Why Does The Internet Love Cats?

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Cats populate just about every corner of the Internet--from forums to blogs to social networks--in the form of photos or videos or animated GIFs. But why does the Internet love cats so much?

"It’s a clear fact that the Internet is made of cats," says Chris Torres (aka prguitarman), the creator of Nyan Cat. We don't doubt this, but to get a fuller explanation, we asked around and did a little research to try and unravel the mystery behind this online feline phenomenon.

A Brief History of a Meme

Cats have long had a certain cult following. Surprisingly enough, the first captioned cat photos predate the Internet by several decades. According to Know Your Meme, placing witty captions atop cute cat pictures dates back the early 20th century, with Harry Whittier Frees's trademark postcard designs. The Wikipedia entry for Lolcats trace the beginnings of the lolcat all the way back to the 1870s, with the work of British photographer Harry Pointer.

Lolcats: A Timeline

1870s: British photographer Harry Pointe begins placing captions atop cute kitteh photos.
c.1900s: American photographer Harry Whittier Frees makes postcards of cats with witty captions.
c.1970s: The Hang in there, Baby motivational posters feature kittehs hanging from trees or clotheslines.
2002: The earliest known mention of CatBread in a forum.
2003: Stalker Cat surfaces. It becomes Ceiling Cat in 2006.
c.2006: 4Chan members observe the first Caturday.
2007: I Can Has Cheezburger? opens; Ben Huh buys the site later that year.
2011: Chris Torres creates Nyan Cat, based on his own cat, Marty.
Sources: Wikipedia, Know Your Meme, iCHC, Chris Torres

In the 1970s, the popular "Hang in there, Baby" motivational posters featured a picture of a cat hanging from a washing line or tree.

The earliest known Internet cat meme was actually an award-winning animated GIF by Hirose Takuro entitled CatBread (aka Kitty Loaf). While we don't know when CatBread was originally created, it dates back to at least 2002, as evidenced by a thread on Geo-Neo, a retro gaming forum.

Stalker Cat surfaced in 2003, and later became Ceiling Cat in 2006. Cat memes gained additional popularity thanks to 4Chan's Caturday--each Saturday, members would upload funny photos of cats doing various things. The following year, Eric Nakagawa started I Can Has Cheezburger? (iCHC), a blog dedicated to these captioned photos, now better known as lolcats. Ben Huh purchased iCHC later that year, and has since built a meme empire of sorts around it.

Cats vs. Dogs

According to the American Pet Association's 2011-12 survey, there are 86.4 million cats kept as pets in the US, and 33% of households have at least one cat. A little over half of US cat owners (52%) have two or more kittehs. By comparison, there are 78.2 million dogs kept as pets in the US, and most dog owners have only one canine companion. Given this, it isn't too surprising that cats are so popular online.

Ben Huh actually owns a dog, but he understands the kitteh craze.

"I love cats, but I am allergic to them," Ben tells GeekTech. "We still have our very cat-like dog, but even as a dog owner, it was clear that the cat-world on the Web was far more vibrant and far-reaching.

"Cats are the perfect storm for popularity on the web. There are tens of millions of cats in the US, making it the most popular domestic animal."

For cat owners, Ben says, it's harder to meet like-minded people on the street. While dogs and their owners have parks, cats are more independent, so you're less likely to see a cat club gathering.

"Dog owners can socialize by walking their dogs. Cat owners are a more hidden bunch and there is very little owner-to-owner socialization, so they turned to the Web," Ben adds.

Human emotion?

Cats are also relatively easy to personify. Like humans, cats are notoriously adventurous and they can express a variety of emotions.

"Because cats can be so emotive (far more than dogs) they make a great canvas for our creative expression," Ben explains. "Also, because there are frequently more multiple-cat households, we can be a quiet observer in their lives, making up stories along the way."

The many faces of Nyan Cat, as seen on nyancat.cat.

Put all this together and throw a camera into the mix, and you can get some pretty great shots of cats doing things that are either freakishly human or just plain funny. That cats are so easy to personify makes it extremely easy to mold them into our own way of thinking and to capture our everyday life, hence the creation of memes such as LOLcats (and the LOLspeak captions), Serious Cat, and OMG cat, to name just a few.

Chris Torres based Nyan Cat--the flying, rainbow-exuding animated cat--on one of his own cats, a gray kitteh named Marty.

This is Marty, the inspiration for Nyan Cat. [Photo: Chris Torres]

"In my opinion, I honestly don’t think any other animal would have suited the part better. There’s just something about cats that fits the carefree and happy attitude I was going for. With a cat flying through space you don’t really have to question it. You just see it and go “Well, of course a cat would do something like this!”.

Naturally, Chris can relate to the reasons behind cats taking off in such a big way on the Net.

"Cats have shaped a massive Internet culture based on nothing but images and videos of cats playing pianos, jumping in boxes, riding invisible bikes, taking naps, or breaking your furniture. I think cats are easily relatable to people due to how quirky and expressive they are, and any cat-related media seems to keep the attention of even the fastest-browsing Internet viewer."

Kittehs Are Cute!

But maybe we're overanalyzing this. The Internet's love for cats might not even be so complicated or deep--it could simply be because cats are cute. Sure, puppies and baby rabbits are also cute, but there is something about a cat and its facial expressions that makes you go gooey inside.

Chris explains: "It can be a very therapeutic experience to open up an image of a cat at work and get a heartwarming experience by looking at it. Chris pointed us toward this XKCD strip that he says "sums up cats pretty well."

Final Pointers...

"It’s a clear fact that the Internet is made of cats."

--Chris Torres
Creator of Nyan Cat

Of course, there are a number of other factors to consider when trying to work out why the Web loves cats so much. Perhaps it's the aloof attitude. Or maybe, as Ben points out, it could be our need to treat pets as children: "There is a huge demographic shift happening in the US. People are having children later and also living longer, which gives us more opportunities to treat our pets as replacement kids. As the pets become more integral part of our lives, we talk about them and through them a lot."

So, while there seem to be a number of reasons why the domestic kitty rules the Internet, its personable temperament and how much it features in our everyday life are clearly big factors. The best way to sum it up, though? We keep coming back to Chris's suggestion: Maybe the Internet really is made of cats.

So, why do you like cats, or cat memes? Be sure to tell us in the comments!

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