Gone are the days of hamster dance and Star Wars kid, of Leeroy Jenkins and Peanut Butter Jelly Time. In their place a new generation of Internet memes is emerging. They're just as much fun as ever, but they're also smarter, more respected, and positioned to make a heck of a lot more money than their predecessors.
That's right: From its murky origins in anonymously authored minor distractions, the Internet phenomenon we know as the meme has become a mighty engine of commerce. LOLcats have invaded bookstores. Cute Overload bunnies adorn day-by-day calendars that sell for $13 a pop. Remember the blogger who mocked us at StuffWhitePeopleLike.com? He reportedly was offered not only a book deal, but also a $350,000 advance.
Is it too late for you to strike gold with a money-making meme? Not at all. But you'll find your way to affluence more quickly with the aid of some practical tips. Here is your guide to cashing in on Web fads.
Get on the Good Foot
Your first step, of course, is to make something. Mat Honan, a contributing editor for Wired, created his site BarackObamaIsYourNewBicycle.com as a funny present to his wife. But what started as a joke quickly became an Internet sensation. And within days, two New York publishers called Honan to offer him a book contract. "I went out that very afternoon and got an agent," he says, and ended up with "a nice five figure advance."
Still, Honan's success pales in comparison to that of the ICanHazCheezburger.com empire. Ben Huh, the site's CEO, is doing so well that he hesitates to talk about it. "I don't want to flaunt my money while other people are having trouble," he says sheepishly. Begun in 2007 with a humble Web site for cat photos, Huh's online operations have expanded into a conglomerate of nine popular sites requiring the attention of ten full-time employees. That's not even counting a "whole bunch of pet projects" that the company has going on the side, according to Huh. Instead of trying to create new memes, he pays attention to what's popular and then either adapts it or buys it up.
ICanHazCheezburger was born to be a business, says Huh, who purchased the site in December of 2007. "At the time, I had no idea what memes were, but on paper LOLcats made a lot of sense. It's a low-cost business with very high loyalty. You can run it from anywhere, and you don't need a lot of infrastructure." T-shirt and book sales make up only a small portion of the company's profit, while ad revenue brings in plenty, Huh says.
This past April in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a very different crowd of meme makers gathered at the first annual ROFLcon--a convention celebrating the older generation of accidental celebrities made famous by embarrassing videos and unflattering photos. A nostalgic collection of 900 fans showed up to see Tron Guy, Gem Sweater Lady, and other icons. As for ICanHazCheezburger, conference organizer Tim Hwang says many attendees had a definite sense that by monetizing its meme the site had "sold out."
For his part, Honan says recruiting would be pretty smart from a business perspective. "A lot of editors are looking to the Web to find new writers, especially when it comes to humor books, because you can find this huge talent pool of people on the Web who might not otherwise try to put together a book," he explains. Besides, publishers can sign up those writers for a lot less money than big-name authors would command, and their books may still make it onto the bestseller lists. Though the Internet is widely expected to put old media out of business, online memes seem to be breathing life back into print publishing.