The week of June 5, 2016

The rise and fall of Urlesque, the site that wanted to take memes mainstream

By Rae Votta

There was a time, long ago but really not that long ago, when memes were not on every morning television program. It was a time when “viral fame” didn’t really exist; it was before a woman laughing about a Chewbacca mask could appear on late-night TV and before Damn, Daniel could go from Snapchat to The Ellen DeGeneres Show. The web was different: Its furthest corners still held secrets; it could feel like a cool-kids club that required a password and an escort to enter. To really understand it, you needed an insider’s guide. Surprisingly, for a brief time AOL was that guide, simply because some savvy employees decided to do it.

In 2008, AOL was looking to expand its audience. That meant developing a range of content, from music to TV to sports, for a wider range of readers. Stephen Lenz, then the editor-in-chief of Moviefone, realized nothing in AOL’s stable of sites really covered “the internet,” which, he notes in an email, “was quickly becoming not only a platform for entertainment, but an actual form of entertainment itself.” Along with Kelly Reeves, a programming manager who worked with Lenz, he pitched the idea—an internet site about the internet—and got a green light. “We saw the opportunity to cover what was happening, but for a more mainstream audience,” says Reeves.

Urlesque launched in April 2008, with articles about the difference between “internet time” and regular time, the alleged death of the URL in Japan, and meta-commentary on the obvious confusion of its name with a misspelling of “burlesque.” Niche sites covering the internet already existed, but they tended to do more linking than analysis. Urlesque aspired to go deeper. “It felt somewhat like a college radio station,” says Lenz. “We were writing about things that went WAY over most people’s heads at the time, and tapping into some pretty interesting subcultures.”

As the only full-time employees, Reeves and Lenz relied on freelancers, most of whom worked at other AOL blogs in addition to Urlesque. (Full disclosure: I was one of them, hired in the summer of 2008 and pulling double-duty in the music department. The Daily Dot’s Jay Hathaway also worked at Urlesque.) At the time, much of AOL’s traffic came from the homepage, where subscribers would land after logging on. But the company wanted to reach the larger web, and Urlesque’s freelance outreach staff helped its sister blogs identify what might do just that, connecting AOL to stories with fansites, independent blogs, and the conversation outside that walled garden.

In the wider internet, Urlesque’s most direct competitor had been founded just months before: a little site called BuzzFeed. It too was trying to capture the nascent net culture and repackage it for a broader audience. “Because we worked at BuzzFeed we were paying close attention to what sites that launched and particularly stuff that was obsessed with internet culture. At that point, there wasn’t any centralized place for that conversation,” says Scott Lamb, then BuzzFeed’s managing editor. “There were places like Reddit that were talking about internet culture, but Urlesque was the first place in a big way that centralized that.”

At the time, caring about web culture was, for a certain kind of people, a hipster endeavor. Seeing a big corporation like AOL getting involved provoked familiar worries about authenticity and cultural gatekeepers; competitors could assume stodgy, old AOL was just trying to ruin everything cool. But, Lamb says, the site ultimately won him over. “Urlesque had beaten us to some really important and exciting memes,” he says, “and it was like, ‘Oh, this is run by people like us who love this stuff, not for strategic reasons.’”

Lindsey Weber was one of those people who loved the work. She started at AOL as a style-blog intern and didn’t realize that Urlesque, one of her favorite sites, was also under the AOL umbrella. When her internship ended, she started searching for a section to join: “I found out where [the Urlesque team] sat and walked over to introduce myself,” she says. She went on to serve as a community manager and writer.

“When videos would go viral, we were able to cover that and also what we thought should go viral. That was one of the greatest parts of working at Urlesque.”

For Eliot Glazer, another early writer, the excitement of working at Urlesque was not just tracking what was already popular but bringing attention to overlooked parts of the web. “When videos would go viral, we were able to cover that and also what we thought should go viral,” he says “That was one of the greatest parts of working at Urlesque.”

Writers could follow their own whims and passions—the holy grail for creative types, even within a buttoned-down organization like AOL. Glazer would throw improbable keywords into the net— “gymnast grandmas in Germany,” for example—and see what came back from budding sites like YouTube. The workplace was equally whimsical, situated in a small corner near the fire exit, populated by a hodgepodge of rotating freelancers and weird meme-related swag.

The stakes were low, and there was room to experiment. “I remember we would have meetings where we’d throw different ideas at teach other,” Glazer recalls. “It was seeing what made the rest of the staff laugh.” Glazer once tried to feed the internet’s obsession with vintage TV stars such as Betty White by turning Who’s the Boss? star Tony Danza into a meme. The project flopped, but Glazer was told to keep going.

Sometimes, those weird ideas caught mainstream attention. The site appeared on videos by CNN national correspondent Jeanne Moos, who sometimes addressed the budding weird-web scene. Rebelling against the proliferation of cat memes, Urlesque encouraged outlets to demarcate 9/9/09 as “A Day Without Cats”—Time covered the idea. A joke about the site unintentionally evoking the Family Matters character Steve Urkel led to an April Fools’ joke that Urkelized the entire site, which caught the attention of Urkel actor Jaleel White.

“That might have been our crowning achievement,” says Lenz. He saw Urlesque as a place to celebrate internet whimsy, and getting the subject of their fun to play back helped validate that celebration. Urlesque didn’t leverage AOL’s media power to get White’s attention; it happened because they were having fun and creating.

Despite the mainstream attention, growing readership, and a dedicated fanbase, Urlesque wasn’t making the advertising dollars of its more mainstream brethren. But that wasn’t for lack of trying on Reeves’s part. “I’d make connections with the sales team, we had great demographics, it had to be monetizable somehow,” she says. “It was just too small for them. We were getting anywhere from 3 to 5 million unique (visitors per month), but when we’re being compared to a 20 million unique deal”—the size of AOL’s now-defunct pop culture blog PopEater—”that’s a little different. I knew the site would never be what I wanted it to be.”

Reeves and Lenz left just as AOL completed its purchase of the Huffington Post in February 2011. Both had spent years in the AOL machine and knew their pet project wasn’t a priority. By March, massive layoffs rippled across the company’s content division, as sites made redundant by the HuffPo acquisition were eliminated. The Urlesque team continued to turn out work like a report on the Sad Etsy Boyfriend trend and a behind-the-scenes look at the Puppy Bowl, but the end was near. Urlesque as a stand-alone site ended on April 26, 2011, with farewell posts by the remaining staff.

“It ended up being a lot more puppy videos and babies. It got a lot less subcultural and a lot more crowd-pleasing.”

“They had me stay on to maintain the voice,” says Christine Friar, a current Daily Dot contributor, who took a job as an editor in the Huffington Post Comedy vertical, which became the repository for old Urlesque posts. AOL wanted to keep Urlesque’s audience, but Friar says it was a culture mismatch—the new site’s focus was less about discovering the stories behind web culture. That was a niche; HuffPo wanted to reach the mainstream. “It ended up being a lot more puppy videos and babies,” Friar says. “It got a lot less subcultural and a lot more crowd-pleasing.”

Urlesque stopped tweeting on Jan. 18, 2012. Over time, the whole site was wiped, and it’s now only available on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

It’s gone now, too ahead of its time—or too much of it. “It’s such a different world now,” says Reeves. “That time was so special. People weren’t yet using all these social media tools to promote content. It’s not like a new social media site launched and everyone was trying to create content for it. It’s not how the world was when we created the site. Now, it’s too fractured and there is no one internet culture.” Memes spread over social media and don’t need sites to bring attention to them—the attention’s already there. And reporting about the internet is as multifarious as the internet itself.

Could Urlesque have evolved alongside the internet? It’s impossible to say, of course. Reeves recalls AOL never gave the site adequate resources to support a full-time staff, to redesign its webpage, or to try some of its more technologically advanced experiments.

But competition would only have gotten more fierce. BuzzFeed, which had kept pace with Urlesque in the early days, Went on to become a major media player, thanks in part to its technology platform. “BuzzFeed was built on a platform made for BuzzFeed, while we were always at the mercy of the AOL blog platform, and that is what ultimately let BuzzFeed shoot ahead,” says Weber. BuzzFeed’s technology let it grow with the web; Urlesque never had that possibility at AOL.

Technology was only a part of the equation. BuzzFeed also broadened to include topics like LGBTQ issues and politics. It achieved what AOL had been in 2008: a conglomeration of verticals focusing on different topics targeted at a broad viewership. BuzzFeed benefited as the web went mainstream. Now every site covers the web as culture because web culture is simply culture. Urlesque, as good as it was, would have been fighting with everyone sooner rather than later.

For a time, though, Urlesque was something special to its readers and creators. Lamb remembers attending his first meme costume party, A Night To ReMEMEber, co-sponsored by Urlesque and later known as HallowMEME. “It was my first experience where I was meeting people from the internet for the first time,” he says. “It was wonderfully amateurish, and I don’t mean that as a negative thing. Everyone who was there really loved the costumes that they had, and they were very specific and inside. It felt like a community.”

Illustration by J. Longo