People’s affinity with cats doing stupid things goes back further than the internet – and says more about the human condition than we think.
In February this year, a cat named Hank from Springfield, Virginia announced, or rather his campaign team announced, he was running for Senate. While this isn’t the first time an animal has been put forward for a place in government – Molly the Dog was named as a candidate in the US presidential election in 2008 – it does highlight one of the internet’s most pervasive trends: cats doing stupid things. Or, more specifically, humans documenting cats doing stupid things.
The first video on YouTube featuring a cat doing something silly was back in 2006. Since that day, “Cat vs Dog” has been viewed 10 million times. While that number is conservative compared with other videos online – Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” has been watched 448 million times – it was a significant moment in internet history.
It was also in that year the domain name LOLcats.com was registered – a site that popularized images of cute cats with messages written below them – effectively bringing to the boil what had been more than 100 years of humans quietly documenting the silly things that cats get up to around the house. It has also magnified a psychological connection we have with our feline friends that we don’t necessarily share with man’s other best friend, the dog.
It was way back in the 1870s when British photographer Harry Pointer first stumbled upon the potential for capturing cats doing silly things. He started out taking pictures of his pets in natural poses as part of a study on animal behaviour. But he soon realized that re-arranging the cats to look like they were roller skating, or taking pictures, followed by captions beneath each picture was more commercially lucrative. His series, “The Brighton Cats”, would go on to have exhibitions in London and Dublin and Pointer would be invited to join the Photographic Society of Great Britain.
While Pointer enjoyed moderate success with the first ever LOL cat, it was only the beginning of a long line of copycats, who not only repeated Pointer’s initial observations on a greater scale, they made more money out of it, too.
Harry Whittier Frees series of photos of animals was essentially a carbon copy of Pointer’s Brighton Cats. He tried to introduce other animals into his photos, but found cats were far better at conveying the emotions he wanted than other animals.
"Rabbits are the easiest to photograph in costume, but incapable of taking many "human" parts. Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal,” said Frees.
The trend continued to grow in the twentieth century. In the 1970s, with the growth of office culture, a motivational poster featuring a kitten dangling precariously from a tree with the slogan, “Hang in there, baby!” written beneath it appeared.
It was so popular, it was presented to vice president Spiro Agnew by members of Congress when he was under pressure to design in 1973. The poster would go on to be referenced in everything from The Simpsons, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and a host of other TV shows right up to the present day.
With the introduction of the internet to popular culture, our fascination with felis catus continued. Today, there are nearly two million different videos featuring cats on YouTube.
But what drives us to document the actions of cats?
A recent study carried out in Switzerland on 212 different couples compared how both their cats and their partners affected their moods. The results revealed that cats were more capable than their partners at alleviating negative moods.
So, it seems we seek out our feline friends when we’re feeling a bit blue – which, according to a Leeds University Study, the more we use the internet, the more likely we are to feel depressed. Our digital lives are dependent on having outlets that make us feel good – which is where cats come in.
But, if recent studies are to be believed, our attachment to cats goes deeper than that. According to a study conducted by Central Missouri State University, humans ascribe the same personality traits to cats that psychologists would use to summarise the four broad personality parameters in people: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, and openness.
By attributing complex human emotions onto our cats, it gives them great capacity to mimic our own behaviour, as Ben Huh, CEO of The Cheezburger Network, explains. “Cats have very expressive facial and body expressions, so they are a perfect canvas for human emotion, which makes them awesome for captioning and anthropomorphization.” But what about dogs? In a study last year, 39 per cent of US households owned dogs compared to just 33 per cent for cats – so surely there are more dog lovers than cats?
A team of researchers led by psychologist Sam Gosling at the University of Texas at Austin discovered correlations in personality between those who own dogs and those who own cats.
It turns out that the "dog people" – based on how people identified themselves, not on what animals they actually own – tend to be more social and outgoing, whereas "cat people" tend to be more neurotic but "open," which means creative, philosophical, or nontraditional in this context. According to a study in the Australian Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, people who spend the most time online, and therefore generate most of the content we see, tend to have personality traits that lean towards the “neurotic” side of the spectrum.
In essence, the makers of the internet are cat people, who are naturally inclined to share and create digital platforms for their wares, and their cats.
So the next time you’re forwarded the latest LOL cat, remember there’s a lot more going on than just our feline friends larking about.