BBC Future

Life:Connected

Cute cats, memes and understanding the internet

About the author

Tom Chatfield is a British author. His most recent book, “Netymology”, explores language and technology. He blogs at tomchatfield.net and tweets at @TomChatfield

(Copyright: SPL)

(Copyright: SPL)

Why is the internet so obsessed with pictures of cats and is there more to them than meets the eye?

“Oh hai. Welcom 2 dis weekz colum all bout teh peculiar fenomenon ov memez an teh internetz fascianashun wif kats.”

That sentence probably puts you in one of two camps: someone who thinks the BBC’s standards have reached an all time low, or an aficionado of one of the most virally pervasive of all internet memes, the lolcat.

For the uninitiated, lolcats are the near-numberless offspring of a venerable class of object: the “image macro”, in which text is superimposed on to a photograph. Born in the mid-2000s, “laugh-out-loud-cats” – as nobody would ever dream of spelling them out – pair cute animal images with comically-misspelt captions.

This may seem distinctly limited grounds for amusement. But type “lolcat” into Google and you’ll turn up not only six-million-plus pictures, but initiatives ranging from scholarly studies to the frankly bewildering “lolcat bible translation project”, which is steadily converting the entire holy book into “lolspeak” (Genesis 1:1 – “Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs...”)

Meme machine

Lolcats are the pinnacle of what are known as internet memes, the online equivalent of an idea coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, to describe the quasi-organic spread of some ideas through society. Little did Dawkins know that, within a few decades, his word would also have come to describe a uniquely contemporary class of object – a benign virus of the digital age, mutating and spreading via all those it persuades to laugh out loud along its path.

There are tens of thousands of memes online, embodying near-unimaginable quantities of ingenious timewasting. From dancing babies to flying felines shaped like pop tarts, they sweep from satire (the gap between politicians releasing campaign posters and the net adapting them into parodies is now numbered in minutes rather than hours) to pop-cultural gags with more layers than a set of Russian dolls (read the 3,000-word Wikipedia article on “Rickrolling” for an example of how a meme can eat itself several times over within the space of five years).

There’s much argument over the first digital meme – although one leading contender is the emoticon for a smiley face, :), seen in use as early as 1982 on early internet discussion forums. Almost everyone agrees, though, that the most potent memes involve some combination of appealing animals and punning text.

Animal magic

Why animals? A 2007 Yale study of “category-specific attention for animals” highlighted humans’ disproportionate tendency to pay more attention to our fellow creatures than any other kind of object. The trend, though, is larger even than evolutionary hardwiring. It is one of the paradoxes of a vast, global structure like the internet that its expansion puts as much of an emphasis on human divisions as it does on communication. The 21st Century net is bursting with different nations, languages, cultural references, concerns and sources of amusement. But aside from a handful of celebrities, human beings themselves are simply too particular for universal export, being bound as they are to a particular time, place, and culture.

Animals are the opposite – and domestic animals like cats and dogs especially so. Liberated from language and nationality, they are blank canvases for us to doodle upon at whim. Type “cats” into YouTube and you will see that the top ten results (out of 1.4 million) have been viewed over 200 million times between them. Type “dogs”, and the figure is closer to 350 million.

Animal photos have even spawned their own political theory, thanks in part to digital thinker and MIT Center for Civic Media director Ethan Zuckerman. Zuckerman’s argument – sometimes dubbed the cute cats theory of political activism – is that the tools and techniques developed for sharing adorable images are also extremely effective vehicles for disseminating revolutionary political content.

It is, after all, encoded into the very nature of memes that they are both popular and populist; easy to create, copy and disseminate; and very difficult to filter out or shut down. One question this begs is how far the global infrastructure of meme dissemination helped fuel, for example, the Arab spring, which owed much of its early spread both within and beyond Tunisia to the sharing of protest videos on curated websites outside of the country. Swapping cat photos does not bring down governments, but the sites, habits and systems fostered by meme-sharing do present severe challenges to those wishing to regulate the global information tide.

Pass it on

If this sounds grandiose, it is worth pausing to consider the net’s unique credentials when it comes to mixing banality and brilliance. In internet terms, memes are quite literally better than sex, let alone politics: more popular, more universal, and more widely accepted. We are living in a digital world that attaches deep value to the capacity to share, and to laugh together at almost anything.

Witness the response in January 2012 to the Kremlin’s attempt to smear an opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, by publishing a badly-photoshopped picture of him cosying up to a controversial oligarch. The reaction – more effective than any bland denial – was to release online a succession of images showing Navalny in the company of Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon, a cartoon alien, and, most unlikely of all, Vladimir Putin himself.

It is a cheering thought – and one that should remind us what kind of a mirror we are holding up to ourselves in the technologies of the 21st Century. Laughter alone doesn’t topple odious regimes and canny dictators have long understood the usefulness of both bread and circuses. Yet memes, at their best, represent much more than a collective exercise in foolishness or denial.

Like the capacity of human society itself to act, in Dawkins’s terms, as a kind of gene pool for thoughts and belief, we are today the conscious agents of our own delight and distraction in a way never previously possible. And with this comes a new sense of what it means to be part of a truly global human collective, celebrating and rethinking its own nature every day – comic cats, dancing babies, and photoshopped Putins included.

All in all, it is not a fuchur I’m unhappy 2 b part ov.

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