Right now, at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, there’s an exhibit called “How Cats Took Over the Internet.” Inside runs a 24-minute looped compilation filled with some of viral cat videos, like The Internet Is Made of Cats, Fat Cat in pot (attempt 2), Keyboard Cat, and Mission: Impurrsible. The exhibit also talks about how videos of dogs just aren’t as popular as cat videos.
But wait, you say, there are plenty of viral dog videos. There’s Ultimate Dog Tease (“The maple kind?”), Yes This Is Dog, Dog Shaming, Stoner Dog, Birthday Dog, etc. But, as Digital Trends pointed out that, while dogs are more commonly searched online, cats are still way more likely to go viral. There’s even a book for wannabe stage parents: How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity.
The museum exhibit argues that cats are basically the mascots of the internet: Wired, BuzzFeed, and Mashable have argued it, too. This should come as no surprise; at this point the phrase “cat video” is practically synonymous with adorable frivolous time-wasting digital diversion.
This year even saw the first-ever CatCon: the inaugural convention that celebrated cats of the internet. Meanwhile, scientists are thinking of sequencing internet sensation Lil Bub’s genome, so that we can unlock the biological secrets behind the uniquely cherubic face that made her the stuff of cyberspace legend. And Grumpy Cat’s getting a wax figure at Madame Tussauds. Earlier this week, she “threw” the opening pitch at an Arizona Diamondbacks game.
So why aren’t more dogs internet celebrities? It’s because cats’ behavior, shaped by centuries of domestication and evolution, has a unique effect on our minds, keeping us glued to hours and hours of cat videos.
Cats Don’t Give a Damn
Lil Bub poses at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Credit: Getty
Writer Jack Shephard has talked about the “virtual cat park”—that is, the internet allowing cat lovers to finally have a dedicated space to celebrate cats the way actual, physical dog parks have long given dog lovers a space to celebrate dogs. So that might explain the origin of the trend. But why do cats cast a different spell than dogs over the internet? It’s the behavioral differences between the two animals.
In the New York exhibit, it’s argued that dogs “usually acknowledge cameras (or more likely, their owners) and their seeming eagerness to please typically makes for less interesting video.” As we all know, dogs are way more animated, while cats are much more stoic. Dogs show their emotions more outwardly, while cats don’t. The latter makes for some compelling content.
Keyboard Cat has over 41 million views since being posted to YouTube in 2007. Credit: YouTube
“Certainly, there are lots of videos of dogs doing things. But it may be servicemen coming home and the dogs recognizing them,” Jason Eppink, lead curator of the exhibit, says. “The cat is often operating more on its own. It’s getting this glimpse into this mysterious creature, and [finding fun] in them not knowing you’re watching them.”
It also has to do with voyeurism. Dogs interact with the camera more, as evidenced in viral hits like Ultimate Dog Tease. With cats, their disinterest in the video creates a barrier, and yet, it doesn’t shut us out. Instead, it makes us more interested, and want to watch the video. What’s this cat going to do next?
“Cat In a Shark Costume Chases a Duck While Riding a Roomba” via YouTube
Voyeurism is pleasurable to humans because you’re in a privileged position, Eppink says. A powerful position, in which you’re watching something powerless that can’t escape your gaze. We’ve all heard of the “male gaze,” but in this case? It’s the human gaze, and it’s a phenomenon that could be more closely linked with cat videos than dog videos because of cats not acknowledging the viewer at all.
“It becomes un-gendered—it’s humans looking at another species,” Eppink explains.
Grumpy Cat rests surrounded by toys modeled after her at Toyfair 2015 in New York. Credit: Shutterstock
Cats Are a ‘Blank Canvas’ for Human Emotions
Henri the Existential Cat looking into the void. Credit: YouTube
Okay, so felines’ disinterest plays to our voyeuristic tendencies. The psychology behind cat videos goes even deeper than that, though: We also tend to use cats to project our own emotions onto them.
Since dogs are so easy to read, and cats aren’t, it’s easier to project yourself, others, or whoever you think is funny onto a cat, says Prof. John Bradshaw. He’s a retired biology professor and the Foundation Director of the University of Bristol’s Anthrozoology Institute. He also wrote the animal behavior books Dog Sense and Cat Sense.
“Cats are also something of a ‘blank canvas,’ since their faces and body language are so inexpressive,” he explains.
Dogs were domesticated way earlier than cats—around 20,000 years ago versus cats’ 10,000, Bradshaw estimates. But he also says that it’s not the the time that’s important, it’s the reason for domestication.
“Domestication gave dogs the capacity to form affectionate relationships with humans, and this in turn made it possible for us to train them for various tasks: hunting, guarding, herding and so on,” he says. But cats? “Cats were domesticated mainly because they were useful as pest controllers, and, unlike dogs, most effective when they worked alone, so they never evolved the necessity to form the close attachments to people that are so characteristic of dogs.”
In one moment, “they’re doing something you can see yourself in; the next moment, they’re totally alien,” Eppink says. He says that it’s easier to tell what a dog’s thinking: They’re loyal, they want to be loved, and that’s that. Cats? Who knows. And that’s what sparks the anthropomorphization.
This video of Maru the Cat in a box has almost 14 million views. Credit: YouTube
LOLGoats and Chickens
Geography has also played a role in why cats (and dogs) are popular on the internet. Or, that is, why they’re popular on the internet in countries where the animals themselves are popular or common.
Here in the West, cats are a mainstay — an extremely popular pet, right beside dogs. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, cats and dogs are by far the most popular US pets, making up 30% and 36% of all pets. They’re part of day-to-day life in many nations, including Japan, home to Maru the Cat, a feline who’s hit Lil Bub-level of fame. (That might explain Japanese cat cafes, too.)
Meta: cats reacting to cat viral videos. Source: Fine Brothers YouTube
But Eppink told me about a colleague of his who traveled to Uganda, and learned that animal memes are all relative. Designer An Xiao Mina was in Uganda and learned that among the locals she talked to, people weren’t loling over cats or even dogs. It was all about chickens and goats. There are internet memes of chickens wearing sneakers, goats being scanned with a metal detecting wand. No cats in cardboard boxes.
In more agrarian communities like in Uganda, animals like goats and chickens are more visible daily. And hence, pop up as memes. “What the cat serves as is a familiar creature that we can project a lot onto. It’s enough separation from humans to allow us to explore and project our desires and needs on it,” Eppink says. “As long as we keep cats as pets in our culture, they’ll have a specific role in how we communicate with each other online.”
Nyan Cat, the internet’s spirit animal
Top image: YouTube
Contact the author at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter.