Feline Fascination: How the Internet came to be Obsessed with Cats

By Joe Cox

Many cat lovers will tell you, if you’re having a conversation about cats, that the ancient Egyptians not only loved cats but worshiped cats as gods, treating them with such reverence that they became a focal point for an entire society. Fast forward three thousand years and you’d think not much had really changed, if YouTube was anything to go by. A search for “cat” returns a staggering 46,000,000 videos; that’s a lot of feline footage.

Assuming you manage to get though all of these, Vimeo will serve you up another 130,000, whilst Vine will give you another 1,400,000 kitty mishaps and tomfoolery, all in six second bursts. Now, even the ancient Egyptians would be impressed with that kind of dedication.

A Brief History of Cats and the internet

From the inception of the internet cats have been at the centre of the action. Usenet was one of the net’s early text driven forum systems and for years one of its most popular groups was found on rec.pet.cats (or recreation.pet.cats).

If you’re interested you can still browse this fascinating insight into an early moggy hive mind on Google Groups.

After the internet began to break through into our common consciousness in the 1990’s it wasn’t long before it became clear that cats were going to have a huge presence in this new and exciting online world.

“2Channel” was an early text board, often featured cats being drawn using ASCII art, a design technique that predates the internet and has led many people to conclude
that some people just have too much time on their hands. Even in its earliest days, the signs of our obsession with cats were there to be seen.

Before the advent of social media and YouTube, many cat related antics were spread by email chains. Early 2000 saw the infamous “Bonsai Kitten” hoax, with “Cat Stacking” and “Ceiling Cat” arriving in the years afterwards. The age of the cat meme was born.

Early cat memes found their way into the social subconscious through way of popular message forums like 4chan and YTMD but by early 2005 a new video sharing website had arrived on the scene and not only changed the internet forever but catapulted cats into the digital stratosphere.

Hilarious cat videos were suddenly ubiquitous and by the time Facebook began to take off in late 2005 / early 2006 the stage was set for an endless conveyor belt of cat related memes via social network feeds. You may recall such hilarious internet sensations like “Cats who look like Hitler”, “Serious cat”, Long cat” and of course “Happy cat”. By 2013 our fascination with cats with seemingly human expressions showed no sign of waning and arguably reached the height of popularity with “Grumpy cat”.

What to Cats Say about Us

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why it’s cats that have taken the internet by storm, as opposed to any other creature (four legged or otherwise). Whilst it’ true there is no shortage of non-feline related funny animal videos online, the volumes just don’t come close to challenging the hegemony of cats online. Love them or loathe them the internet generation seems preoccupied with cats.

But why cats? What’s wrong with dogs or any other animal for that matter? Understanding this can give us some fundamental insights into our own psychology and our need to humanise or ‘anthropomorphise’ cats by adding captions describing amusing things they might be thinking, making them sing, talk or play the piano, or simply making a celebratory out of a genuinely grumpy looking cat (which in fact has a form of feline dwarfism).

But maybe our love of cats is just born from their insatiable sense of curiosity and complete dis-interest in the human world. Writing in Mashable, Amy-Mae Elliot compares our cat online obsessions with our comparable lack of
interest in dog videos:

When a dog gets in a box, it’s because he desperately wants you to think he’s cool. When a cat does it, it’s because it suddenly felt like the right thing to do at the time. More often than not, it totally was. I think it’s the very aloofness of cats that makes us want to caption their thoughts, or put them in front of a keyboard and see what happens.

The ubiquity of the online cat isn’t reflective of our love of them as pets then but rather in their autonomy from us and our influence. Cats do things on their own terms regardless of who is watching and that makes what they do seem so much more genuine and therefore appealing to us.

Of course the potential virality of this kind of appeal certainly hasn’t been lost on marketers.

Making Cash out of Cats

By mid-2005 cat videos and memes were everywhere and it wasn’t long before marketers started looking to connect with the ever-growing phenomenon of online cat videos. A “Wonderful Pistachios” ad from 2012 showed us Bento the cat cracking a pistachio nut as he played the keyboard. The video was a take on another hugely popular cat craze, the “Keyboard Cat”.

Bigger brands like Kia have hinged entire adverts on cats with the Kia Picanto and later a partnership with the site Cheezburger where they asked site users to create a series of cat memes for the Sorento crossover. The results were typically irreverent with the Kia brand being partly lampooned. Given they were looking for young consumer brand interaction, they succeeded.

As a marketer, regardless of whether you are a cat person or not, campaigns based on cutting edge internet sensations have the potential to go viral and create a huge buzz around your brand. But like all marketing efforts that attempt to tap into the zeitgeist, they have the potential of being seen as jumping on the bandwagon or lacking in sincerity. Indeed, some of the best cat related marketing videos have played on the very idea of cats online popularity (such as John St.’s ‘Catvertising’ video) or attempted to humanise cats in ever more bizarre ways by making them sing or even have opposable thumbs (in Cravendale’s ingenious ‘Cats with Thumbs’ video).

See also: The Psychology Behind Grumpy Cat Videos


About the Author:
Joe Cox is Head of Content for Bristol digital marketing and SEO agency, Bespoke Digital. He has written about SEO, social media marketing and digital PR for the likes of Smart Insights, Ad Age, Ma

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