The Internet Is Made of Cats

Soundtrack for this post

Every Saturday, something strange happens. On the /b/ message board of 4chan.org, users post pictures of cat. A lot of them. It’s “Caturday,” the weekly dumping of cat pictures on 4chan’s random-themed message board. An early instance of the cat meme, it makes little sense to many people. Let’s explore the meaning behind the plethora of cats on the Internet and ask not only “Where do they come from?” but also “Why am I still laughing at my ninth viewing of this cat video?”

"The Photographer" by Harry Pointer

The phenomenon referred to as the “lolcat” contains a picture of a cat coupled with a caption intended to increase humor. The “lol” in “lolcat” stands for “laughing out loud” and is a common acronym in online discussion. The creation of the lolcat comes from a combination of parody and discussion forums. The practice of captioning cats goes back to the 1870s, when British portrait photographer Harry Pointer created postcards with pictures of cats captioned with humorous sayings. In pop culture, the captioned cat stems from the parody of the 1970’s motivational poster featuring a cat dangling from something with the text, “Hang in there!” In more modern terms, the captioning of single images proliferated on image boards: instead of posting a text reply, as is standard in Internet forums, a user would caption a picture which would supplement the text humorously. When applied to a picture of a cat, this text is often written in disjointed English with horrible grammar. Known as “kitty pidgen,” or more generally as “lolspeak,” this type of talking numbers among several forms of Internet slang. The text is written almost always with white Impact font which is then outlined in black.

The lolcat’s popularity spread through the use of message boards like the Something Awful and 4chan forums. However, the first flood began after the posting of the “I Can Has Cheezburger?” lolcat featuring a blue British Shorthair known as Happy Cat and captioned in the style of 4chan. The picture of the cat comes from a Russian cat food company. The origin of the lolcat itself is much debated: sources attribute the original posting to YTMND and the Something Awful forums. However, we do know that the combined powers of the Internet forums created an explosion of lolcats modeled after this particular image macro. Other lolcats include Ceiling Cat and Basement Cat, who represent God and Satan; Ceiling Cat is generally pictured as a white shorthair peeking out of a square in the ceiling or is referenced by regular lolcats. Basement cat is a black shorthair and often possesses glowing eyes or some other demonic quality. The fight between Ceiling Cat and Basement Cat is chronicled in the LOLcat Bible, a project to translate the entire Bible into kitty pidgen English.

But why are these things funny? They are made up of broken English and picture of cats. Is the viewer superior in some way to the subject matter? Well, of course. It’s a cat that can’t speak with proper grammar. At first glance, the lolcat seems to fit as humorous under the Superiority Theory. With Happy Cat, we (humans) are superior to the simplistically happy feline, who’s only want is a cheeseburger. This desire can’t even be expressed normally, but instead is communicated with a lower level of human language. Combine this with the incredibly goofy grin on the cat’s face, and you’ve got yourself some inferiority to laugh at. However, for the sake of discussion, let’s explore the possibility of applying another theory. The Relief theory requires some sort of build up; pictures are viewed in less than a second, so that doesn’t quite pan out. The Incongruity Theory doesn’t crumble in quite the same way: the representation of talking cats is an incongruity. Cats can’t actually talk, so the depiction of such imagined creates differs greatly from our everyday pattern of life.

But do can we enjoy this incongruity? In a sense, yes. But do we enjoy it BECAUSE it is incongruous? I would say no. The comedy of the Happy Cat does not boil down to “I’m laughing because the cat is talking,” but to “I’m laughing because the cat looks stupid, only cares about a cheeseburger, and can’t speak correctly.” That feels like superiority to me. The same cannot be said for every lolcat on the Internet. However, the general practice of using strange looking cats with meaningless or low-brow captions in horribly constructed English follows the Superiority Theory.

In an interesting twist, the funnier lolcats being posted on I Can Has Cheezburger, the site dedicated to locats, are the ones with correct English. These more mainstream lolcats have a more coherent comedy, as the joke is communicated more easily. With the introduction of improved English, the more high-brow lolcat often falls under the Incongruity Theory rather than the Superiority Theory of humor. Take the lolcat to the right. The viewer certainly agrees with the first statement: this is wrong. It’s a cat in a bikini, but the second statement is completely incongruous. A rather blatant example, it still shows that the same type of Internet production can fall under different types of humor.

 

 

 

The meme of the lolcat is but one instance of the Internet’s obsession with cats. The general cat meme is rampant throughout Youtube, the Internet’s largest video sharing site. Here we can also see how similar things, such as various cat videos, can be funny in different way or even not funny at all. Rather than detail these videos, here are a few choice samplings. Experience them for yourself.

Keyboard Cat (16 million views)

Surprise Kitty (48 million views)

Talking Cats Playing Pattycake (1 million views)

Maru the Box Cat (11 million views)

Stalking Cat (23 million views)

Angry Cat (54.5 million views)

The last video is 30 seconds of an infuriated cat. It has been viewed 54,660,015 times. That’s 9 times more views than the official White House video of President Obama announcing Osama Bin Laden’s death.

Humans have forever obsessed by their pets. This might be expressed even more than their obsession with their children, since eventually children start to resist. Pets, and especially cats, can be used by their owners in far too many ways. With the ability to upload videos for free, pets owners have expanded their ability to get other people to appreciate their pet’s amazing abilities and/or cuteness.

The cat videos differ a bit from the locats. Keyboard Cat, Surprise Kitty, Talking Cats Playing Pattycake, and even Maru rely more on amusing incongruity rather than giving the viewer feelings of superiority. Keyboard Cat carries the incongruity that the cat plays a catchy tune on the keyboard. Rather than merely being cute, the cat derives its humor from the fact that its owner is obviously controlling the cat’s arms. Combined with the interesting expression on the cat’s face and the t-shirt, the cat becomes funny. The viewer doesn’t feel better than the cat; in fact, part of the comedy is that the cat (though pretending) can play the keyboard better than some people. Surprise Kitty extracts laughter from most viewers through the same principles: instead of a cute cat getting a belly rub, we get a kitten mimicking the strange hand motions of its owner. If the kitten didn’t copy its owner, the cat would be just another cute kitten. The incongruity of the kitten’s actions give the video its humor. The incongruity of two cats playing patty cake and talking like chill college guys makes Talking Cats Playing Pattycake funny, but the matching of the script with the cats actual actions only heightens the humor. Comedy comes from the incongruity, but also the appreciation that someone was able to think of the perfect script to suit the cats’ actions. The Maru videos inspire a more confused laughter, as it is completely incongruous to see a cat throwing itself through boxes. The cat’s obsession with the boxes throws the viewer off, and makes us ask: why on earth is this cat doing this? The cat’s continued actions conflict with the expected pattern, since we can’t understand the strange behavior in the first place.

The Stalking Cat video offers our first experience of the Relief theory. While historically the Relief Theory is based more on physiology, the principle of building up tension which is then released represents a weaker form of the Release theory. The Stalking cat exemplifies this lighter version, as the ninja-like qualities of the cat allow it to come closer without appearing to move. The closer the cat gets, the more tense the viewer is, especially if he/she worries about what the cat will do when it gets to the camera. The final view of the cat getting right up to the camera constitues the tensest moment; when the cat runs away, the tension is released and the full effect of the humor takes hold.

These videos are not exclusive: those labeled as Incongruity Theory have a taste of superiority theory, as humans inherently view themselves as superior to animals, and the Relief Theory video has its humorous incongruities (the cat exceeds expectations in terms of stalking ability). However, the Angry Cat video represents pure Superiority Theory, if it even is humorous at all. Many of the comments actually deride the video, saying it is inhumane and sympathizing with the cat. Those that do find the video funny, like the poster of the video (who labeled the video as funny), do so with hardcore Superiority Theory application.

Then there’s Nyan cat.

Nyan Cat (15 million views)

Nyan Cat – Omega Extended Edition (3.5 hours of slendidness) (2 million views)

Most people hate it. Personally, I love it. A poptart cat defecating a rainbow to a high pitched, repetitive, unintelligible song? How can you NOT love this? This humor in this video, in my opinion, does not come from anything specific about the video, but more from the challenge that arises to watch as much of the video as possible before admitting defeat. The original Nyan cat, in the form of a GIF image, records how much time the viewer has “nyanned” for. The comedy then comes from the community that forms over the annoyance at such a video, and competition of who can stand such annoyance. Does this fall under a theory of humor? Not directly. If I had to create a form of humor, it would be the “Confusion Theory”, which includes the laughter that comes when you just don’t know what other reaction to have to a situation or product that just makes no plain sense.

 

This post only hints at the plethora of cats on the Internet. Many pictures and videos that claim to be funny are not really funny at all. A good chunk of lolcats can be traced back to an Internet user trying to keep up with an Internet inside joke that isn’t secret anymore, while many cat videos are posted by owners who don’t have much else to do for entertainment. I may have gotten a tad bit cynical there, but the point still stands. Actual humor does not run rampant through the cat meme, and while some cat jokes may be honestly funny, the repetition of specific jokes takes away from their humor. This can be supported by all three of the humor theories: a person might realize that they shouldn’t feel superior and be laughing about it, the incongruity becomes expected, and tension levels never rise as high as during a first experience. However, during the evolution of a certain joke, when Internet users recognize that mere repetition will cause the self-destruction of a meme, humor abounds as the joke is told by new users in new ways.

Next time, we take a step back to look at the image macro in general. WARNING: may induce ROFL-like symptoms.

Comments

  1. twmilbourne says:

    First of all: this is fantastic. Second of all: I’ve always maintained that, if the internet could be distilled to its most basic contents, it would be about 50% cats. Now, thanks to your analysis, I have a better idea why.

    Out of curiosity: do you have any ideas of why cats memes specifically have become so prolific? It seems like dogs, rabbits, mice, or nearly any other animal could fulfill the requirements of the Superiority Theory and the Incongruity Theory. Is there something about cats that makes them inherently funnier than other animals?

  2. Anna Glendening says:

    I think that cats have become so popular on the Internet in general has to do with the fact that there are already so many cat jokes in the real world. For example, the crazy cat lady, cats secretly hate all humans, cats used to be considered gods by the Egyptians, ect. Also, I think their relation to lions, and our obsession with lions and wild animals in general, has contributed to their popularity.

    In terms of cats specifically as Internet memes and lolcats, I think 4chan and Caturday had a huge role in making cats the animal of choice. Because 4chan settled on cats as a response to furries, people who have an animal themed sexual fetish, cats then proliferated as the preferred animal.

    Thank you so much for your comments Tim!

  3. Anna Rose Gellert says:

    As a dog person, I’ve always wondered how and why the Internet humor community decided cats doing things are so hilarious. It’s nice to finally see some real discussion on the issue! Also, I wonder how a site like Average Cats, which features cat pictures with captions like, “This cat is just yawning, not screaming at the camera. Cats can’t talk,” can flourish, because it’s basically LOLcats without the incongruity or poor English.

  4. Anna Glendening says:

    With Average Cats, there actually is incongruity: with the proliferation of lolcats, we actually expect pictures of cats with captions to all be in the style of lolcats. The Average Cat photos poke fun at lolcats by breaking the pattern, even though it goes back to what was originally the pattern. It’s the same thing with FMyLife, which spawned MLIA as a reaction: when something that is outrageous becomes expected, going back to the average because the unexpected thing to do. When you overuse an incongruity for comedy, it slowly becomes less incongruous, like a joke that’s over told. However, when the joke is changed slightly so it again becomes incongruous, it is again humorous. This is essentially why MLIA and its associated websites, such as Average Cats, became so popular.