IN EARLY 2014, my friend Michael was traveling in Southern California when he posted a picture on Facebook of his friend’s cat with its head in the toilet bowl, commenting, “Maybe we should not have let the cat party all night.” That same day, he also posted what he thought was the most glorious picture of the San Gabriel Mountains, the branches of a bare tree reaching for the sky as the fog rolled across the distant peaks. As he tells the story now, on the red eye back to Louisiana, he sleepily scrolled through his feed during a layover in Houston, noticed that the cat picture was getting many more likes than the mountain picture, and said, “My friends are stupid for liking the cat picture over the nature picture. Maybe I should post more cat pictures.”
What ensued is what we now call the Great Cat Picture War, a tale of modern cyberwarfare that is about as long and complex as the Iliad, involving plenty of unsolicited cat pictures on Michael’s Facebook wall. One of his friends and I led the charge; many others piled on, including his sister-in-law’s 70-year-old mother, prompting me to quip that if your elderly relatives are mocking you on social media with cat pictures, you have lost the internet. For a few weeks, he could not say anything on Facebook without getting cat pictures in response. And like the Korean War, there are skirmishes and truces that continue to this day. In these years of gathering ammunition for my cause, I have sunk into the depths of the internet’s obsession with cats.
Cat pictures dominate the online world. In 2012, a team from Google tested a neural network for machine learning — a key step to developing artificial intelligence — by feeding millions of digital stills from random YouTube videos into the program. The idea was to see what the program could identify on its own, like the human brain that it is meant to simulate. The program taught itself to recognize, well, cats. Neural networks “learn” through repetition; there are so many cat pictures on the internet that the program, in the words of one of the programmers, “basically invented the concept of a cat.” This technological leap forward has since been further refined to differentiate breeds of cats. And the leader of the Google team, Stanford University professor Andrew Ng, has a Coursera class in which you get to practice your new skills on — you guessed it — cat pictures.
Or, as another friend once said, “Which is more popular on the internet, cats or porn?”
Digital cameras and internet technology have made it much easier to take and disseminate cat pictures. With smartphones, it takes only a few clicks for us cat owners/parents/slaves to make an image or film of our cats in a particularly adorable or hilarious situation and post it on social media. But the human desire to capture the likeness of cats is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. Ancient Egyptians famously venerated cats, though their cat images are more about their spiritual beliefs: they gave their cats the same burial rites as humans so that the cats could also pass on to the next world. They painted and carved the likenesses of cats on their papyri and tombstones. The ancient Nazca Lines in Peru, geoglyphs carved into the desert floor, include the image of a cat, though scientists have yet to understand what it means.
Art history is in part a history of the relationship between artists and cats. This is a minor vein, though that may be more of a reflection of what we think of as serious and important subjects for art. But famous artists such as Bosch, Renoir, Picasso, and Koons have all featured cats in their paintings and sculptures. The Louvre has a still life oil painting titled Dead Cat (1821) by Théodore Géricault, best known for The Raft of the Medusa (1818–’19), one of the early paintings that helped to establish the French Romantic style. The venerable museum gives wall space to both works, though admittedly less to the cat painting. It is not known where Géricault found his model for Dead Cat, but he put in the time and effort to texture the oils — and I suppose that a live cat would not have sat still long enough for him to paint its likeness.
The advent of photography made the mechanical reproduction of images possible. As a result, it became far easier to make cat pictures — though with wet plates and dark rooms, it was still a more complicated process than the click of a button that we have today. And as Walter Benjamin wrote in his influential treatise on the work of art in the age of photography, “One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.” This was borne out in the early 1900s, when Harry Whittier Frees made photographs of kittens — and a few puppies — dressed up in clothes and doing human things in front of the camera. He also likely invented a tranquilizer powerful enough that the kittens did not rip off their frocks, but these pictures — imagine the outtakes, the amount of silver emulsion he must have gone through — were the precursor to today’s LOLcats.
The year 2007 saw the founding of the website I Can Has Cheezburger?, a blog community that aggregates cat pictures with hilarious captions. Cat pictures, both funny and, well, not-so-funny, have been floating around the internet since the 1990s, but Cheezburger brought it into the mainstream and codified “LOLspeak,” a variant of English that departs from standard grammar but retains an internally consistent set of rules. A prime example is the name of the website itself, deliberately skewed in its verb conjugation and spelling-by-phonetics, as if cats speak like second-language learners of English. And the term LOLcats, as the Cheezburger memes came to be known, is a portmanteau of “LOL,” internet-speak for “laughing out loud” (and, of course, cats). It took a century for LOLcats to satisfy the demand that Harry Whittier Frees anticipated.
In 2012, a group of researchers at Hiroshima University published a paper titled “The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus.” They divided their subjects into three groups and showed each group pictures of either baby animals, adult animals, or delicious foods. After viewing the pictures, each group had to perform a set of detail-oriented tasks. The group that looked at the pictures of puppies and kittens outperformed the other two groups on the tasks. The media went to bat. Respectable news outlets such as The Washington Post, CNBC, and Live Science — just to name a few — gleefully reported that looking at cat pictures is not just a procrastination tactic. As the Mother Jones headline read, “Study: Stupid Photos of Adorable Cats Boost Workplace Productivity.”
But why cat pictures? According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2017–2018 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, 38.4 percent of American households have dogs and 25.4 percent have cats. If we were just showing off pictures of our pets, there would be at least as many dog pictures circulating on the internet, but LOLdogs have nowhere near the popularity of LOLcats. Dogs are cute, and we anthropomorphize both dogs and cats in internet memes, but dog memes seem to hinge on the world going astray in spite of their obedience, while cat memes revel in the idea of cats as the uncontrollable masters of the world. Think about what makes a good cat joke: cats that prefer to sleep in boxes rather than in the fluffy cat beds we buy for them, cats dominating dogs, and, especially in this past pandemic year, Zoom-bombing cats that are also our micromanaging supervisors.
I have joked that all cats are cute because the not-cute ones have been drowned or left to die on the streets. Cats defy our notion of domesticated animals. They provide neither labor nor food, unlike oxen and chickens. And unlike dogs, they don’t obey our commands, give affection on demand, or guard the house, and they surely are not going to round up sheep. The stereotype of cats is that they ignore you and sleep all day, appearing just long enough to be fed. That is, if they are not looking down from the top of your cabinets, fancying themselves as little lions and wondering how to turn you into their prey — after you clean their litterboxes. In a purely transactional sense, cats have little economic or emotional value. People who say that they don’t like cats tend to cite their too-independent nature, as if the point of having pets is to have complete control over them.
Another way of saying this is that cats are still-wild animals that depend on us for food and shelter. And it is precisely their innate wildness, bundled into small packages of cuteness residing in our homes, that make cat pictures the social phenomenon it is. The best cat pictures and jokes negotiate this tension between the wild and the domesticated. Cats getting stuck in the blinds or atop a door. Cats swatting a glass of water onto the floor. Cats dipping their paws into the fish tank. Cats sleeping on a keyboard. Cats poking their heads in toilet bowls. These behaviors are not unexpected for anyone who has lived with cats, but they continue to tickle our funny bone as they mock us for our inability to master their nature.
In early 2021, in the middle of an unrelenting pandemic during which many of us were forced to live our lives online, a video blew up on the internet. Attorney Rod Ponton appeared for a Zoom hearing in a District Court in Texas in the form of a fluffy white kitten with terrified eyes. “Mr. Ponton, I believe you have a filter turned on in your video settings,” the judge can be heard saying. “Ahh, I’m trying, can you hear me judge?” a frazzled Ponton responds as the kitten’s eyes dart nervously around. As the kitten mirrors the panic on his own face, he says that his assistant is trying to help him out to no avail before delivering the inadvertent punch line, “I’m prepared to go forward with it. I’m here live, I’m not a cat.” In response, the judge deadpans, “I can see that.”
The Zoom Cat Lawyer incident was covered by almost every major news outlet, including The New York Times The Washington Post, Reuters, BBC, and The Guardian, and was shared in many social media feeds and chat groups. It was a moment of comic relief in the dark winter of the plague, bringing together our obsession with cat pictures with our anxieties about living our lives almost entirely online. Many of us who could work from home had to adjust to interacting with co-workers, clients, and friends via videoconference, constantly worrying about how we appear on the camera, our every tic reflected in a small box on the screen. We agonized that the lens would magnify our flaws; the idea of appearing in court as a kitten was beyond our worst digital nightmares.
But it is crucial to the comedy that Ponton had accidentally turned on a cat filter. If he had appeared as Darth Vader, a zebra, or even a dog, it might have elicited some chuckles, but it would have been unlikely to go viral as Zoom Cat Lawyer did. Part of it is that we have become accustomed to funny cat memes — and this one was ripe to spawn many more, not least the speculation that it was indeed a cat controlling the screen and pretending to be a lawyer. More than that, though, the pandemic showed us how little control we have over our lives, that despite the advances of our civilization, we are still at the mercy of tiny pathogens that refuse our attempts to master their nature. Like cats, we were becoming feral, and Ponton’s plight embodied the dissolutions of the pandemic.
As much as I enjoy a good cat picture, I find that, when I look at too many at a time, it feels like watching adventure porn: there is a sense of emptiness mixed with longing. Instead of engaging with the world, even just cuddling kittens at a cat café, we are watching life happen on a screen. We project images from across the globe into the cocoon of our homes, but ultimately, we are living through others, disembodied and disconnected from the corporeal pleasures of life. The internet was a lifesaver during the pandemic, enabling us to reach out to each other amid the enforced isolation of lockdown, but this past year of living digitally — during which I took plenty of pictures of my cats, for they were the main subject I had for a while — heightened the human need for connection.
Photography was the paradigm shift in Walter Benjamin’s time. As he writes, it freed the hand from “the most important artistic functions” and relied on the eye looking into a lens. It changed not only the way we considered art but also how we organized society and related to each other. It made it much easier to reproduce an image, but at the cost of what he calls its aura, “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” and “its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” The internet is the paradigm shift of our time — it made the dissemination of images near-instantaneous, often from tiny computers we carry around in our pockets, but the process often strips away context in favor of aggregation and accumulation. When we know someone in person, when we inhabit a place, we experience an essence that cannot be captured on the screen.
Most cat pictures on the internet are forgettable, an endless feed of images without history or context, good at best for taking a mental break. I rarely look for cat pictures anymore, unless I need ammunition for a new skirmish in the Great Cat Picture War or a meme to insert into a conversation. These days, I prefer cat pictures as social currency — I share them with friends and co-workers to build camaraderie and forge relationships. I have gotten professional opportunities from people with whom I have developed trust over cat pictures. I have instigated groups to break the ice by whipping out our phones and showing pictures of our cats. The cat pictures I enjoy most are those taken by friends, for keeping up with each other’s cats is a way of keeping up with each other’s lives.
Another way of saying this is that digital life, with its deluge of content consumed in the isolation of our homes and exemplified by LOLcats, creates a demand for connection. The convenience of the internet is not going to go away, especially in a culture that glorifies working past the point of burnout, and we don’t always have the bandwidth to engage in deep conversations with friends and family. Sharing cat pictures may not fully satisfy our need for intimacy, but it can be a way of creating and maintaining bonds that may later flourish into something more profound.
As for Michael, he now has his own cat and produces his own cat pictures.
Teow Lim Goh is the author of two poetry collections, Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016) and Faraway Places (Diode Editions, 2021). Her essays, poetry, and criticism have been featured in Tin House, Catapult, Los Angeles Review of Books, PBS NewsHour, and The New Yorker.