They have millions of 'Likes' on Facebook, hundreds of millions of views on Youtube, and they've even appeared in their own movies. No, I'm not talking about some boring human, bipedal celebrity with the power of speech. I'm talking about the much more exciting, quadrupedal, fur covered ones.
Cats. I'm talking about cats. Specifically 'internet cats.'
I know what you're thinking: "Yes, Mark, you incredibly handsome internet writer person. The internet has been taken over by cats. We all know this. This is nothing new." And of course, you'd be correct on all counts, but this is entirely my point. Why have cats taken over the internet? Why do people in their millions follow their antics on the internet? Why have dogs not enjoyed the same cultural phenomenon?
I hope to answer all these questions, while simultaneously keeping your attention with cat videos and gifs - of which there will be lots.
The History of Internet Cats
In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee stormed excitedly into an office at CERN and proclaimed, "Guys, you won't believe it! I've just combined the hypertext idea with the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and created the World Wide Web! I've created a tool that allows instantaneous communication across the globe! I am a God!" There was silence in the room as his colleagues took in this momentous occasion. Then after several seconds had passed, one man meekly lifted his arm and asked, "Can I put a picture of my cat on it?" From this moment, the internet cat was born.
Ok. So, hardly anything about that story is actually true. However, it does illustrate that cats have been a staple of the internet for perhaps longer than you think. In fact, cat videos might be much older than the internet itself. One of the first movies made by Thomas Edison's Black Maria movie studio featured two cats 'boxing'. The video, which dates form 1894, can be watched below:
Luckily, we've now moved onto a more ethical appreciation of cats.
According to KnowYourMeme.com, cats have been on the internet since around 1991 and first arrived in the form of Usenet groups such as rec.pets.cats. Back then, these groups had a mostly practical use and provided answers to cat-based questions.
By the late 1990s, these cat groups were supplemented by more and more pictures provided by the rise of digital photography. They were particularly popular in Japan, where cats are undeniably the most popular pet. These pictures were uploaded to ranking sites and were often provided with captions, as is common in Japanese pop-culture.
Soon, this cat-vasion reached English speaking websites, with pictures of cats becoming popular on web communities such as B3TA Forum, Metafilter, Something Awful, and 4Chan. Meanwhile, humorous cat pictures also became a staple of chain emails, most notably, “Everytime you masturbate, God kills a kitten.”
The real explosion came in 2006 with the emergence of cat-concepts such as the LOLcat and Caturday on Something Awful and 4Chan. These phenomenons then found a more permanent home in 2007 with the creation of I Can Has Cheezburger, a website mostly catered towards cat images and memes. By around this time, YouTube had also matured as a platform, providing a place for people to upload their own cat videos.
In 2015, the internet cat now has several distinct, but related, breeds including cat memes, celebrity cats, cat videos (also including associated cat videos such as Nyan Cat) and millions of cat gifs - my favorite of which is below:
Internet Cats By Numbers
So, we've established internet cats are a big deal, but exactly how big of a deal? Well, according to Purina, the makers of Friskies cat food, a rather staggering 15% of all internet traffic is cat-related. This sounds like a made-up statistic to me, but the fact it is remotely believable just shows how many internet cats there are out there.
In 2010, Aaron Santos, a physics professor and author of "How Many Licks?" claimed there were probably around 1.3 billion cat pictures on the internet. However, since his first estimation five years ago, the internet has quadrupled in data size, placing the number nearer to 6.5 billion. That's almost one cat picture for everyone on Earth.
In 2012, a group of Google researchers, led by Stanford University professor Andrew Ng and Google fellow Jeff Dean, sought to find out if a computer can be taught to recognize shapes and objects from Youtube thumbnails alone. They created an artificial neural network connecting 16,000 processors to more than one billion connections, allowing them to scan 10 million videos. Their results proved that cats form an integral part of the internet, as the computer recognized cats - as well as human faces and bodies - much more consistently than any other of the 20,000 distinct objects the researchers hoped to teach the computer to recognize.
Then there are the celeb cats - felines which have basically made a career out of being cute and/or silly. Cats such as Tardar Sauce a.k.a. Grumpy Cat have amassed millions of likes on Facebook. Grumpy Cat, who recently released her own made-for-television movie, has over 7 million of them. That's much more than most NFL and MLB sports teams. Furthermore, if we take the Youtube views of 5 of the most popular celebrity cats (Maru, Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, Colonel Meow and Henri Le Chat Noir) we get a grand total of 363,103,915, which is a lot for an animal that isn't even trying to go viral.
In fact, cat videos have become so popular they spawned an annual Internet Cat Video Festival at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The first event in 2012 drew crowds of over 10,000 cat fans, and since then it has only grown and spread.
Why Do We Love Internet Cats?
The revering of cats is nothing new. In fact, some of our oldest civilized ancestors also engaged in cat worship. In Ancient Egypt, cats (known as "Mau") were considered sacred from at least 1000BC, although they had first been domesticated nine thousand years before that.
Bast, the Egyptian goddess of fertility and motherhood, was represented with the head of a cat, while a 'Cult of the Cat' also developed and garnered a huge following. However, the Egyptian worship of cats was based on a more practical appreciation: they killed rodents and snakes, protecting their owners and granaries. In this sense, cats became symbols of protection against pestilence and famine, therefore earning their place of worship and admiration.
Clearly, that isn't why we love internet cats today, so there must be something else going on. But what exactly? Well, it might be all to do with psychology and how we, and cats, have evolved.
Cats Are Like a Mountain of Sexy, Delicious Cocaine
Although, as pointed out above, cats had a very practical purpose when they were first domesticated, it wasn't long before they also became lovable companions of humans. When this became the case, cats were selectively bred to become cuter and more attractive to us. As Ben Huh, the creator of I Can Haz Cheezburger points out:
For the past 10,000 years we've been biologically engineering cats to be weapons of mass cuteness.
This 'cuteness' actually affects us on a fundamental level. Humans are biologically predisposed to find certain things 'cute' and 'adorable,' therefore encouraging us to care for them. In this sense, the same inherent process that makes us think babies are cute, can also be applied to cats.
According to research, we have become sensitive to visual patterns such as big eyes, round face, proportionally large head, small nose, gangly limps and clumsy movements. These visual signals often illicit caring and affectionate behavior from us, creating an evolutionary trait which has helped the survival of our species. In fact, looking at something cute stimulates the same part of brain aroused by sex, delicious food or even cocaine. Therefore, cute cats are basically cocaine, and as everyone knows, cocaine is very moreish.
But the thing is, cats actually know this. They are master manipulators. Research published in Current Biology shows that cats make different sounds when around their owners than when alone or with other cats. They are able to use purrs and meows as a means of soliciting our deep innate urge to care for them.
Cats Are Cooler Than Us
In reality, cats are not actually fully domesticated - or at least, not as domesticated as dogs. Research from the The Genome Institute at Washington University found out that modern cats are not too different from their wild counterparts. Due to this, they are generally more independent and less demanding of human attention and affection.
This aloofness has instilled cats with a reputation very different from that of dogs. They are too cool for us. They don't need us, we need them. This playing 'hard to get' taps into another element of human psychology known as 'The Scarcity Principle.' Essentially, this suggests humans perceive things which are difficult to obtain as more attractive and more valuable. Since cats are generally less promiscuous with their affections, we become pathetically happy when they do appear to pay attention to us.
Cats Are Easy to Think of as Human
Humans and cats have shared homes for a longtime. After a while, it was only natural that we'd begin to see cats as more human than they actually are. Anthropomorphizing cats and other animals and objects is another element of our psychology. In reality, we never know what a cat is thinking, but we can endear them to human emotions and motivations to try and understand their behavior better.
So, in the video below, the cat isn't knocking the glass off the table because it is simply curious. It is knocking the glass off because he is a) a badass, b) naughty, or c) a jerk.
In most cases, we've probably misinterpreted the cat's real thoughts, but the expressiveness and individual personality of our feline friends means anthropomorphizing them is often very satisfying to us.
Cats Are Pretty Weird
Cats are naturally curious animals, while their physiques and abilities allow them to explore and investigate odd nooks and crannies at will. Combine this with the fact cats cannot feel embarrassment, and you've got an equation which basically equals 'funny cat videos.'
During the investigation phase of a cat's exploration, they will undoubtedly occasionally get things wrong, or do things unexpectedly. Capture this on video, and you've potentially got an everyday cat occurrence which can go viral.
Cat People Are Also Pretty Weird
Now, I don't mean that as an insult, but studies have shown that individuals who identify as 'cat people' are often more introverted, sensitive and non-conformist than those who identify as 'dog people.' These traits can often be used to great effect on the internet, which allows an anonymous and creative space to show off your cat.
Furthermore, people who move around a lot are also generally more accepting of new ideas, artists, technology and memes. Cats are often an ideal pet for such individuals, as they can also be moved easily from place to place. This essentially creates a mass of mobile, tech savvy individuals who favor cats over other pets, creating the foundations for internet cats to reign supreme.
Dog owners on the other hand often require more settled lives. They usually need a fixed schedule in which dogs can be walked and not left alone for extended periods of time. With this in mind, dog owners are generally more structured, financially well-off and conservative in nature, meaning they spend less time on the internet or exploring new creative mediums.
So, Why Are Dogs Not as Popular?
Dogs are usually seen as 'man's best friend,' so why are we not gushing over them as much on the internet?
Jack Shepard of Buzzfeed has stated that in reality, YouTube actually gets more searches for dogs than cats, but cats are much more likely to go viral. An average Buzzfeed viral story about dogs can expect to get 5,000 views, while cats almost double that, receiving on average 9,000. But why?
Well, the difference in 'cat' and 'dog' people seems to be partly responsible. As mentioned above, 'dog people' generally tend to be older, have more formal schedules and spend less time on the internet. Furthermore, dog people already have a space to exhibit their beloved pet - the real world. Dog walking and dog parks provide a place for dog owners to check out each others' pets and discusses canine topics. There isn't really an equivalent real world space for cat owners. As Huh explains:
We’ve actually come to recognize that the Internet is how you walk your cat like you would walk a dog... We socialize with other cat owners through the web.
Furthermore, many dog breeds were created for working purposes, as such they have been bred to innately want to please humans. This means it could be said that dogs sometimes just try a little too hard - they are more an accomplice in our human schemes, than a creator of their own. Of course, this is what makes having a dog great, unfortunately it makes them less interesting to watch online.
Dogs are also better learners than cats, as they are often required to consistently perform a certain task. Cats on the other hand are often left to their own devices, meaning they can embark on various strange and creative endeavors. A dog is likely to repeat the same behavior in the presence of a human in order to receive reward, whereas a cat is likely to just act like the human isn't even there. Once again, this often just makes for funnier videos.
It's not entirely clear what the future holds for internet cats. Other internet phenomena, whether it's planking, Gangnam Style or that Numa Numa Kid, have all had their time in the limelight and then returned to obscurity. Cats, however, seem to have their claws dug deep into our very souls, meaning as long as there's the internet, there'll probably be internet cats.