Step One: Make something. Mat Honan, an associate editor for Wired, created his site BarackObamaIsYourNewBicycle.com as a funny present to his girlfriend. What started as a joke quickly snowballed into a sensation. Then, within days, two New York publishers called Honan up 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." All of that good fortune resulted from a simple joke.
Honan's success pales, though, in comparison to the empire that is ICanHazCheezburger.com. Ben Huh, the site's CEO, is doing so well he hesitates to even talk about it. "I don't want to flaunt my money while other people are having trouble," he says sheepishly. What started in 2007 as a humble website for cat photos has now become a conglomerate with nine popular sites and ten full-time employees. That's not even counting the "whole bunch of pet projects" Huh says the company has going on the side. Instead of trying to create new memes, he's had the most luck keeping an eye out for what's popular, then either adapting it or buying 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." While t-shirt and book sales make up only a small portion of the company's profit, ad revenue brings in plenty, says Huh.
This past April in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a very different crowd of meme makers convened. The first annual ROFLcon, a convention that celebrates the older generation of accidental celebrities brought in recognizable faces from across the country -- famous from embarrassing videos and unflattering photos alike. With a sense of nostalgia as well as fandom, 900 attendees came to see Tron Guy and Gem Sweater Lady, to name just a few. As for ICanHazCheezburger, conference organizer Tim Hwang says there was a definite sense among the attendees that by monetizing they had "sold out."
Still, 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 humour 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, those writers are a lot cheaper to pay than big-name authors, and their books still make it onto the bestseller lists. "It's weird because the Internet is supposed to put old media out of business," Raftery says, and yet online memes seem to be breathing life back into print publishing.
Don't Force It
For those looking to make a profitable meme from scratch, things aren't as easy as showing up to a conference. Internet analyst and Quinnipiac University professor Alex Halavais warns, "There's no clear recipe for getting something to go viral." He can, however, offer some suggestions.