Some time ago, I read through ten years’ worth of the New York Times best-seller list and noticed a strange phenomenon. Over the previous ten years—from December 17, 2006 to December 17, 2016—fifteen nonfiction books about dogs had been on the New York Times best-seller list, altogether spending a total of 118 weeks on the list.1 During the same period, exactly one best-selling nonfiction book was about a cat. It was on the list for two weeks.2
That dogs can anchor best sellers is not surprising. (By now, even those who have not read Marley and Me directly have read it by osmosis.) What is surprising is how many of them they anchor, 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, users of the internet have cast their vote—again and again, in the form of millions upon millions of image macros, emojis, memetic videos, and eight-bit Nyan Cats bobbing across the screen—for the cat as the mascot of the digital world. Dogs are from books, cats are from bytes. How has this come to be the case?
The triumph of cats on the internet is a measurable fact; but it is also a myth, a signifier that carries remarkable force in the marketplace of attention. Lolcats, the most famous of internet memes, have become an industry in their own right, producing endless merchandise in the form of T-shirts, posters, mugs, and books—even a Lolcat Bible. Indeed, Lolcats arguably invented the popular concept of the internet meme, and for many internet users—especially “digital immigrants,” or people who were already in adulthood when they began to use the internet—they constitute the entire experience of internet memes. At the time of this book’s writing, most of the celebrity animals on the internet are cats; famous cats online include Maru, Curious Zelda, Hamilton the moustache cat, Venus, Colonel Meow, and the late Lil Bub and Grumpy Cat.3 Grumpy Cat had merchandise, a movie, and friends in high places: when she passed, the worlds of new media and old media mourned alike.
The invocation of the cat as the mascot of the internet—the internet’s “spirit animal,” as the Washington Post said in 2014—can be used, and often is used, as a free-floating signifier.4 The poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s book Wasting Time on the Internet (2016) has an image of a kitten on its cover, though the book doesn’t mention cats once.5 The publisher understood when selecting the cover that the public would understand the symbol without explanation.6 The Economist and the New York Times have likewise used images of cats to illustrate articles about the internet that mentioned cats fleetingly, if at all; cats simply provided a shorthand, a symbol for new media that even the newspapers’ old-media readerships would be able to understand.7
In a 2013 article in Foreign Policy, Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, used a similar shorthand to make a point about the web and the future of journalism: “When I came to BuzzFeed at the end of 2011, some wondered why I would jump from the hard-news hub Politico to a site best known for its appreciation of Ryan Gosling and discerning taste in cat pictures.” Here, the phrase cat pictures signifies the frivolous side of the internet; the phrase is meant to be a trifle demeaning—a jab, for the benefit of readers who think serious ideas must have serious expression, at the shallowness and pointlessness of much of the content to be found online. New media can accommodate both serious work and pointless leisure, Smith assured his readers: “So don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because the social web is full of cat pictures, great journalism is dying.”8
The advertising slogan of Reddit, a popular social news site, is “Come for the cats. Stay for the empathy.”9 Journalists regularly repeat the joke, “As we all know, the internet is made of cats.”10 BuzzFeed ranks contributors according to a metric that it calls “cat power.”11 (For a time, the metric appeared beside every contributor’s byline in the form of a ranking of one to five cats, represented by images of celebrity cats such as Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, and Colonel Meow.) The BuzzFeed website explains: “As you know, the internet is powered primarily by cats, so your Cat Power on BuzzFeed is an official measure of your rank in BuzzFeed’s Community. The more you are featured and the better you get at making awesome posts, the higher your Cat Power will be.”12
That BuzzFeed circulates about the same proportions of cat and dog pictures makes no difference to the phrase’s significance; indeed, we might measure the cat’s power as a symbol of the internet precisely in the distance between its usage as a market-facing symbol of the internet—used in cover illustrations; in titles; in journalistic ledes; in knowing throwaway references—and the quantifiable realities that increasingly fail to back up the tacit claims of that usage.
Consider an experiment at Google’s bleeding-edge X-Lab in 2012: researchers performed an experiment in “deep learning” to determine whether a computer could learn to recognize shapes and concepts without first being fed training data that had been labeled with those shapes and concepts. Researchers used three concepts to test the computer’s neural network: a human face, a human body, and a cat.13 (The experiment was successful; after looking at 20,000 randomly chosen video thumbnails from YouTube, the neural network generated a Shroud-of-Turin-like digital image of an average cat face for use in recognizing cats. “We never told it during the training, ‘This is a cat,’” one researcher told the New York Times. “It basically invented the concept of a cat.”)14 The fact that Google researchers, given a colossally ambitious AI, decided that one of the first things the AI should learn is how to recognize cats says a lot about geek culture and the social norms of the internet age.
Traditional media institutions have taken notice of geek culture’s embrace of cats. In 2005, the New York Times declared, “Cats are the Web’s it-animals. They’re everywhere.”15 In 2013, CBS News ran a television news story, titled “Cat videos take over the Internet, marketing world,” that repeated an unverifiable statistic from the pet food company Friskies: “Fifteen percent of all internet traffic is connected to cats.”16 That same year, an advertising agency announced, in a satirical video, that it was opening a division dedicated to cat videos. “Everything is moving towards cat videos,” the video announces. “By 2015, cat videos are going to represent 90% of the content on the World Wide Web. That’s proven results.”17
These trends have prompted serious media scholars to devise theories about the internet that are also theories about cats. The civic media scholar Ethan Zuckerman describes his most widely cited argument about censorship and participatory media as the “cute cat theory of digital activism.” (In one of the paper’s subheaders, he declares, tongue-in-cheek, “The Internet is Made of Cats.”)18 In 2011, Kate Miltner, a graduate student at the London School of Economics—now a notable media scholar—wrote a master’s thesis on Lolcats.19 In 2015, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City held an exhibition, curated by the brilliant Jason Eppink, on “How Cats Took over the Internet.”20
The rise of what Wired magazine has called “the online cat-industrial complex” becomes even more puzzling when viewed against the dog-industrial complex of print media.21 I regarded this dissimilarity, at first, as evidence that my prejudices against cats—I am a lifelong dog owner—were valid. Why shouldn’t books, which are, if not better than digital communication, certainly more considered, more thoughtful, demanding of greater commitment, flourish under the Dog Star? Books are machines of longue durée, immersing the reader in forms of attention so sustained that they can emulate real experience. In their famous loyalty, dogs likewise give us an experience of sustained attention. But as I fell deeper into the world of cats on the internet and internet cats, I came believe that the question of how cats came to dominate the internet is more profound than it first appears.
A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet is the first book to explore the history of how the cat came to be the undisputed mascot of the internet. The book has a rough chronological structure, with each chapter exploring specific topics that track with the history of the cat as an instrument of what Dick Hebdige, borrowing from Umberto Eco, termed “semiotic guerilla warfare.”22 The argument that runs through the book’s many episodes is that the study of internet cats, as an extension of the study of communities that shaped the world of digital computing, can tell us much about how culture shapes, and is shaped by, technology. Westerners have used cats for centuries as symbols of pathos, anger, and alienation. The communities that helped to build the internet, whose members construed themselves as outsiders who worked against the mainstream, made snark and alienation a part of their identity. Because communication drives so much of the internet, from the microlevel of symbol processing to the macrolevel of media platforms, the history of internet cats is entwined with the social and technological history of the internet at large.
For the purposes of this book, perhaps the most significant aspect of that history is what now seems self-evident, yet once seemed counterintuitive: that the internet’s functions are social. “One of the surprising properties of computing,” the Harvard Business Review reported in 1986, “is that it is a social activity.” Organizations that gave employees computers had found that people wanted to use the new technologies to chat, tool around, and pursue generalist questions, not specialist answers: “People usually perceive computers as special-purpose tools for calculations and data storage. But where we have studied computers—in companies and educational organizations—people tend to use them as a general-purpose tool to gather and distribute information and to talk with others.”23
Cats are a symbol of pointless online sociability; so the reason that we needed a symbol of pointless online sociability—that its prevalence came as a surprise to all who had “for so long heard about the coldness and impersonality of the computer”—is worth keeping in mind.24 From the 1970s to the early 1990s, most research on computer-mediated communication focused on the utilitarian question of whether computers enabled groups in the workplace to carry out tasks more easily. To the bafflement of researchers, the answer was often no.25 One of the very first books on computer-mediated communication, The Network Nation (1978), offers an early glimpse, among the serious work sent over bulletin-board systems on corporate intranets, of the practice, nigh ubiquitous today, of being off-task while online: quips and personal chitchat; funny poems on topical subjects; off-topic, circular, unwinnable arguments; outbursts of obscenity; identity experimentation under pseudonyms; and the circulation of amusing pictures, for instance ASCII art of reindeer to celebrate Christmas.26
As The Network Nation notes, computer messaging, which lacks personal cues such as body language and facial expressions, puts barriers in the way of humor, emotional expression, and social exchange.27 But users of ARPANET and other early computer networks evidently found joy in these things, and they put considerable free labor into developing spaces and discourses amenable to them. Early on, mailing lists began to appear on ARPANET that focused on science fiction, wine tasting, and other amusements that could hardly be defended as research.28 The universities that hosted ARPANET’s servers tried to suppress these mailing lists and failed. Frivolous sociability, startling to early observers of computing, became a major force driving the development of the internet: not an epiphenomenon, but a root cause. After all, users liked and wanted it; and since computers, as machines that imitate other machines, are changeful and changeable, the history of digital computing has always arisen, above all, “from the histories of the groups of practitioners who saw in it, or in some yet to be envisioned form of it, the potential to realize their agendas and aspirations.”9
Internet cats, as a symbol of these agendas—belated as a symbol of frivolity, but timely as a symbol of japoniste techno-modernity, youth-culture rebellion, cyberpunk aggression, and the weirdness and transgression that once seemed to mark internet culture as an authentic space that was separate from the mainstream—reveal how the communities that adopted networking technologies in advance of the general public helped to establish aesthetic values and social codes that endured in internet culture. They also reveal how, as the general public adopted networking technologies, those early communities sought to raise boundaries between themselves and the newcomers who started to threaten, by their numbers, to dominate new media.
The term unified theory is tongue-in-cheek. We can no more unify the frivolity, rebellion, weirdness, and transformative work that takes place on the internet than we can capture the sea in a net. If anything, this book spins a unifying thread from its attention to social division. As historians have shown, major trends in computing have often come, not from mainstream institutions, but from subcultures, countercultures, and upstart startups.30 An account of internet culture that attends to the history of the idea—now outdated—that a meaningful divide separates the internet from the mainstream can help us to better understand distinctive phenomena that have emerged from the internet, like trolling and memes. It can also help us to better understand how a medium for specialized work, which users adapted to become a medium for sociability, could be adapted still further to become our major delivery system for weirdness. This book investigates that history via the semiotics of online felines, seeking, along the way, to reveal hidden narratives of prejudice, in-group socialization, and cross-cultural identification on the web.
Some initial caveats and a confession.
First, the caveats: this is not a book about cats, but rather a book about the internet. The text gives very little space to the offline lives of cats, and a great deal of space to such themes of new media studies as mediation, participatory culture, and hacker aesthetics. When I began the research for this book, I took a teetering stack of books about cats out of the library of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. (“I have a cat,” the library circulation clerk told me. “My friends keep telling me to make her internet famous.” Then she showed me a picture of the largest cat I have ever seen.) The books were not much help, it turns out, for understanding internet cats. By contrast, reading about Japan, Silicon Valley countercultures, punk music, and the sociological concept of boundary maintenance helped a great deal.
Nor does this book account for every cat that has ever won fame on the internet. If I have left out your favorite internet cat, I apologize; I hope this book may nevertheless help you to better enjoy the Niko or Remy or Rolf or Tingeling or Zelda who lights up your digital life.
As a historical commitment, this book tends to emphasize the lagging edge as well as the cutting edge of high-tech culture. Some of the events I chronicle took the shape they did only because the spread of a new technology was gradual, not immediate. Trolling would not have arisen in the forms it did had the internet not reached the general public years, sometimes decades, after it reached more tech-savvy communities. Meme culture would not have arisen in the forms it did—and cats would not have been at its neo-pop center—had hardcore internet users not built underground, members-only subcultures on hacker forums, image boards, and elsewhere. The narrative in this book relies on an approach to the history of technology that attends to the staggering of early and late adopters, since such staggering can have significant cultural effects.
Another theme of this book is that the internet does not merely chronicle cultural events. Cultural events can change the internet at political and even technological levels. Google Images came about because Jennifer Lopez wore a revealing dress to the Grammys in 2000, which created a demand for image-based searching that Google couldn’t ignore.31 Lopez’s dress was an event in the history of the internet. YouTube started on the path to what it has today—a natural monopoly over user-generated video—in part because, two days after the platform’s public launch in December 2005, Saturday Night Live released a hip-hop video, “Lazy Sunday,” that seemingly everyone wanted to share with their friends. Bootleg copies of “Lazy Sunday” constituted many people’s first experience of YouTube; according to one narrative of YouTube’s rise, they helped to carry the platform past a tipping point of market penetration early on.32
Cats don’t have a monopoly over participatory internet culture as YouTube (nearly) does over internet video. Rather, as Ethan Zuckerman suggests, internet cats resemble long-established web protocols—like the network protocol HTTP, which allows computers to exchange messages for the display of web pages. In most everyday usage, HTTP has been replaced by the more secure network protocol HTTPS, but HTTP is still around, forming the foundational structure of the World Wide Web. Although the explicit identification of cats with the internet is, as this book will show, fairly recent—it dates only to around 2005—by now cats may be, as they say, baked into the internet’s operations. For the extremely online, cats have become a basic part of cultural literacy—a signifier, in Miltner’s term, of the internetty, or the internet understood as a culture unto itself—while 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. 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 origins.
Next, the confession: when I started looking into internet cats, I was a self-avowed cat hater. I used to enjoy ribbing cat owners for keeping companions who (it seemed to me) didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. It was an easy posture to take on social media, offering the pleasure of expressing a strong opinion without the risk of expressing an opinion on an important subject. And I had a lot of evidence to work with. Do you see cats carrying little barrels of brandy up mountains to aid lost travelers? Do you see cats herding sheep, protecting cattle, leading the blind, aiding search-and-rescue teams, sniffing out bombs, carrying messages, chasing down suspects, warning off intruders, collecting balls at tennis matches, comforting sick children in the hospital, or pulling drowning sailors from the waves to the shore? No, you don’t. My image of dogs corresponded with the works of the painter Edwin Landseer, where dogs are heroes, friends, and mourners; my image of cats corresponded with the works of Salvador Dali, where cats are the useless clocks melting over the furniture.
But then, while researching this book, I took in a cat to foster. A year later, I have to report: I’ll grab it, I’ll buy it, I’m finally sold. I finally understand what cat people have always been talking about.
Well, I was always a late adopter.
1. Dana Perino, Let Me Tell You about Jasper (a Fox News host discusses dogs) (New York: Twelve, 2016); Mary Oliver, Dog Songs (poems and an essay on dogs) (New York: Penguin, 2013); Mike Ritland, Trident K9 Warriors (combat dogs) (New York: St. Martin’s, 2015); Seth Casteel, Underwater Dogs (“photographs of dogs under water”) (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012); Maria Goodavage, Soldier Dogs (combat dogs) (New York: Dutton, 2012); Jim Gorant, The Lost Dogs (dogs saved from a dogfighting ring) (New York: Avery, 2011); Malcolm Gladwell, What the Dog Saw (Gladwellian essays; the title essay focuses on a dog trainer) (New York: Penguin, 2015); Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog (dog psychology) (New York: Scribner, 2010); Dean Koontz, A Big Little Life (adopting a dog) (New York: Random House, 2011); Mark R. Levin, Rescuing Sprite (adopting a dog) (New York: Threshold, 2009); Anna Quindlen, Good Dog. Stay (raising a dog) (New York: Random House, 2007); Ted Kerasote, Merle’s Door (adopting a dog) (New York: Mariner Books, 2008); Jon Katz, Dog Days (raising dogs) (New York: Villard, 2007); John Grogan, Marley and Me (raising a dog) (New York: William Morrow, 2005); John O’Hurley, It’s Okay to Miss the Bed on the First Jump (living with dogs) (New York: Hudson Street, 2006).
2. Gwen Cooper, Homer’s Odyssey (adopting a blind cat) (Delacorte, 2010).
3. On the collision of stardom with the internet, see, for example, Rex Sorgatz, “The Microfame Game,” New York, June 17, 2008, http://nymag.com/news/media/47958/; and Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (New York: Hyperion, 2006).
4. Caitlin Dewey, “Meet the Internet’s Earliest Cat Lovers—and the Trolls Who Terrorized Them,” Washington Post, August 8, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/08/08/meet-the-internets-earliest-cat-lovers-and-the-trolls-who-terrorized-them/.
5. Kenneth Goldsmith, Wasting Time on the Internet (New York: HarperCollins, 2016).
6. The 2018 book Disrupting the Digital Humanities has a similar design: a snarling cat on the cover, with no mention of cats, nor any mention needed, inside the book’s pages. Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel, eds., Disrupting the Digital Humanities (New York: Punctum, 2018).
7. Anonymous, “Asian Leaders Are in the Vanguard of Social Media,” The Economist, February 8, 2018, https://www.economist.com/asia/2018/02/08/asian-leaders-are-in-the-vanguard-of-social-media; Kevin Roose, “Online Cesspool Got You Down? You Can Clean It Up, for a Price,” New York Times Magazine, November 13, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/13/magazine/internet-premium.html; “So the Internet Didn’t Turn Out the Way We Hoped. Where Do We Go from Here?,” New York Times Magazine, November 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/14/magazine/internet-future-dream.html.
8. Ben Smith, “11 BuzzFeed Lists that Explain the World,” Foreign Policy no. 200, May-June 2013, 20–21, https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/04/29/11-buzzfeed-lists-that-explain-the-world/.
9. Caitlin McGarry, “Reddit’s Grand Vision: Come for the Cats, Stay for the Empathy,” PC World, March 10, 2017, https://www.pcworld.com/article/3179646/reddits-grand-vision-come-for-the-cats-stay-for-the-empathy.html.
10. For example, Meredith Woerner, “The Epic Mural of the Internet Doesn’t Have Nearly Enough Cats,” io9 (blog), Gizmodo, January 29, 2010, https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-epic-mural-of-the-internet-doesnt-have-nearly-enoug-5459303. Adrienne Massanari begins her book on Reddit with a similarly casual reference: “If the internet is made of cats, reddit.com (reddit) is its temple . . . I am sure I started visiting it semi-regularly in 2008/2009, mostly for the cat pictures. . . . I came to reddit because of the cats. I stayed for the community.” Adrienne Lynne Massanari, Participatory Culture, Community, and Play: Learning from Reddit (New York: Peter Lang, 2015), 5.
11. See also Caroline O’Donovan, “They Put the U in UGC: BuzzFeed Builds a Community Vertical as a Talent Incubator,” NiemanLab, May 20, 2013, http://www.niemanlab.org/2013/05/they-put-the-u-in-ugc-buzzfeed-builds-a-community-vertical-as-a-talent-incubator/.
12. “About BuzzFeed Community,” BuzzFeed Community, accessed November 26, 2019, https://www.buzzfeed.com/community/about#catpower.
13. Quoc V. Le et al., “Building High-Level Features Using Large Scale Unsupervised Learning,” in Proceedings of the 29th International Conference on Machine Learning (Edinburgh, Scotland: Omnipress, 2012), https://icml.cc/2012/papers/73.pdf.
14. John Markoff, “How Many Computers to Identify a Cat? 16,000,” New York Times, June 26, 2012. See also Liat Clark, “Google’s Artificial Brain Learns to Recognize Cat Videos,” Wired, June 26, 2012, https://www.wired.com/2012/06/google-x-neural-network/.
15. Sarah Boxer, “Internet’s Best Friend (Let Me Count the Ways),” New York Times, July 30, 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/30/arts/internets-best-friend-let-me-count-the-ways.html.
16. John Blackstone, “Cats Take over Internet, Marketing World,” CBS News, September 2, 2013, https://www.cbsnews.com/video/cat-videos-take-over-internet-marketing-world/.
17. john st., “Catvertising,” YouTube, November 10, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkOQw96cfyE.
18. Ethan Zuckerman, “Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression,” in Youth, New Media, and Political Participation, eds. Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light (Boston: MIT Press), 131–54.
19. Kate Miltner, “SRSLY Phenomenal: An Investigation into the Appeal of Lolcats” (master’s thesis, London School of Economics, 2011).
20. Eppink, “How Cats Took Over the Internet.” Exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York City, 2015. This exhibition’s account of the rise of the internet cat emphasizes technological factors: for example, the fact that cats are good subjects for the stationary cameras attached to personal computers. This book will place more emphasis on cultural factors.
21. Gideon Lewis Kraus, “In Search of the Heart of the Online Cat-Industrial Complex,” Wired, August 31, 2012.
22. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (New York: Routledge,  2013), 105.
23. Sara Kiesler, “The Hidden Messages in Computer Networks,” Harvard Business Review, January 1986, https://hbr.org/1986/01/the-hidden-messages-in-computer-networks.
24. Suzanne Keller, “Foreword,” in Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff, The Network Nation: Human Communication Via Computer (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978), xix.
25. For example, one early study of communication on corporate computer bulletin boards “found that decision-making actually took longer over computer networks, even when the time spent typing was taken into account, and that uninhibited behavior (insults and anger) increased.” Cited in Jennifer Jean McGee, “Net of a Million Lies: Rhetoric and Community on Three Usenet Newsgroups” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1998), 12. As late as 1995, Nancy Baym could report of scholarship on computer-mediated communication that “task-oriented applications of CMC remain the focus of most research.” Nancy Baym, “The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication,” in CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, ed. Steven Jones (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995), 139.
26. Hiltz and Turoff, The Network Nation, 62, 88, 96–113.
27. Ibid., 76–83.
28. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993), 54–56.
29. Michael Mahoney, “The Histories of Computing(s),” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30, no. 2 (2005): 119.
30. See, for example, Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006); Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
31. See, for example, Scarlett Kilcooley-O’Halloran, “J Lo Responsible for Google Images,” Vogue.co.uk, April 8, 2015, https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/j-lo-green-versace-dress-responsible-for-google-image-search.
32. Jean Burgess and Joshua Green describe several competing narratives of YouTube’s rise in YouTube (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009), 2–4. For examples of this particular narrative in action, see John Biggs, “A Video Clip Goes Viral, and a TV Network Wants to Control It,” New York Times, February 20, 2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/20/business/media/a-video-clip-goes-viral-and-a-tv-network-wants-to-control-it.html; and Andrew Wallenstein and Todd Spangler, “‘Lazy Sunday’ Turns 10: ‘SNL’ Stars Recall How TV Invaded the Internet,” Variety, December 18, 2015, https://variety.com/2015/tv/news/lazy-sunday-10th-anniversary-snl-1201657949/.