How Cats Took Over the Internet—And Became Art
Cat videos are watched in their millions, and are such a cultural phenomenon a New York museum has curated an entire exhibition devoted to them.
I’ll admit it: I’m not a fan of cats.
And that’s fine—cats are not a fan of me either. I’ve been hissed at, clawed, bitten, and peed on by 75% of the felines I’ve encounter. Either something’s inherently wrong with my soul (very possible) or I was an aggressively alpha canine in a past life.
So it infuriates me beyond comparison to know that they are dominating my workspace—the Internet—much like they rule the underworld.
In comparison, my actual interests like “Taylor Swift,” “otters,” and “laughing babies” only reveal a combined 7 million clips.
Granted, some of these cat compilations did make me smirk, if only to further prove my point—just look at how pissed Spanky is for being removed from a hoarder’s closet. Absolutely. Terrifying.
But I digress: People seem to really love their Internet cats—so much so that New York’s Museum of Moving Image is dedicating an entire exhibition to the history of their takeover.
“How Cats Took Over the Internet” examines modern-day phenomena like Caturday, lolcats, cat videos and celebrity cats from the past two decades to determine why these fuzzy creatures have transfixed an entire generation of web users.
“What we want to do is encourage people to think a little more deeply about the kinds of things that we often dismiss as frivolous but actually constitute a large amount of the way in which we participate with the media and culture,” Carl Goodman, the museum’s executive director, said at a press preview for the exhibition. “So it was really hard not to ignore cats.”
“It’s a phenomenon that we encounter every day online,” associate curator Jason Eppink, echoed. “There have been a lot of people who have thought about it as an aesthetic form and also people who have investigated it as an art form, but there hasn’t really been a deep dive into how this has operated [over the past 20 years.]”
That’s where the data comes in.
Sourcing facts and figures from five major online media outlets—Reddit, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, and BuzzFeed—the team found that while cats having seemingly conquered the Interwebs, there is very little data to support their popularity over any other animal.
In fact, dogs (which they used for comparison) are just as popular, if not more so—a quick search for Man’s Best Friend renders 3 million more YouTube videos than the felines.
Cats just seem to go viral more quickly, for many reasons.
The rise of user-generated content has allowed more and more pet owners to quickly and easily share photos and videos of their cats, the No. 1 pet in the United States.
This kind of content caters to many different groups. For instance, those needing a mid-day break, the “Bored at Work Network”—a term coined by Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti—and those needing a little emotional pick-me-up.
Recent research has suggested that viewers become more energized and feel more positively just by watching videos of cats.
Last week, Daily Beast contributor Charlotte Lytton watched 100 videos and agreed: She had more energy and felt super positive, even while she was icing a broken toe.
Similar videos, which were all part of the Walker Art Center’s first Internet Cat Video Festival in 2012, are played on loop at the Museum of Moving Image.
An orange feline dressed in a blue robe plays a synth-pop tune on a keyboard with an expressionless, and almost angsty, face.
A black-and-gray cat terrifies a medium-sized black bear that has stumbled near his home.
And a tiny kitten goes head-to-head with two iguana lizards.
The vast and rapid sharing of these somewhat anthropological videos has created a sophisticated social realm for cats and their owners, dubbed the “Virtual Cat Park” by Buzzfeed’s editorial director, Jack Shephard.
While dog owners have open, public spaces to allow interaction, cat owners are “regularly shamed into silence, portrayed as lonely, weird, anti-social, and unusually attached to their pets,” according to the exhibition. “The internet has given voice to cat enthusiasts, empowering them to be more vocal about their pets and resulting in a snowball effect of attention on cats online.”
The exhibition’s timeline begins with what be the most vocal way for them to express their admiration—Meowchat. It’s something Eppink explains as a “dialect that emerged [in 1995] on a specific newsgroup dedicated to cats.” Cat owners would role-play as their cats using speak similar to baby talk.
“Fangu furr inviting uz too the Purrday Partee,” a message exchange reads, narrating an exchange of gifts. “This iz furryfurry gudgud. Thuh musick is wunderfull. Wud yoo like to dans, Cody?”
I’m pretty sure Cody liked his empty box (his “fafurrite!”) and began to “dans.”
“All the things on the timeline address the different ways that we entertain cats” and ourselves, Eppink said. “My Cat Hates You looks at the cat as this nefarious creature…while Pet of the Day celebrates our pets as companions.”
In 1996, KittyCam invaded homes across the world as users broadcast the day-to-day interactions of their furry felines.
Then, as technology advanced, the Cat Scan Contest (1998) had people coaxing their pussies onto desktop scanners to capture rather humiliating digital images of cats in bizarre positions.
Bonsai Kitten (2000) caused controversy (and an FBI investigation) as a joke gone awry when an MIT student demonstrated how to custom shape your cats by placing them in jars as kittens. And Cliché Kitty reminded everyone that “Every time you masturbate… God kills a kitten.”
Then, came lolcats, cat breading, Trump Your Cat (yes, there is an entire movement dedicate to cats with Donald Trump’s infamous hairstyle), and the rise of celebrity feline.
For instance, Lil’ Bub, a rescued “perma-kitten” who suffers from multiple birth defects, has over 889k Instagram followers, millions of visitors to her YouTube channel, starred in a documentary, wrote a book, and even scored her very own web show.
She makes really weird sounds, naps, runs around super energetically, and even bathes for her admirers. (OK…I’ll admit it, Lil’ Bub is pretty freaking cute.)
Sam, a white cat with two dark patches of hair, appears to have eyebrows and has amassed almost 200,000 followers on Instagram. Similarly, Hamilton, a “hipster cat” with a curled mustache, has become a Vine sensation.
And Grumpy Cat, whose real name is Tardar Sauce and not to be confused with Garfi: The World’s Angriest Cat, reportedly gained a net worth of $120 million after her owner’s brother posted a single image of the forever brooding feline on Reddit.
So whether its reminiscing on recent sensations or discovering just how long—and how bizarrely—cats have been conquering our digital lives, “How Cats Took Over the Internet” is really just a lot of fun for everyone (including me).
And while I’m fairly confident every single cat will immediately become grumpy around me, I can’t help but appreciate their furry little black souls and the much joy they bring to the masses.