Catster.com: the Best Online Community Ever

I often used to tell anyone that asked that Catster.com was the best big online community on the Internet. Dogster.com was well above average, but Catster was amazing. Tens of thousand of people speaking daily on the Internet without ever fighting, or even hissing for that matter. Members always addressed sensitive topics such as declawing, breeding, overbreeding, raw vs wet vs dry food, national elections, national sociological events, etc. with the sweetness and care of elderly nuns enjoying a meal together. This naturally happened, even though behind their cat avatars everyone was quite different. Their age, race, geography, gender, professional status all differed wildly once you got to know them. The more contentious that topic the more their forum posts would start with defusers such as “Thank you for sharing, here is what my experiences have been.” Members really wanted to include everyone and were very sophisticated in communicating online, or learned from others quickly. The typical passive aggressive voice or outright accusations and flame wars never happened. In fact they were clearly well educated in how to speak politely online. We employed great community team leads and they could go a full year without have to calm the fur of a Catster forum fight.

#1 Fan, August 2005. Pic by Mary Hodder
In 2005 we won the Webby and SxSW award for best Online Community. Yeah, that’s Rob Corddry there.

You may think people speaking in the voice of pet would never have a reason to fight, but whoa nelly, behind the cute photos they were still people with emotions, sensibilities, pent up anger, bad days, jealousy and everything else. On Dogster it could easily be as bad as any usenet or Digg flame war. But for the first few of years Catster was the best online community that ever was.

Catster homepage from early 2007

Another wonderful experience about both communities was that is how many times we heard people met their new best friends for life. Very rarely did we hear of site-initiated marriages, but the tales of deep bonds of friendship forming were everywhere. Members around the world found other people to share the joys of life. And it was so clear these weren’t temporal. These were joyous friend connections that went deep and wide. Many times these bonds formed collectively for large groups and vacation times were spent at IRL gatherings, and evenings apart were spent making photo books, jewelry and gifts for each other. Some of these items would get sent to HQ and we’d marvel as we held these tomes of celebration they had made for each other. It filled us all at HQ with joy at wonder at what we had inspired.

A typical early Caster.com profile page
My favorite of dozens of fun photoshops members made that included me. Made by Sammi’s mom. Before the community turned (on me).

But for me, that magic only lasted from launch in August 2004 (It’s almost Catster’s 12th birthday) until somewhere in early 2009.

I hope every Catster, can forgive me the following, especially Catster members that never left or stopped loving Catster, but cathartically I have to share what my experience was and what happened to me over the following years to get to what happened on the other side. If you were there, then, feel free to correct or critique, and even hiss and flare your claws at me, but the responsibilities on my shoulders to keep the company ship afloat through the business-destroying years of the Great Recession, coupled with the higly sophistication onslaught of Facebook’s global aspirations made 2008–2010 the hardest, most exhausting and trying years of my like. But please keep reading because the lost genie comes back on the other side in a most therapeutic way. [Meanwhile if you’re a consumer start-up or online community junkie I’m sure you’ll notice I’m sharing the nitty-gritty that usually gets swept under the rug of how we worked through the worst, hard times.]

After that Great Recession hit and Facebook opened to the world, the Catster (and Dogster) community experience went south. Our sites had never lost users to Friendster or MySpace or any of the dozen+ pet community copy cat (pun intended) sites. But Facebook, in the parlance of the industry, ate our lunch. Their address-book on-boarding scheme that bulk spammed every found email and enticed our nice users to actually believe their college-aged nephew had personally emailed them to join Facebook. But Facebook delivered and once they found a great (albeit closed) community website which quickly connected them (again via the address book hack) to many of their Catster friends that were already there. When one member said to me “On Facebook I get to talk with my Catster friends and see what my nephew is doing,” I knew we were beat. Of course we responded with many similar hacks, but the cat (pun again) was out of the bag.

Here’s a Dogster screen shot from a landing page from ads we’d buy with full goal of just getting new accounts. These users turns out to be lousy. And tho we could trick them to register, they never came back.

So the core Caster community which still had thousands of people sharing daily was boiling down, in my head, to a risotto of members who weren’t the previous heart and soul of the community. Some were born haters and proved it by never joining Facebook and stayed only at Catster. Others seemed to want to stay out of a perverse desire to want to see the ship go down (and even narrate it as it was happening.) Of course there will still tens thousands of good members that came monthly but the vibe was different because the wonderful magic genie was out of the bottle. But it got worse.

What happens when the community turns on you.

2009 was also the Great Recession. Members that had been happily paying $20-$100 year for Pro subscriptions and virtual currency (which at it’s peak covered 25% of our total expenses) would call in to cancel and explain they were worried about covering my children’s school expenses so they need to tighten the belt. That made sense to me, and I’d rebate them their unused months cheerfully, but, the risotto was boiling down, thicker and thicker. Plus members and virtual gift givers were the drivers of the community. Some members would give a gift to every single new person who joined the sites. Others gave gift to anyone who shared their pet was sick or dying. Others came up with countless fun games as a way to earn gifts and accolades. But with the cancelled subscriptions and reduced virtual currency buying so went all the warmth received by their recipients.

Once the pinnacle of a Catster membership

And of course 2009 was also an awful year for online advertising revenue, our bread and butter that allowed us to pay for our payroll and expenses quarter after quarter. We quickly did a a round a layoffs in late 2008 (about 15%, all good people, RIP good times) because we knew were on our own and if we didn’t get our expenses well below reduced forecast revenue we’d risk going broke before we could stop it. Ad buys by our hearty list of cat and dog brands went from annual display terms from quarterly to weekly, and their buy lead times went from 6 months to 6 days (not an exaggeration).

In my mind, the very worst of the experience was landing a $250,000 ad buy from a national pet food company only to get it cut after some members of the community didn’t like and ran a large boycott. They made giant stinks on the site, at HQ, and at the brands themselves (If you’ve ever sold ads you know that the brand’s ad agency handles all the ad campaigns and the brand themselves is very removed from the process. Protests and accusations filled the forums. This hated food had done bad testing on animals in the past, but had since been sold twice and was now run by an entirely different ownership and management group. But that didn’t matter in the community.

Our Circle of Trust which we had early identified as they key to growing a vibrant, yet financially viable community business had turn from a wonderful virtuous cycle into a near death spiral.

Things got no better in 2010 as the economy began recovering. We should have been accelerating out of the turn as U.S. pet spending had proven itself to be recession proof, but we started getting the rest of our lunch eaten by giant online publishers that realized they could pitch ad agencies on their pet content even thought they were just keyword matching on articles that had dog or cat in them. Suddenly AOL, Yahoo, About.com, Martha Stewart, AETV and many others with 100-person sales forces that were already meeting with the ad agencies dozens of times a year (anyone was Brittany Spears or Coldplay tickets?) Our 2-person sales team couldn’t compete.

Backed agains the wall we started branching out on our animal related publishing (this was when LOL CATS exploded) and the edgier of that content led to more protests.

A wilder animal blog we anonymously made that still was shut down by the community’s sensibilities.

Please note, especially all the Catsters whose hackles are up, that we still knew the majority of daily users were wonderful, and we knew we were dealing with a small collection of very vocal members who cared so much about the beloved community and the risks that it was taking from all sides. Members always made it clear they just wanted to make sure this place that was so special to them would never change. Even the members that yelled at me personally the most, just wanted Catster to be a quiet unharried place for them to talk and share with friends old and new. The sad part was if it stayed the same it meant closing up shop and turning off the servers, but that reality never seemed to compute in their minds.

As the person responsible to keeping people employed, keeping the servers going, (and I’ll admit keeping my ego from having a melt down if I couldn’t keep the who business/community/experience alive) it was exhausting. I felt like we were constantly bailing to stay afloat and they were snarling and hissing at me. We concurrently found that while our numbers as a community property shrank our numbers as as information and resource destination for non-registered visitors were very strong. In webspeak this means much shorter stay lengths per visit, much greater overall visitors.

In the end we got the very weathered ship back to port (aka financially break-even) based upon being a top online pet publisher and connected it to a much bigger online publisher, Say Media, a publisher with a built in ad network that was expected to go public and we felt like we saved it all. Tragically enough Say Media ended up foundering with that business after a hard fought couple of year. Within a couple weeks of the servers actually being shut off by Say, Catster and Dogster were bought by I5, a growing dedicated pet publishing empire and now Catster magazine has replaced Cat Fancy as the print cat publication.

Live with Cattitude!

I’m also proud to say, at least for the time being, that if you dig into Catster.com you’ll find the community homepage and can see forums and cat-friendly local listing, and QA and help pages that are still running even though neither I5 nor Say Media allocated very little engineering time to maintain and update the codebase. The layout has gotten mucked up but most everything still runs and a community still meets and shares every day. While they don’t scorch like they used to, check out how many of the forums have been posted to in the last 24 hours, and the Dogster forums are even more active

Screenshot of part of the Catster.com forums from 7/19/16. Every category had been posted to in the last 24 hrs.

But for me, the Catster community, that I used to extoll as the greatest online community ever, had become something I’d rather forget about. The vocal minority at times hated me, cared nothing about our collective problems and was a small part of the most exhausting years of my life. For a long-time that’s how things stood for me.

Which until recently was a very, very bittersweet experience in my life. What had started as the most wonderful thing I had created and been a part of became something I didn’t ever want to think about anymore. It’s actually been a secret, painful, unresolved failure for me, and even though people I originally hired continue to work everyday on making Catster straight (first for Say Media and now for I5) I felt more like a failure than anything else.

OK, finally we’ve getting to the wonderful cathartic, unexpected redemption

But, something magically, just the same way the community experience was magical for me from 2006–2009 happened since I’ve gotten sick. The Catster community has been reaching out to me in the nicest ways. And though many are quick to say they did leave for Facebook, they’ve been showing me now how Catster has never left them.

A meme created by site members when everypaw would give their healing support to a member in need. We later made it into a gif they could share with each other. And last week, Pam J, a Catster posted it in my blog comments for me.

I got a package from a Catster with a big card signed by everyone and the nice note you see below. They were all together doing a fundraiser and recognized that they mostly met, years ago now, on Catster.com. (Thanks Jeanette for organizing and sending to me!).

I was having a bad day when this came in the mail out of the blue. And I could barely look at it for days, because I had to come to terms with how unexpectedly thoughtful and meaningful it was. I’d just think of it and cry how I was the one they wanted to help have a better day. Thanks so much Jeanette for making this letter happen.

And then they started leaving comments on my blog. On some of my hardest and saddest posts to write.

Here’s a comment Jeannette left on my blog:

Ted, I don’t know if you realize the ripple effect of Catster and Dogster, but you changed lives. You created a community that brought people and their pets together, in a way no one had done before. I have lasting and very real friendships today, that I would never have had without Catster. A group of us Catsters now do the Avon Breast Cancer Walk together every year — we would never have known each other without Catster. So thank you for creating that amazing community of devoted cat and dog lovers.

Member AGKenner wrote these too.

You have touched so many lives through your work with Catster and Dogster. You created a community that still stays together today… several years after the Dogster/Catster community was sold.

Ted, you have already created a Global Together Rope for the world, or at least for a very large part of it. It’s called Catster/Dogster, and it has brought — and still brings — people from all walks of life together in a spirit of peace, joy, and love

Here’s another.

Ted, … your impact on the world is quite evident to those of us who found Dogster/Catster. I have gained a sister/friend. I have deepened my friendships with close to 50 women and men in just two vacations in the past 9 months, and consider many of them to be life-long friends. There are people I’ve never met that, just last night, told me I could lean on them for support and I believe them. My life would be so different and not nearly as rich if you had not acted on your vision. Please don’t ever think you haven’t done enough.

And another

You really should realize how much Catster changed the world for some people. … We still laugh together, cry together and call ourselves catsters because what else would we be? You may not have envisioned that outcome, but it happened because of you and it will continue to shine brightly in this old world.

And then most recently.

Ted, you have reached thousands of people and created a world that saved people and pets in many ways. This world is Dogster/Catster and as you are probably discovering, there are many who believe in you and are praying/purring/woofing for you in this journey you are on right now. Please know what you mean to all of us….❤

I doubt I can really explain the catharsis this has opened in me. For years I had felt I had given up on the community expecting they had turned their back on us. Going from feeling like one of the best things I had ever inspired in my life to something I rather not thought about at all any more was hard for me to fit or explain in the rest of my life. While publicly people thought Catster & Dogster ended successfully, it still stuck in my craw and gave a fraction of the pleasure that once was.

I never expected all this warmth and wonderfulness to come back to me and I’m so profoundly grateful it has. Even if we’re just talking about a couple dozen people when over a million people registered for our sites, it still represents a great gift to me to know it wasn’t all just lost into the dust for me. It sucks that my tenuous health situation is what finally got us back together, but it’s been a really wonderful medicine of pawsativity that my health minders keep telling me is critical to getting through.

So thanks to you Catsters. I’ll never forget those good years, and I’m choking up knowing that you haven’t either. Here’s an unlimited Zealie for everypaw.

Tail waves and head bumps to everypaw!