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An online success with cats and dogs

Ben Huh thought that a business could evolve from such a devoted community of cat lovers. Ben Huh thought that a business could evolve from such a devoted community of cat lovers. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / September 24, 2011

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Do staged photos of kitties with quirky captions have redeeming social value?

Ben Huh thinks so.

The founder of the popular I Can Has Cheezburger? Internet network, which has grown from one online collection of silly feline images to 55 sites that highlight everyday bloopers and Internet culture, believes that his company’s success proves that quality is subjective.

“Quality is really about delivering things that people want and doing it well,’’ said Huh, who spoke yesterday at the annual Online News Association conference, running through today at the Boston Marriott Copley Place. About 1,200 digital journalists are attending this year’s conference to take part in training sessions and panels focused on online media trends and technology.

“We picked Boston because we were looking for cities that have a great blend of media and technology, and there is a lot of expertise here,’’ said Jane McDonnell, executive director of the association. Members went on tours this week of local media companies, including Google Inc. in Cambridge, the Cambridge Science Park Innovation Centre, and The Boston Globe, which is one of the event’s sponsors.

McDonnell said Huh was invited as a speaker because he’s established a niche in the Internet humor world, and his story would resonate with other entrepreneurs looking for Web success.

Huh, who was born in South Korea and grew up in California, was a print journalist. He discovered the I Can Has Cheezburger site through two Hawaiian bloggers in 2007.

When they linked to his pet blog, traffic on his site swelled until it crashed.

Huh thought that a business could evolve from such a devoted community of cat lovers. “I felt like this was a great way for a community to form,’’ said Huh, who has a poodle-mix dog, but no cats. He said the site’s misspelled name is based on a comic idea of what a cat might say.

With help from angel investors, he bought the site for $2.25 million, and has continually added sites since. For example, there’s I Has A Hotdog, which features photos of dogs; and failblog.org, a blooper site that points out signs, ads, or captions with unsuccessful messaging.

Huh’s readers provide the videos and photographs, which number about 15,000 a day. Huh and his wife, Emily, run the network, which draws about 21 million unique monthly visitors, from Seattle. They have 87 employees; revenues come from Web advertising, as well as books spun off from the websites. Huh declined to disclose his revenues.

One recent photo on the cat site featured an annoyed-looking feline with a caption that read “You recycled all my boxes?’’ Another image showed a cat wearing glasses as it read a newspaper. Huh said he hears that his sites don’t have quality content. He disagrees. “They think it’s low brow humor - ‘Anyone can post a photo of a cat,’ ’’ said Huh, 33. “The amount of effort has nothing to do with the quality. It’s the enjoyment and the value of the content that is inherent.’’

Hyun-Yeul Lee, a communications professor at Boston University, said that Huh’s sites have an enduring popularity because the messages are simple, universal, and easy to enjoy.

“Who does not like cats or dogs?’’ she said, adding that the sites are “smart in design intent, because we can make fun of culture by way of these animals, sort of voicing out and living vicariously in the simplest form that most people will understand.’’

Ashley Girard of Jamaica Plain visits the Cheezburger site regularly. “It’s addicting,’’ said Girard, owner of two cats. “There is an emotional response that comes out of it that says, ‘I am there with you.’ ’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.