Tuesdays with T4A: Ben Huh (02/25/14)

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Ben Huh
CEO | Cheezburger
Ben is the founder and CEO of Cheezburger, Inc., which he formed after he acquired I Can Has Cheezburger? in 2007, and grew it into one of the largest humor networks in the world — while making a profit during one of the deepest recessions. Cheezburger has been credited with bringing Internet culture and memes to the mainstream. Ben credits the success of his company to the users and fans who create the content. His goal, and Cheezburger’s mission, is to make the world happy for 5-minutes a day. Ben is also a co-founder of Circa, a startup that is trying to redefine how we consume news.

Where did you grow up, and what do you remember most about it?
I grew up in many places. I was born in Korea, then spent some time in Hong Kong, then California for my teen years. I have fleeting memories of Korea, and remember most of my childhood in Hong Kong and California.
What was your first job?
My first real employment was sweeping the warehouse floor of an IRS building (where they sent out the paperwork) after school in California. We were the office cleaners you’d see at night at your offices.
What is your first political memory?
I remember Bill Clinton’s win in 1992. We had just moved to the US and I recall the excitement people had about him.
What is your favorite book?
I can’t say I have a favorite, but I’ve kept a few books from college. One of them that keep coming up is The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes. It’s incredibly well researched and a sweeping view of how we entered the nuclear age, and how we got stuck in this mess and the people involved.
Your upcoming session at SXSW is entitled, “The Form Factor Is the Message.” For those of us who will unfortunately be unable to attend, give us a short preview! What’s your theory?
I’m expanding on Marshall McLuhan’s “Medium is the Message.” The different devices that enter our lives will profoundly change the type of content we consume, therefore changing the message we will receive. We’re watching huge forces impact our content, but we don’t seem to recognize that.
You studied journalism at Northwestern University, and also Co-Founded Circa, an app that “re-imagines the way people will consume news.” How has your understanding of journalism changed since graduating, and have you discovered anything interesting or unexpected about the way people read news through development of the app?
We all have biases. We all have influences. The biggest challenge to creating factual, informative, efficient news is the business model. Publishers’ dependency on pageviews continues to give us terrible content that is designed to generate more pageviews, not inform the readers. There is a better way.
Who is your role model and why?
I draw inspiration from a lot of people but I also understand that people are flawed. I try to read as much as I can to draw inspiration from ideas and challenge them versus holding someone a role model.
As you look at your community, city/state/country, how do you view your role/responsibility as a citizen? Within that context, how do you view your role as citizen in relation to our government and democracy?
I became a US citizen only a few years ago. I had to fight for a long time to become a citizen. I view my role as someone who advocates for those who are less fortunate than me, while creating an environment where merit, education, and ability are worth more than birth and title. I am a drop in the bucket and I believe every drop counts. I also believe that we are not as polarized as we think we are and we can have honest, constructive dialogs with almost everyone across the political spectrum.
Just about everyone (regardless of political affiliation) sees a large gap between our politics (Washington, DC as well as state capitals) and the reality on the issues we face as a Country. Why do you think that is? I know it's a tough question, but what do you think can be done to close that gap?
I think conflict-driven journalism is a huge part of the problem. We rely too much on a medium that is not interactive, not engaging and we can change that. We also can’t seem to separate entertainment from news. At the core of this issue is that the US continues to underfund education. An educated society can make better decisions for ourselves.

Are political parties becoming less relevant today, particularly for young adults? Whatever your answer, why do you think that is?
Absolutely not. Political parties are by nature run by older generations, but every party reaches a point where there has to be a passing of the torch and also a recognition of the power of the new generation and how to cater to them. Survival is the most important need of a party and they will always eventually change to survive.
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