now what do we do, what can we do to actually… can we make a little bit of money off of this? Can we make a lving off of this? and the answer seems to be use. What we’ve done currently is place advertisements using the common business model you’ve seen on every single website out there, it just so happens that with volume comes a pretty big chunk of change. Right now there’s just two people…
Fidell: Two people involved in making it happen.
Nakagawa: Two people that co-founded the site.
Fidell: So you get to share the revenue, and the revenue comes from advertising.
Nakagawa: Yeah, it comes from advertising, and it just so happens that because we have such a strong following with our community, we started doing stuff for fun. For example, I just gave you guys some buttons, and these buttons are very limited, and to be honest… I mean, they’re cute.
Fidell: They are cute. Here’s a button with a great big hamburger, and it says “HALP!”
Nakagawa: Yeah so it’s basically these funny buttons, and little things like that that I think kind of tie the experience together, which is sort of what we’re doing. It’s basically a experience around animals, with the community where people talk to each other, they vote, they feel involved, they make stuff, they keep coming back, they make friends. I mean, if I had enough resources, I would love to build it into a real company… but at the moment it’s just a blog.
Fidell: Give it time. We’ll follow you, we’ll follow you. Because we think you’re having a wonderful time, the people around you are having a wonderful time, and you’re spreading cheer and good happiness with what you’re doing and making some money. Eric Nakagawa, founder of chief cat lover at I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER. Thank you so much, Eric.
Note: I briefly contemplated titling this entry something like, “Hawai haz lolcat d00d!” But I’m just not that funny.