SAN FRANCISCO — When you LOL at silly pictures of cats with even sillier captions, Ben Huh laughs all the way to the bank.
For the uninitiated, that's Web shorthand for "laugh out loud," an abbreviation that is common in e-mails, instant messages and online chat rooms. Huh, a Seattle entrepreneur, has built a mini-empire on the unique brand of humor illustrated by the "LOLcats" craze: photos with captions punctuated by deliberately misspelled words and mangled phrases.
His network of eight websites, which includes I Can Has Cheezburger and I Has a Hot Dog, attracts 5 million users and 100 million page views a month. The newest, which launched last week, makes fun of celebrities. It's called ROFLrazzi, as in "rolling on the floor, laughing," and razzi, as in "paparazzi."
Huh, 30, is trying to expand his company, Pet Holdings Inc., in the face of a slowdown in online advertising. The Korean-born former journalist now has 12 employees who, along with his wife, Emily, help him run the websites.
"Twelve months ago we were this odd cat blog," Huh said. "I am not sure if we are on the cusp of a new type of entertainment or we are just a flash in the pan."
The LOLcats phenomenon began on a popular online bulletin board, 4chan. People started posting pictures of cats and slapping on captions from the feline point of view. The result was LOLspeak -- or "kitty pidgin," as blogger Anil Dash dubbed it -- a typo-twisted tongue that quickly jumped to other species and subjects.
Huh seized on the commercial potential. He paid an undisclosed sum to buy a popular LOLcats site named after a picture of a chubby gray cat gazing into the camera, with the caption "I can has cheezburger?" The site's founders, Hawaii-based Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami, had started the site as a hobby and were overwhelmed by the response. (They are publishing a LOLcats book next month.)
Since buying I Can Has Cheezburger, Huh has added companion sites devoted to dogs, politics and really bad translations of English, among others. A fan favorite is Fail Blog, in which people take joy in others' mishaps.
The Pet Holdings websites have achieved cult status with a populist formula: Users with quick wits upload images bearing idiomatic expressions and idiosyncratic grammar, vote for favorites and post comments. The best of the thousands of submissions the sites receive each day hit the front pages.
When the company posts job openings, it gets a flood of resumes. The subject line of one cover letter read: "I can haz dream Job? My rezumez! Let me showz u thm."
Huh hopes that celebrity coverage, which already generates huge online interest, will be another hit for him. For ROFLrazzi, users create funny captions for celebrity photos: Mr. T in a suit standing before a U.S. flag, saying, "I pity the foo that fails to comprehend the financial ramifications of subprime lending"; bouffant-coiffed and pastel-clad Duran Duran with the caption "1986. Gayer than advertised"; a bearded Keanu Reeves: "In the Matrix there is no razor."
Huh professes to love cats but obsesses over his 11-year-old poodle mix, Nemo. The dot-com survivor devotes long hours to the websites and works with a sense of purpose along with a sense of humor.
"We want to make people happy for five minutes a day," he said.
Fortunately for him, the Internet has been God's gift to comedy, serving as a 24/7 open mike for new acts and new forms of expression. Increasingly, popular culture is taking its cues from user-generated Web content that can quickly spread far and wide, said Tim Hwang, an Internet culture expert with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.
Hwang said LOLspeak has taken off because it has such broad appeal and can be applied to just about anything. Instead of sharing inside jokes with your friends, you can turn them loose in a much larger online community.
"LOLcats is a language that is going to continue to get bigger and bigger," he said.
But is it a viable business? It's a question Huh often asks himself. The banners and other display ads on which Pet Holdings and other Internet companies rely are being hit by the slowing economy. Research firm Nielsen Online said spending on display ads fell 6% in the first half of the year from the same period last year.
Still, investors are betting more than $2 million that the company, which Huh says breaks even, has staying power.
"Humor is one of those things that is recession-proof," said investor Geoff Entress.
But he says Huh and his team still face a major challenge: continuing to tickle funny bones in different ways so users and advertisers keep coming back for more.
Ada Courtney, 43, a self-described domestic goddess with four cats and two dogs from Rapid City, S.D., made her first Cheezburger entry a year ago. Since then she has added more than 1,100. Her cat captions have hit the front page five times and her dog captions six.
"When I first started looking through the site, I was thinking, 'Good Lord, do these people need lives?' " Courtney said. "Now I see the total attraction of it. It's one of the most wonderful things I have ever done."
Laura McEdward, a 25-year-old San Francisco pharmacy technician, also is hooked, spending a couple of hours working on LOLcats every day. But she says she doesn't click on the other sites in Huh's network, nor does she feel inspired to dream up captions for photos of famous people.
"I see enough celebrities in the news," McEdward said.
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Ben Huh's Pet Holdings Inc. operates a network of humor websites that let users submit funny captions on photos of cats, dogs, celebrities and more. The sites include:
Source: Pet Holdings