“Kittens” was the answer Tim Bernes Lees famously gave in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) when asked what was the one thing that surprised him most about the way his invention of the World Wide Web has been adopted, 25 years on.
It hardly needs stating: The Internet has provided us with instant access to an unprecedented amount of knowledge (power) and an incredible tool for mass communication (mobilization). Yet “Cats” is one of the most commonly searched for keywords, cat videos and images are among the highest viewed online content (described in the New York Times as ‘the essential building block of the Internet’), and cat celebrities are abound (Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, Maru, Nala Cat and Cattycake to name a few). An entire subculture has developed around LOLcat memes. Even Downing Street has entered the fray, with Larry The Cat (@DowningSTCat) and Palmerston (@DiploMog) attracting waves of excitement and followers on Twitter.
Why? It’s a question that may sound dumb to active participants of the sport, but has come to fascinate critics, psychologists, journalists, artists and curators alike. Nor is it trivial: the global patterns in how we use the Internet provide a unique insight into the fears, desires and preoccupations of our age. That we choose to spend our time browsing cat videos, pornography and online shopping sites says something. But what?
Procrastination is the most obvious response. Escapism seems to cut closer to the truth. No matter how shit your day’s been, watching a video of a cat fail an attempted leap, or prancing about in a ridiculous outfit, seems to have the power to lift many people’s mood. Whole bodies of research have emerged claiming to back this scientifically, with evidence of reduced anxiety, annoyance, sadness and higher levels of energy, focus and positivity overall among viewers at work. A quick-fix to pacify us for a while.
There’s also something to do with simplicity. Even the format of cat videos is reliable and, therefore, cathartic: always short, digestible and following the same traditional trajectory of buildup, high-drama, punchline and close. Perhaps acting as voyeurs to the comparative unwitting-ness and unintentional folly of these creatures on-screen, appeals to a widespread desire for greater control in our lives – while laughing at their anthropomorphication massages an innate sense of superiority.
The on-screen element is also important. Observing a cat do something silly online carries a much higher comedic value than in real life: it’s their 15 seconds of fame. While the Internet is often an inherently lonely, isolating place; responding to the same video that 12,000 other viewers have enjoyed makes you ‘in’ on the joke, and so part a wider community. The more ‘viral’, the better. If other humans are physically to hand, that’s also good, but not necessary.
Simplicity, community, escape. These are all basic, age old human wants of which the Internet seems to have become a quick source of nourishment, whilst ultimately intensifying our need and hunger for our daily mass consumption of cat videos typifies this.
By Sara Jaspan.