The Great LOLCat Massacre

We’re on winter break until January 22. Meanwhile, please enjoy 10 staff favorites from last year. Today’s choice was originally published on May 2, 2017.
Recently, for work, I read through 10 years’ worth of the New York Times best-seller list and noticed a strange phenomenon. Since December 17 ...
Dog pushing cart full of cats

Recently, for work, I read through 10 years’ worth of the New York Times best-seller list and noticed a strange phenomenon. Since December 17, 2006, 15 nonfiction books about dogs have spent a total of 118 weeks on the hardcover list.1 During the same period, exactly one best-selling nonfiction book was about a cat. It lasted for two weeks.2

That dogs can anchor best sellers is not surprising to anyone who can recognize references to Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, or Marley and Me. What is surprising is how many best sellers are anchored by dogs, especially in light of the undisputed sway that cats hold over the World Wide Web. While dogs have been quietly dominating the world of print, cats have become mascots of the digital world; if you don’t believe me, look at the emojis on your phone. Dogs are from books, cats are from bytes. How has this come to be the case?

As a dog owner, I initially seized on the discrepancy as proof that all my prejudices are valid. Dogs are better than cats, and books are better than Buzzfeed. I even had a theory to confirm my bias. Books are machines of longue durée, immersing the reader in forms of attention so sustained that they can emulate actual experience. In their famous loyalty, dogs likewise give us an experience of sustained attention.3 But as I read dog books, visited cat sites, and explored the burgeoning “cat theory” sector of new media studies, I came to see the discrepancy as a way of diagnosing the principal weaknesses of both the book marketplace and the marketplace for attention online: the conservative insistence on formula in the print mainstream, the struggle to survive on the razor-thin margins of internet journalism. I also came to believe that the question of how cats came to dominate the internet is more profound than it first appears.

One of the notable online trends of 2015 entailed people making videos of cats being scared by cucumbers. It turns out that cats are scared of snakes, which cucumbers resemble—so if you surreptitiously put a cucumber near a cat and wait for the cat to notice, you’ll be treated to a nice little freak-out. The trick is cruel, of course; as animal experts warned, it stresses the cat out. Then again, deriving enjoyment from a cat’s suffering (Katzen-Schadenfreude?) is a form of entertainment that goes back for centuries. In his classic essay, “The Great Cat Massacre,” Robert Darnton details some of the horrors that we have visited on cats since the Middle Ages: we have tossed them into bonfires, held mock trials before putting them to death, and yanked their tails to make “rough music.”4 It’s not hard to see the tragic cats of the Twitter account “Black Metal Cats,” which captions images to make cats seem to ponder cruel, depressing thoughts, as a postmodern, no-cats-were-harmed-in-the-making-of-this-tweet update on the tradition.

The ascendance of the cat as the mascot of the internet relied on an insider culture that saw the internet as a snarky, alienated alternative to the mainstream.

How, by comparison, do we treat dogs on the web? We show a tail-wagging dog welcoming a soldier home. Or a dog jumping out of a gift box at Christmas, or leaving the pound for a “forever home,” or participating, clueless but elated as ever, in a marriage proposal. Internet dogs are always happy, always partners in the events of human life.5 By common consent, people on the internet find the suffering of dogs not funny, but deeply upsetting. I sometimes visit an internet forum dedicated to the television series Game of Thrones; it’s not unusual to see people comment that the deaths of direwolves are the most painful moments of the show to watch. You can find a movie website titled “Does the Dog Die?” No equivalent website exists for cats; indeed, popular cinema has made a trope of killing and injuring cats for comic effect.6

Internet culture permits cats to channel a dark emotional spectrum. To be sure, despair is not all we deal out to cats online. LOLCats—the genre of image macros that arguably invented the concept of the internet meme—often show cats presiding happily over boxes, bubbles, and cheeseburgers. Nyan Cat, an animated character that has become something of a mascot for internet culture, packs the accessories of goofy fun into a single package: he’s a smiling cat with a Poptart for a body who rides a rainbow through the air while whimsical music plays. But there is also Grumpy Cat, who gives a face to our snarky comments, and LOLCats who get annoyed, long to be alone, suffer from lack of sleep, and have bad hair days, just like us. In 2011, Katharine Miltner, a graduate student at the London School of Economics, wrote a master’s thesis on LOLCats.7 She found that LOLCats allowed her subjects “to either laugh at themselves or express emotions that might otherwise be seen as ‘unacceptable’ for any number of reasons.” We like dogs to be simple, perhaps because we find depictions of dogs that are not happy and loyal disturbing; we allow cats to be complicated—grumpy, goofy, imperious, moody—perhaps because we have learned that it’s acceptable to take pleasure in their displeasure.

Miltner is not alone in turning LOLCats into scholarly fodder. The very ubiquity of cats on the web has led serious media scholars to devise theories about the web that are also theories about cats. Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab, describes one of his most widely cited arguments about censorship and participatory media as the “cute cat theory” of digital activism.8 The theory starts with the quip that the internet is fundamentally a delivery system for cats; that is, silly content meant to pass the time—metaphorically, pictures of cats—comprises most of the activity on commercial social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Activists who live under oppressive governments, he suggests, would do well to consider these platforms as serious tools for spreading their messages. Whereas homegrown publishing platforms risk government interference via firewalls, hacking, or DDoS attacks, big commercial platforms are far less vulnerable to censorship precisely because they contain so much innocuous content. And if cats can get through the pipes, more serious content can get through the pipes as well.9

Recently, I reached out to Zuckerman by phone.10 He was amused to hear about the media divide between dogs and cats, and immediately offered a comparable puzzle: “Baseball is no longer America’s most popular sport, but it is the most popular literary sport. There’s something about the languor, the pace, of baseball that makes people want to read about it. Football and basketball have never generated the same sort of literary output. You can read the Elysian Fields Quarterly, for example—a quarterly journal for baseball literature, and fairly high-quality. I can’t think of any equivalent for football or basketball. The lesson in this may be that it’s difficult to have a single measure of popularity.”

Fair enough; but what makes cats so useful as an alphabet for the literature of the web? Zuckerman suggested that dogs would never work for the multivalent, generically complex messages we often share online. The activists he studies, for example, often use humor and the tools of remix culture to draw attention to their messages and engage directly with others. Even in our mundane uses of the internet—when we’re wasting time at work, for example—we often use internet genres to share terrible thoughts that we would never share in person. (He’s the one who recommended “Black Metal Cats” to me.) “Troubled cats are meaningful to us,” he said, “whereas troubled dogs are just upsetting. They don’t have the emotional complexity and depth that cats do. Cats have drama and pathos as well as playing the clown.”

At this point, I realized that I was talking to a cat person.

Sabu with Tandy 1000 computer, 2008. Photograph by Craig Howell / Flickr

Here is my theory. The respective popularity of cats and dogs reveals something about the lowest-energy states of the media marketplaces that favor them. In the case of the marketplace for print, the lowest-energy state is self-improvement; all print nonfiction tends toward the condition of the self-help book. Much in mainstream American culture came out of Scottish author Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859), and his heirs have captured ever-greater shares of the marketplace for serious nonfiction. If you walk into a bookstore, you are likely to notice, alongside the titles by Malcolm Gladwell, Clayton Christensen, or Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, crowds of other titles that imitate the work of these authors: social science, economic theory, and other serious disciplines carefully tempered, for the sake of the marketplace, with lessons for personal growth.

In their fidelity and unearned affection, dogs are naturals for the self-help genre. Dog stories usually have a moral, and that moral is essentially the same as that (according to G. K. Chesterton) of the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”: some people need to be loved before they can be lovable. Nonfiction on American best-seller lists tends to be functional; it promises to help us become more likable, more employable, more resilient. Dogs reassure us that we are all of those things already. Books about dogs don’t always end happily, but they share a basic trust in the reality of happiness.

What is the lowest-energy state of the digital media marketplace? Speaking broadly, the problem with internet journalism is that it has great concepts, but no follow-through. For example, in 2013, after a debate arose over whether the Canadian birth of the politician Ted Cruz could bar him from the presidency, Buzzfeed ran a topical listicle up the flagpole: “The 16 Most Canadian Things about Ted Cruz.” Unfortunately, the title’s considerable promise preceded a disappointing execution: Cruz’s wife wears red; his campaign signs are red; he sometimes gives a thumbs-up, like the famous Canadian Justin Bieber; and so on. I know some Canadians, and I would have liked to be able to needle them by forwarding a list of carefully sniffed out, playfully precise observations: Cruz once apologized to a parked car; he puts ketchup on everything; his environmental policies seem to aim at the creation of a Northwest Passage—that sort of thing.

This experience of intrigue followed by disappointment seems to be endemic to the web. It’s the natural corollary of a marketplace for attention that has come to rely on the shallowest of excitements to attract page views: clickbait headlines, listicles, the new genre of the “hot take.” Writers for sites like Buzzfeed may have to meet a high quota of daily blog posts, limiting the amount of research they can devote to a given post. (On “pageview duty days,” Gawker writers used to publish some 14 posts a day.) For his part, Zuckerman saw immediately how a dim view of the internet’s spectacle coheres with a dim view of the spectacle of cats. “Cats give you moments of delight surrounded by years of indifference,” he said. “And that is the quintessential experience of the internet. The internet manages periodically to be fascinating and insightful, but most of the time it’s terrible.”

“The internet is those random moments of weirdness and delight—but the internet is mostly just snark,” he added. “Dogs are pathologically incapable of snark; cats are fueled by snark.”

The very ubiquity of cats on the web has led serious media scholars to devise theories about the web that are also theories about cats.

J. Nathan Matias, a scholar of civic media, has raised the hypothesis that the internet has reached “peak cat.” In the United States, the number of households with dogs exceeds the number of households with cats (although households with cats have more pets in total). The extraordinary diversification of the web—the spread of platforms and forums for just about everything—means that internet users who want to share photos of dogs can find communities just as easily as those who prefer cats. Now that the internet is truly mainstream—now that internet users no longer represent a tiny clique of outsiders with disproportionate talents in technology—why shouldn’t the animal preferences of the internet even out to match those of the public at large?

By now, though, cats may be, as they say, baked into the internet’s operations. If Robert Alford is right, the special place of popular music in gay culture began, in the early 20th century, with the convenience of clubs, theaters, and bars as sites where people could mingle in public with plausible deniability. Today, although secrecy is no longer so vital, music endures in the community as a form of cultural literacy, an insider language recognizable as such even to those who reject it.11 As Miltner’s study testifies, cats have become part of the cultural literacy of the “internetty,” or the internet understood as a culture unto itself. For the rest of the internet’s users, cats belong to the suite of online rituals that we perform even if we have forgotten their origin.

Real work remains to be done, as Zuckerman notes, on the significance of cats for the outsiders who helped to set down the internet’s core protocols. LOLCats most likely derive from 4chan, a spinoff from the Japanese forum 2chan; meme culture has deep roots in japonisme. What can cultural history tell us about the place of cats in Japanese culture, or again about the place of Japanese culture in the imaginations of the Americans who helped to build the internet? What other animals have emerged on the web as symbols of alienation, and why? The ascendance of the cat as the mascot of the internet relied on an insider culture that saw the internet as a snarky, alienated alternative to the mainstream. Now the internet is the mainstream. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog; if you’re here, it means we all know you’re a cat. icon

  1. Dana Perino, Let Me Tell You about Jasper (a Fox News host discusses dogs); Mary Oliver, Dog Songs (poems and an essay on dogs); Mike Ritland, Trident K9 Warriors (combat dogs); Seth Casteel, Underwater Dogs (“photographs of dogs under water”); Maria Goodavage, Soldier Dogs (combat dogs); Jim Gorant, The Lost Dogs (dogs saved from a dogfighting ring); Malcolm Gladwell, What the Dog Saw (Gladwellian essays; the title essay focuses on a dog trainer); Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog (dog psychology); Dean Koontz, A Big Little Life (adopting a dog); Mark R. Levin, Rescuing Sprite (adopting a dog); Anna Quindlen, Good Dog. Stay (raising a dog); Ted Kerasote, Merle’s Door (adopting a dog); Jon Katz, Dog Days (raising dogs); John Grogan, Marley & Me (raising a dog); John O’Hurley, It’s Okay to Miss the Bed on the First Jump (living with dogs).
  2. Gwen Cooper, Homer’s Odyssey (adopting a blind cat).
  3. When you have a free moment, visit the master list on Wikipedia for “faithful dogs.” Is there an equivalent list for cats? What do you think?
  4. Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (Basic Books, 1984). I rehearsed some of this essay’s anecdotes of cat suffering and entertainment in a blog post about the phenomenon’s effects on the English lexicon.
  5. This is another essay—or at least it requires more space and care than the constraints of this essay can give it—but it is worth noting that we seem to feminize cats and masculinize dogs, which lends gendered overtones to our tendency to shield or valorize the suffering of dogs and trivialize the suffering of cats.
  6. I suspect that, at least some of the time, this is a filmmaker’s joke about a famous 2005 screenwriting book called Save the Cat.
  7. Kate Miltner, “SRSLY Phenomenal: An Investigation into the Appeal of Lolcats” (master’s thesis, London School of Economics, 2011).
  8. Ethan Zuckerman, “Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression,” in From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, edited by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light (University of Chicago Press, 2015), pp. 131–154.
  9. Moreover, activists can use the cultural forms of social media, such as humor and remix culture, to better engage audiences (Zuckerman, p. 132).
  10. Ethan Zuckerman, interview by the author, telephone, December 28, 2016.
  11. Robert Garner Alford, “‘To Know the Words to the Music’: Spatial Circulation, Queer Discourse and the Musical” (dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2016).
Featured image: Novelty postcard image of posed animals. Photograph likely by Harry William Frees / Public Domain