National Cat Day was last week, but on the Internet, cat day is every day. Many trace the Internet’s cat obsession to the anonymous image board 4chan via its LOL Cats -- LOL short for “Laughing Out Loud” -- which compiled cat pictures with funny captions. But it was the humor site I Can Has Cheezburger? that unleashed those cat memes into the Internet's collective consciousness in 2007, when Ben Huh took over the site from founder Eric Nakagawa.
In typically absurdist fashion, the website is named after the meme of an especially cheerful and hopeful cat whose expression seems to suggest a desire for cheeseburgers. LOL Cats’ captions are often written in grammatically incorrect “kitty pidgin,” which has been described as part baby talk, part Internet slang.
"Le chat, c'est moi," the Internet seems to be saying.
I Can Has Cheezburger? is only 7 years old, but in Internet years, that’s an eternity -- long enough to have spawned a timeline that purports (purr-ports?) to give “The Complete Hiss-tory of Cats on the Internet” and to inspire think pieces on just what it is that makes us obsessed with cats.
Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger Network, which includes I Can Has Cheezburger?, FAIL Blog and MemeBase, talked to International Business Times about why cats dominate the Internet, why Grumpy Cat and Colonel Meow (RIP) are cooler than Choupette, and what he sees as the Internet's feline future.
When did cats infiltrate the Internet?
The original meme of cats belongs to 4chan’s LOLCats and the Something Awful Internet forum. But 4chan was mostly for anonymous friends, it was not where everyone could go. They used crude language, etc. Eric Nakagawa made it more accessible with I Can Has Cheezburger? It was where cats entered the pop consciousness, a platform where people could express their creativity. It started the consumerization of cats on the Internet.
How did you get involved with Cheezburger?
Eric had linked to a post of mine from my personal blog. He used an image I created and almost brought down the site. I wanted to figure out how he did it. I was a product manager at a startup, didn’t really consider myself a cat person, but I offered to help pro bono with the site. I bought the site in September 2007. It was very fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. Was it going to be animals, humor or beyond? Then I realized that the “beyond” is about humans and self-expression. So now there’s also FAIL Blog and MemeBase.
It’s about demographics. People in the U.S. are having kids later and later, or not having them at all. People fill in the gap in urban situations with small cats and dogs. Although there are more dog-owning households, there are multiple-cat households. Unlike dogs, who have a handful of emotional expressions, there are nuances in a cat’s face and body language. They are expressive. It’s easy to project onto that.
Before the Internet, cat people didn’t have a place to socialize. Dog owners had the dog park. So this isn’t about a “cat lady” with a million cats at home with no friends. The Internet is a “litterbox for cats,” a place where cat lovers can express themselves.
How do you see the cat phenomenon evolving?
There’s going to be a “celebrity effect” where cats can be stars. A few years ago, a cat was a cat. Then cats had names their owners gave them, and became celebrities in their own right. Now we have Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, Henri the cat with ennui.
Cats have also become brands. What about Choupette or Aleister von Teese?
Choupette is a celeb pet, famous because she’s owned by Karl Lagerfeld. But we prefer our world to be Seinfeldian -- everyday entertainment, where nothing happens. A cat like Colonel Meow, an Internet-based meme cat, better represents that. He’s an oddball.
They’re relatable because they’re imperfect.
Yes, they’re like blankies we carried around as kids. They’re reassuring.