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Why is the internet so obsessed with cats?

If you’ve ever wondered exactly how the Internet – the 21st century playground – came to be so obsessed with the kitteh, read on. We take a scientific deep dive into mankind’s feline preoccupation.

Much like the way energy flows through different species up a food chain, one can trace dependencies in how species are obliged to put up with personal discomfort for the sake of others. For instance, birds can quite shamelessly perch on the backs of cattle, immune to their hapless tail-swinging. Sure, you might call it “grooming” but we know what’s really going on. Those birds are just getting a free ride! Similarly, the devilish lamprey can piggyback on porpoises and whales for days on end, an unwelcome, unshakable parasite – pretty much an in-law. Human beings, on the other hand, have taken a zero-tolerance policy towards this inconvenience. We dispatch with firm and often mean hands, the pestering presence of insects, reptiles, and even powerful carnivores. Humans, like the worst roommates, refuse to cooperate, let alone coexist.

Against this backdrop, it is particularly strange to see that many a human will drop the above mentioned zero tolerance policy to happily wait for a cat to rub against his leg four-and-a-half times, lead her up to the open door, observe her arched-back dramatisation of being undecided, coax her to leave, and on occasion, get clawed for being friendly – before the blasted creature decides not to go out, after all, thank you very much.

Cat meme
To the internets me mateys

What is up with these animals? What is it that grasps the human fascination so much that we will tolerate the worst possible behaviour from cats and cats alone, and yet reward it with love and cooing? Some detailed probing and interactions with the writer’s limited social circle reveal that there are three types of human beings (four if you want to be pedantic) – cat people, dog people, cat-and-dog people. Then there are the writer’s various aunts, who are in the habit of climbing on the ceiling fan in the presence of anything with more than two legs.

Of the second-to-last, nothing will be discussed. This is the manner of a person whose opinion doesn’t matter because it is always indifferent. “Chinese or Italian?” “Eh, either.” It is healthier to associate with cats than this sort of wishy-washy human being. At least cats, as will be explored, have personality – perhaps far too much of it.

For dog-lovers, we only say a little prayer. May they live long and happy lives with these veritable soul-mates, wide-eyed and cuddly, ready to shower love at a moment’s notice on arbitrary owners. Yes, a love of dogs indeed makes sense.

The critical group of interest here is that of cat-lovers. These ridiculous activists have propelled to the top of the charts an animal that has least interest in popularity, in whose mean eyes there is never the slightest shred of sympathy or affection, and who rely on short-lived, post-natal adorableness to sustain the care their caregivers unendingly shower on even the bratty, bad-tempered adults.

This perverse trend has spanned the millennia – from the Egyptians sending humans to toil on the pyramids but bowing down with a saucerful of milk for every passing feline, to the unquestionable global hold of feline memes in the past decades. Today, we think the unthinkable, ask the unaskable, and resolve to rightly get to the bottom of this mystery – why are cat memes consistently the biggest meme behemoths on the internet?

The proof

We begin with the evidence that cat memes have indeed held the internet in the tightest vice, for the longest time.

google trend cat memes
Cat memes have consistently dominated the Online Meme Market (OMM), a fictional construct christened three seconds ago in order to make this piece sound more technical

A review of Google ngrams shows the interest in ‘cat memes’ being consistently higher than that in any other kind of animal memes. As if that’s not enough, any purveyor of the internet’s selection of media – be it Imgur, Reddit, Youtube, Facebook, or even Whatsapp forwards – will have recognised the unquestionable dominance of cats in the general internet consciousness.

For slightly more deductive reasoning, consider this: Stanford computer scientist and popular machine learning expert Andrew Ng, in collaboration with his colleagues, created an ‘artificial neural network’ that used thumbnails from YouTube videos to identify the topic of the video. The paper, titled ‘Building High-level Features Using Large Scale Unsupervised Learning’ (and linked here) had a seminal result. The NN (neural network) developed an extraordinarily good ability to identify cats, as compared to humans being, dogs, and a list of about 20,000 other entities. The reason for this is obvious – there are simply that many cat videos on the internet. As put by Sarah Hepola from Salon, the internet is pretty much made of kittens.

The writing’s on the wall – cats rule, at least on the internet. Much to the dismay of the furball currently demanding attention on the writer’s left, the mission is now to find out why.

Shooo we've got to get work done
We weren’t kidding, she’s literally sitting right there

Cat memes – Origins

The obsession with cats, unfortunately, is hard to find a definite root for. Perhaps in the distant future, historians of culture will have embraced technology enough to be able to web crawl through the sludge of archived web pages to find the first true ‘cat meme’ that was more than just a picture of a cat. Today, however, we’re restricted to heuristics and macroscopic trends. What we do know is that pictures of cats have spread via the primordial ‘Usenet’ – the simple, bulletin-board style forums that preceded social media. Newsgroups like rec.pets.cats which started in the `90s are even today functional via Google Groups.

The cause for feline popularity being let aside for the moment, cat photos and simple, quirky, interesting ideas and thoughts about them, soon began to spread on other pre-YouTube forums like FARK, Metafilter, and B3TA Forum. 90s kids will probably fondly remember the phenomenon of chain emails – fondly, until they recall the agony of entering a 17-character gibberish email address, the standard password 12345678 – only to find 300 email forwards from that one cousin in the States who’s the only person you know with an email address. Kitteh-related chain emails like the popular forward, ‘Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten’ began to gain traction in the late 90s.

LOLcats: millennial Meme Rush

LOLcats (photos of cats with silly captions, the true origins of the ‘white-text-on-image’ format of the modern meme) and Caturday (the tradition of posting cat-related images on Saturdays) continued to propagate in their own niches on 4chan and Something Awful for the first few years of the new millennium. The rise of YouTube (created in 2005) however, changed everything. LOLcats truly became the apple of the Internet’s eye by 2007, with the rise of I Can Has Cheezburger.

And the ball has never stopped rolling.

cat meme

The big question: why?

Often, in social trends, the question of ‘why’ opens up the widest range of possibilities, and indeed, permutations of answers. Who can really explain the results of the last fortuitous US Presidential election? But like the best of social scientists, and perhaps the worst, we endeavour to do our best to answer the final question – why is this species dominating the internet?

Cat-related content usually becomes popular for being one of two things – funny or cute. This is confirmed by several surprisingly detailed studies, (linked here: http://dgit.in/sciofcute) and by what this writer tells himself at 9 am when indignant, incessant whining forces him to trudge to the store to replenish the cat food. In fact, the writer is of the personal opinion that these – the qualities of funniness and cuteness – form the entirety of the positive contribution cats make to planet Earth, with only diminishing returns as they grow older.

The questions that remain to be answered are hence only two. Firstly, why does funny and cute content enjoy such an untouchable, eternal place on the Internet’s popularity radar? Phrased differently, what sets funny or cute apart from say, poignant, shocking, or violent? And secondly, what about cats makes them so particularly relatable in these funny and cute memes? Why are cats the funniest, cutest animals on the internet?

The answer to the first question lies perhaps in a sort of universal balance, a yin and yang law of the Internet. It should come as no surprise that the internet was, is and will continue to be a pretty dark place. The Dark Web, where drugs are dealt, weapons are exchanged and even paedophilia thrives, might be one extreme of the internet’s closeted skeletons, but there are milder yet equally dark hints of them all over the place. 4chan has been a community notorious for extreme, shocking, and gory content – think the worst possible combination of Japan and giant squids. Similarly, communally offensive posts, ‘flame wars’ (the internet’s more serious equivalent of a shouting match) and extreme pranks and trolling had become staples of the hardcore internet user’s daily regimen, particularly in inception stages of Internet culture, about two decades ago in 1997.

It can be imagined, then, that a sort of public acknowledgement of one’s own humanity could be seen in the simple cuteness of kittens playing with a finger, or tasting a lemon for the first time. It’s the simple reductionist thought of ‘Hey, I guess there’s something normal about me after all – even with all of this messed up stuff that I keep browsing all day, I’m able to sit back and enjoy a kitten video.’ It’s a played down sort of version of Vito Corleone’s deadly appetite for murder, contrasted with his ability to have a beautiful family moment. And if we know one thing, it is that internet users loooove to feel cooler than they actually are.

Smiling cat

All in all, cute, silly, funny content – essentially what memes are, even at their darkest – help keep the internet a light-hearted, not so serious, happy place.

The second question is perhaps slightly harder to answer. Why cats? What makes cats so integral to the ‘cute and funny’ needs of the internet? Some markedly un-Freudian psychoanalysis comes of use here – cats are, by far, the most human creatures (screw you apes!). This is not by virtue of their intelligence, rather, a product of their imperfections. Cats are a**holes. They whine when they want something and later forget that they owe you a favour. They throw tantrums and are unpredictable, and they pretty much only show affection when they need something. In fact, cats are disturbingly familiar because they’re just like people – specifically, teenagers.

Perhaps it would help to contrast cats with other animals. Dogs, those angels, are far too naive, far too trusting, far too open with their love. It becomes hard for human beings to ever truly empathise with dogs, to see themselves in them, especially on the mass scale that the internet provides. And honestly, what other competition is there? Sloths, those daft creatures, enjoy a niche audience for memes, yet they are far from the mainstream – a fact possibly attributable to the typical sloth aficionado’s quality of being deathly lazy.

Cats alone hold a simple, less evil, yet still evil version of ourselves up for our scrutiny. In the mirror of their behaviour, we can every trace our own journeys – having started out small, harmless, perhaps even adorable, we grow into the very monsters we once feared, and learn not to beat ourselves up about it. After all, both cats and humans are non-ideal beings in a non-ideal world. And it touches us to see that they too can be innocent, silly, funny, cute. It touches us far more powerfully than it might appear to.

Cats remind us of our imperfections, of our helplessness, of our absolute inability to maintain a good mood when being woken up.

In embracing cats, we embrace ourselves, as flawed, confused, mean, selfish human beings. Yeah, that’s the key takeaway for today. Meanwhile, a certain someone needs to relieve herself, and the writer’s trousers are, for completely uncorrelated reasons, being ripped to shreds.

This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Aabir Abubaker