Pussy Riot

Why Do We Love Cats on the Internet?
By Patrick Wall
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
You Can Haz Cheezburger at Harbison Theatre


Lil Bub is so damn cute. Source: commons.wikipedia.org, by Mike Bridavsky

“Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” — The Hagakure

Free Times editor Dan Cook doesn’t like cats.

Well, cats on the Internet, anyway.

It was a few months ago, in one of my last editorial meetings as a full-time staffer at Free Times. We were going around, planning upcoming special sections and pitching cover stories. In a lull, I offer the only idea I have.

“Cats,” I blurt.

Silence.

You know, like, funny cat videos and memes and stuff, I continue. There’s that You Can Haz Cheezburger program at Harbison Theatre, which uses the videos from the Internet Cat Video Festival.

News editor Eva Moore laughs; so does staff writer Porter Barron. Cook sighs, and frowns. There’s no way he’s letting me write about cats, he says.

But cats are huge, I offer. They never went away. They’ve outlasted every other Internet animal. Two of the biggest Internet celebrities of last year were cats.

Cook shakes his head, wearily chuckling at my persistence.

You’re not saying no, I add.

Cook, exasperated, sighs, and moves on.

A few weeks ago, I’m at home, sipping coffee and checking my email. I see an email from Cook, who’s pitched me the occasional assignment and … wait, does that say “LOL Cats?”

“Still want to do this?” he writes.

I am incredulous, yet intrigued.

“Yes, it kills me to even ask,” he adds.


OH HAI


As the Internet turned 25 years old last week, Tim Berners-Lee, the knighted Englishman who invented the World Wide Web information management system — you know, the series of tubes — that allows people to access pages hosted on computers across the globe, fielded questions on his invention in an installment of Reddit’s Ask Me Anything series.

One Redditor asked him, “What was one of the things you never thought the Internet would be used for, but has actually become one of the main reasons people use the Internet?”

Porn, most users surmised. But Berners-Lee’s answer: “Kittens.”

Indeed, the Internet, it seems is made of cats. There are small cats, like Lil Bub, a cat born with several genetic mutations that gives her the permanent body shape and appearance of a kitten. She’s shaped like a pug — stubby body, stubbier legs — and her too-big head is marked by big, perky ears, enormous, expressive eyes and a wet and wagging exposed tongue. She is cute as all hell.

There are big cats, like Tubcat, who is fat enough to fit a human-sized bathtub, or Longcat, who is exceptionally long.

There are grumpy cats, like Grumpy Cat, the perma-frowning cat who, along with Lil Bub, is one of the Internet’s biggest feline celebrities.


Source: grumpycats.com

Then there are LOLcats, the precursor to today’s Internet cat celebrities.

To get a good sense of what lolcats are really all about, the Cheezburger Network’s a good place to start. Its flagship site, Icanhazcheezburger, is kind of like the Library of Alexandria for funny cat pictures. It wasn’t the first repository of cat memes (that’s largely thought to be 4chan), but it’s the largest, and houses the most culturally significant examples.

The process is simple: You direct your browser to the site, you see a lolcat. You click, you see another. Click again, see another.

Enough clicks, and you’ll get to what might be considered the Vitruvian Man of cat pictures: Happy Cat, ostensibly the grandfather of them all, a fat gray shorthair whose bright eyes and wide smile give it an almost-human expression.

Superimposed on the image is a block of text — all-white, large font, Impact typeface. It bears a now culturally widespread phrase, and the site’s namesake: “I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?”

Icanhazcheezburger launched in 2007, and since then has turned into big business: In 2011, the Cheezburger Network logged approximately 37 million unique hits — and brought in more than $30 million in venture funding.

“Lolcats have withstood the test of time because the subject matter of cats is something that everyone can understand and relate to, regardless if they like cats or not,” says Emily Huh, director of business development for the Cheezburger Network. “Everyone knows someone that has a cat or has a cat themselves, so the subject matter is something that is evergreen and not just a trending topic that may be phased out when a show or video game has lots its popularity.”

Lolcats have spawned best-selling books, art shows, an off-Broadway musical, even a Bible translation into the lolcats’ wacky — cats don’t care much proper spelling, syntax or subject-verb agreement — pidgin English. (A sample from Genesis 1:1 — “Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs.”)

The lolcats meme itself has abated, but cats remain as popular as ever on the Internet.

One Lil Bub video is just an hour of the perma-kitten sitting, sometimes sleeping and constantly purring, in front of a fire for an hour. Posted Dec. 18, it’s been watched more than 2 million times.

And Lil Bub is the less popular cat: A Google search for Lil Bub yields about 4.4 million results — more than Bella Knox, the recently outed Duke University porn star. A search for Grumpy Cat? Nearly 52 million hits — more than prospective No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney. Grumpy Cat has more than 4 million Facebook likes; Lil Bub, a comparatively meager 654,000.

Grumpy Cat has an agent, and a movie deal. Lil Bub’s Vice magazine-filmed series Lil Bub & Friends, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Both cats have been featured guests at South by Southwest, and on national television.

There’s even a festival dedicated to the cat video: The Internet Cat Video Festival, curated by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, a capital-M art museum. It’s taken the largely solitary act of watching a cat video and turned it into a social experience: More than 10,000 people came to the inaugural festival in 2012. So, too, did Lil Bub.

The inaugural festival was won by Henri, a black-and-white longhair who narrates — OK, whose owner narrates — his life as if he were an existentialist French philosopher. Boston, San Francisco, Memphis and Austin all restaged the Walker’s festival. (Columbia restages it, in part, at Harbison Theatre on Friday.)

“There’s something about the cat video that transcends language and transcends culture,” Scott Stulen, the festival’s first coordinator, told PBS’ Mediashift. And it’s more than simple entertainment, because people feel such a strong connection. “There’s definitely something much deeper to it,” he concluded.

So, yeah, cats are at the top of the Internet animal food chain.

What no one knows is why.


LOLWUT


In her 2011 dissertation, titled “SRSLY Phemonenal: An Investigation into the Appeal of Lolcats,” London School of Economics doctoral student Kate Miltner asked, “If the ‘right question’ is, ‘What are the interesting memes?’ the other right question must be ‘Why?’”

Ah. There’s the (tummy) rub.

It’s not as if cats are a new phenomenon. I mean, Tom and Jerry. CATS. Cat calendars. And the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats and built temples in their honor.

But why have cats specifically been so successful at soliciting our attention on the Internet?

Is it just because they’re cute?

In Lil Bub’s case, it’s certainly helped. (I mean, just look at Lil Bub.) But cute cats predate the Internet: There are Bad Cat calendars, which date to the 1990s; the “Hang In There, Baby!” cat posters, which date to the 1970s; and 19th-century British photographer Harry Pointer’s black-and-white photographs of cats in various costumes and poses, with humorous captions added referencing the context of the photo.


One of Harry Pointer’s 19th century photographs

The lolcat, it appears, is almost 150 years old.

“We have created weapons of mass cuteness,” Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh told PBS. (Ben Huh, who’s married to Emily Huh, is, ironically, allergic to cats.) “We’ve been doing it for 10,000 years and everybody’s surprised: ‘Oh my god I can’t believe we love cats!’ We biologically engineer them to be the object of our affections.”

OK, but if it’s a simple matter of cuteness, why cats? Why not otters? Or the capybara?

Or why not dogs? After all, though there are 95.6 million cats owned by U.S. pet owners, there are also 83.3 million dogs. A Google search for “dog meme” turns up more search results than “cat meme.”

So, why are cats top dog on the Internet?

Maybe it’s because cats are cool and collected, whereas dogs are endlessly excitable.

“Cats are so vain and graceful and agile, we love to see them doing silly stuff or making fools of themselves because they’re usually so sure of themselves,” says Will Braden, creator of the Henri cat series and new director of the Internet Cat Video Festival. “Dogs are so obedient and subservient, it’s just not quite as fun.”

Too, cats’ famously reserved and withholding personalities naturally seduce us into paying closer attention to them. Dogs, by contrast, depend on that attention.

“Dog-shaming videos are hilarious, but the dogs feel bad,” says Katie Fox, director of Harbison Theatre. “Cats, cats don’t care. Dogs want that attention. Cats don’t give a s#!t.”

And while the straight search numbers — on Google, on Facebook, on Instagram — favor dogs over cats, the number of famous cats far outpace famous dogs. Internet-famous dogs — like the Shiba Inu behind the Doge meme — are largely nameless, without personality. They don’t host YouTube talk shows, like Lil Bub. They don’t field movie offers, like Grumpy Cat.

“Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub have broken into mainstream pop culture because they have had a consistent amount of high quality content,” says Cheezburger’s Emily Huh. “Also, both the cats have a way to connect to everyone and we anthropomorphize them because when we see Grumpy Cat frown, we feel like she is a real person because we all are grumpy. And Lil Bub represents the amazing spirit of overcoming any challenge. To see her conquer anything and everything and look adorable at it, it gives us hope that we as humans can tackle any challenge.”

Maybe that’s it — maybe in posting pictures or videos of our cats with funny captions or narrations on the Internet, we’re really revealing our collective psyche.

“Juxtaposing surprising meanings over cat images, a la the LOLcats phenomenon, allows us to engage in an activity humans have long been doing: projecting our thoughts onto the mysterious countenance of felines,” Sam Ford, author of Spreadable Media, told Mashable.

While dogs’ forms of communication — and understanding of language — are more closely aligned with humans, cats are particularly fascinating because they are not as easy to read. But cats have very expressive facial and body expressions, which makes them the perfect vessel for captioning and anthropomorphization.

“I think cats do inspire us to create a backstory, or to imagine a more complicated personality for them than what actually exists,” says Braden. “They just seem to have so much more behind their eyes. Henry (that cat who portrays Henri) does not suffer from existential angst, but he does have a great imperious stare that lends itself perfectly to the character and the premise of the videos.” Thus, these seemingly trivial pieces of media, Miltner argues, can act as meaningful conduits to central elements of our humanity.

Put another way: Cats can haz cheezburger, but we can haz pathos. We have seen the lolcats, and they are us.

But maybe I’m over-thinking it.


The popular “Invisible Bike” cat meme dates to 2006. Source: knowyourmeme.com.

“I think a cat video is most enjoyed when you’re sitting in an office, in a cubicle, and you’re supposed to be working on a spreadsheet,” Fox says.

Fox isn’t big on Internet cats. She’s a dog person, she says. Still, she’ll watch a cat video or two, and she’ll even find herself emulating their sounds.

Lil Bub, for instance, makes a particularly distinct purring sound — kind of like the low rumble of a small combustion engine at idle, but that always seems to end in a tiny, tinny, upward-inflected chirp — that’s appealing.

“Those sounds make me laugh,” Fox says.

So does the woman in the video where she’s tickling a cat then pulls her hands away, and the cat goes, well, catatonic.

“I find myself making that sound,” Fox says. “That tk-tk-tk-tk. I make that sound.”

She laughs. It’s a little crazy, she admits.

Wait. It’s actually scientific fact that cats make you a little crazy. Cats carry a parasite — Toxoplasma gondii — that can infect human brains and cause personality changes in the infected.

Could this be the cause of the Internet’s cat scratch fever? Have cats really been training us the whole time via gentle, cuddle-inducing biological warfare? Could it really be the long-joked about cat conspiracy?

“I can’t say if people will ever get tired of lolcats,” says Cheezburger’s Emily Huh, “but cats have been around for 10,000 years and their popularity is still strong, so I would hope that lolcats will remain a popular meme since cats will always have something to do that is interesting or funny for us to post on the Internet.”

Maybe she’s infected, too.

KTHXBAI


After weeks of cat research, I could sympathize. Weeks of cat videos and countless cat images with strange pidgin English, weeks of having cats so feverishly on the brain, and I felt like I could be diagnosed with toxoplasmosis. And I’m no closer to the answer of why we love cats.

I feel like I’m drowning in cats, I tell Eva Moore via email. I can’t even look at them right now.

“You reached your caturation level?” she replies. “HA HA HA HA HA HA!”

I felt like I had cat scratch fever. Instead of “Hell yeah, I’m writing about cats,” it’s become, “Why the hell am I writing about cats?”

I even found myself re-evaluating the value of my own cat.

She’s, well, just a cat. A small, black domestic shorthair with an inverted triangle of white fur on her chest. She doesn’t do cat video things: She can’t jump that high, she doesn’t do any tricks, she can’t say any words. (Well, I do think she called me a Mick once.) She does regular cat things: She sleeps a lot. She scratches up my furniture. She tries to eat my girlfriend’s food. She sits on my laptop when I’m trying to work. She sometimes pees outside of the litterbox.

You’re no Lil Bub, I thought aloud in her general vicinity, as she was sunbathing by the window, but you’re pretty cute. Cuter than Grumpy Cat — and probably as grumpy. Why don’t you do any tricks? Why aren’t you doing something worth 1.5 million monthly hits?

I got up from my couch, and picked her up. I bring her back to the couch, plop her in my lap, and fire up a Lil Bub video.

What’s the matter with you? I asked her. Don’t you want to be Internet famous?

She hissed, squirmed, scratched me, then ran away.

Guess not.

I went back to the source of my research. I need, I think to myself, to look at more cat photos. I despair, like Henri, at the thought.

Then, after a few minutes, I see it.

It’s a photo from one of the myriad funny-cat-picture-themed websites operating today: a Tumblr site called Cats. Where they do not belong. A shale-gray short hair, with a scar crossing its left eye, is curled up, asleep, in a box of the board game Sorry!

A caption runs under the photo. “Get out of there cat,” it reads. “You are not sorry at all.”

And just like that, I’m re-energized. I’m recharged. I’m reminded of the simple, visceral pleasure of the cat photo.

It’s a cat!, I cry. Where it’s not supposed to be! And it’s in a Sorry! box when it’s obviously completely not sorry!

It really is that simple. Some things don’t need an explanation. Correlation isn’t necessarily causation, and sometimes a cat video is just a cat video.

I look at another. Then another. And another. Soon enough, I’m giggling like an idiot at each one.

Everything was all right. I had won the victory over myself.

I loved lolcats again.

The next day, I’m in Columbia, and I’m talking to Dan Cook. Free Times has just sent the previous week’s issue to press. I’m on the hot seat, Cook reminds me.

“Writing about,” he begins, before pausing, as if embarrassed, “cats.”

Rejuvenated, I renew my defense of lolcats. I rattle off the stats. The Google search numbers. The outlandish booking fees for Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub.

Game over, Dan, I say. Cats have won the Internet. We don’t know how, and we don’t know why, but they’ve won. Just sit back and enjoy it.

Cook, exasperated, sighs and shakes his head and turns away.

Patrick Wall is music editor emeritus of Free Times. He has one cat, and he can’t believe Free Times let him write this story, either.

Let us know what you think: Email editor@free-times.com.

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