When Sir Tim Berners-Lee was asked recently what surprised him the most after 25 years of his extraordinary invention, the World Wide Web, he replied, “I never thought there would be so many cats.”
What is it with cats and the Internet? It is clear that if the Internet were a person, and that person was asked, “Are you a dog person or a cat person?” the mere mention of dogs would generate a dismissive sneer. The sort of look that would accompany having stepped in something a dog had made. It is not that dogs (and their owners) have not been trying. Dogs get up to all sorts of antics trying to be Internet friendly. They sing, they do tricks, they nuzzle up to babies, they dress up in silly costumes. One theory is that the dogs are just trying too hard. As desperate seekers of affection and attention, they go out of their way to impress us, and that is just not cool. Cats, on the other hand, just have to sit there and look grumpy.
Baby animals in both categories possess the same distinction of being cute, cuddly and fluffy. Puppies even have the benefit over kittens of staying cuter for longer. Then again, this is true of almost all species and still cats retain dominance over the entire animal kingdom online. Could it be that there is a conspiracy of cat-loving individuals who are feeding their preferences on so many sites that they have staged a global takeover?
According to Jack Shepherd, who edits the Cute Animals section on Buzzfeed, this could well be true. He admits to being a fully paid member of the “cat propaganda machine” and enjoys the fact that the “feline overlords” are in charge. Perpetuating their reign is no problem for him.
Apart from his own ability to manipulate cat supremacy, Shepherd may have hit upon another point. On the Internet, cat lovers can share and show off in a way that is not possible in any other social sphere. They cannot take their cats to the park and chat with other feline fanciers. For cat owners, opines cat behavior specialist Steve Dale, the Internet is the dog park. This also ties to the “Geeks prefer cats” theory wherein those who sit at computers all day are cat lovers, with no need to walk, bathe or play with their pet and they share a nocturnal lifestyle. The dog lovers are all outside throwing a ball or they would have had the time to make their dogs the superstars.
Cats have never been, and never will be, man or woman’s best friend, thanks to their infamous independence. Yet, they are definitely man or woman’s route to Internet stardom via page views. They may not eagerly greet their owners as they come through the door with enthusiasm, wagging tails and bright-eyed joy, but their aloof indifference is a small price to pay for their capacity to create content.
Another theory as to cats’ widespread appeal is their residual similarities to human babies. Each tends to have big eyes, a small nose and a dome-shaped head. According to Michael Newall from the University of Kent, these attributes trigger dormant nurturing instincts in the human breast, whether predisposed toward liking babies or not. As these features are superficially exaggerated in a cat ( as in a cartoon drawing), they may even super-stimulate these responses.
Fascination with cats is not a byproduct of the Internet, however. Long before LOLCats, cats were worshiped in Ancient Egypt. Miles Orvell, cultural historian and specialist in visual culture, thinks that the Internet has awakened, Sleeping Beauty style, a long-dormant preexisting adoration. The “latent possibility” of addiction to all things cat has come to the light of day.
The first recorded ode to a cat was in the ninth century, when a monk in Ireland wrote Pangur Ban about his cat. TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats went on to become the hit musical CATS and cats have been prowling about in numerous works of literature outside of poetry. Behemoth in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita would have been great on the Internet. He walked on his hind legs, carried a pistol and liked drinking vodka and playing chess.
Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s had a cat called Cat, and Hermoine in Harry Potter had Crookshanks. Among other immortalized cats are The Cat in the Hat, Puss in Boots, Tom Kitten, Moppet and Mittens, Scarface Claw, Mehitabel, Mog, Carbonel and the Cheshire Cat. As Mike Orvell suggests, cats have been slinking around in our consciousness since childhood story books and beyond. Interestingly, cats in cartoon history are more put-upon than powerful. Top Cat and Tom of Tom and Jerry fame are more often in trouble than triumphant.
Mieshelle Nagelschneider, author of The Cat Whisperer, thinks cat lovers use the Internet for much more than laughing at cat memes. She sees it as a useful community for sharing and a way to reverse the stigma that cats are in some way inferior to dogs. She used the phrase “undiscovered beachfront property” to describe the impact the Internet has had on cat owners’ collective self-esteem, now that their pets are number one.
Sam Ford, a research affiliate from MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, thinks that humans project their own thoughts onto the countenance of cats and this explains the huge popularity of memes. While this may be so, the anthropomorphic impulse does not help explain the “Why cats, not dogs?” question. One answer here is that the cats just got in first; they were quick to hijack the Internet from the get go. Another is that dogs are not so inscrutable and they are easy to read. Everyone also knows cats are impossible to train so seeing them as something quirky is all the more extraordinary.
One more theory is that despite the cat’s hunting abilities, which is ruthlessly adopted from its big cat predecessors, cats can also be prey and this makes us feel sorry for them, because they are vulnerable. Orvell goes so far as to argue that this puts viewers in touch with their own mortality. Watching a cat leap, misjudge and fall off a wall may seem a strange way to contemplate death, but perhaps Orvell is right.
One can appreciate how Berners-Lee is perplexed that his huge contribution to humankind has become the biggest cat picture-sharing medium that ever existed.
By Kate Henderson