Even the most ardent dog lovers these days know that there are cat celebrities and memes. But no one knows why they are so popular.
To mention just a few examples:
Maru is a Scottish Fold fancy-cat from Japan. He holds a Guinness world record, with 340 million YouTube views and counting.
Happy Cat is the image of an overweight British Shorthair fancy cat who helped popularize LOLcats via the website ICanHazcheezburger.com.
LOLcats is the common name for a myriad of cat images with text added. These are what you probably think of first when someone says “cat meme.” The technical name for them is image macro.
HTTP status cats are from GirlieMac on Flickr – someone who is very familiar with the inner workings of computers and networks. Techies were in the vanguard of the cat-meme craze, generally on Usenet.
People enjoying the lulz today are simply carrying on a tradition that goes back to the early days of photography.
But technology wasn’t the first to open a kitty-sized Pandora’s box full of memes. Back in the day, memes were called fairy tales.
Puss in Boots is a good example, though Wikipedia’s category page for animal tales actually lists 35 pages of books about cats.
The well-shod feline began its story, according to Wikipedia, in fifth-century India as part of a collection of Hindu stories. That original tale was about a cat seeking its fortune.
Over a thousand years later and in Europe now, the cat had morphed into a helpful feline trickster. The most familiar form of Puss in Boots finally appeared in print in 1697.
Oddly enough, an updated version of the story returned the cat to India, at least behind the scenes. For the first time ever, DreamWorks relied upon a Bangalore animation to do a full-length feature film – 2011’s very popular Puss in Boots.
Fiction doesn’t have to be involved for someone to copy a cat. The best-known example of this is probably Joseph Pilates, one of the first German internees in Britain during World War I.
Food was short for man and beast, but Pilates noticed that the camp cats looked pretty good, all things considered. After studying how the cats stretched all of their muscles, by all accounts he developed similar exercises for his fellow internees, better known today as the world-famous Pilates mat exercises.
The wild world of Internet cat memes that we know best is a 21st-century phenomenon, encouraged by the spread of digital cameras as well as the Internet.
There are different versions of how LOLcats began, but all agree that it started in 2005, per the website Know Your Meme.
Five years later, Happy Cat and other feline image macros were routinely showing up in top-ten lists of famous Internet cats.
And now it’s 2018. People are more than twice as likely to share a picture of a cat than a selfie, and cat videos average more views per video than any other type of YouTube content. (Myrick)
Scientists are fascinated by this, of course, but it’s still so new that no one understands it very well yet.
There is some pseudoscience out there, but in the list of sources below are a few cited research papers, as well as a PhD dissertation. Use these to start your own exploration of cat memes and where they might come from.
Let’s close with Maru’s very first video, currently with over 22 million views.
Featured image: The Rambling Man and his very own lol cat. The Rambling Man, Flickr. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Maru: Screen capture from the first video, above.
Ben Huh. Yahoo! Pro. CC BY 2.0.
Missing LOLcat. Brandon Schauer. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Teapot HTTP status cat. GirlieMac, Flickr. CC BY 2.0.
Kodakery. Library of Congress. Public domain.
Knockaloe internment camp. April 11, 17. George Kenner (Kennerknecht), internee. Public domain.
Börzsei, L. K. 2013. Makes a meme instead. The Selected Works of Linda Börzsei. 1-28.
Chen, C. 2012. The creation and meaning of Internet memes in 4chan: Popular internet culture in the age of online digital reproduction. Habitus, 3:6-19.
Coscia, M. 2013. Competition and success in the meme pool: A case study on quickmeme.com. Proceedings of the Seventh International AAAI Conference of Weblogs and Social Media. 100-109.
Milner, R. M. 2012. The world made meme: Discourse and identity in participatory media. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Kansas.)
Miltner, K. M. 2014. “There’s no place for lulz on LOLCats”. The role of genre, gender, and group identity in the interpretation and enjoyment of an Internet meme. First Monday. 19:8.
Myrick, J. G. 2015. Emotion regulation, procrastination, and watching cat videos online: Who watches Internet cats, why, and to what effect? Computers in Human Behavior. 52:168-176.
Verrier, R. October 29, 2011. ‘Puss in Boots’ showcases work by India animators for DreamWorkds. Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/29/business/la-fi-ct-dwa-india-20111029 Last accessed January 4, 2018.
Wang, W. Y., and Wen, M. 2015. I Can Haz Cheezburger? A nonparanormal approach to combining textual and visual information for predicting and generating popular meme descriptions. In Human Language Technologies: The 2015 Annual Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics, 355-365.