They’re a mixed bag. On the one hand, the articles, columns, announcements, reviews, and comics, and the vast majority of the letters to the editor, lean so far to the left that, as one dissenter suggested, the editorial staff must walk in circles when they walk. On the other hand, features like the local police blotter and News of the Weird offer good infotainment, as does Chicago’s Straight Dope: Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 (It’s taking longer than we thought.) Reading between the lines, I can often figure out which way to vote by going with the opposite of whatever the local commie rag endorses. Sometimes there are pieces on local history or landmarks that, although biased, can serve as starting points for doing further research. And once in a very great while, someone actually does good reporting to break the story on a state or local scandal.
“Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” — The Hagakure
Free Times editor Dan Cook doesn’t like cats.
Well, cats on the Internet, anyway.
It was a few months ago, in one of my last editorial meetings as a full-time staffer at Free Times. We were going around, planning upcoming special sections and pitching cover stories. In a lull, I offer the only idea I have.
“Cats,” I blurt.
You know, like, funny cat videos and memes and stuff, I continue. There’s that You Can Haz Cheezburger program at Harbison Theatre, which uses the videos from the Internet Cat Video Festival.
News editor Eva Moore laughs; so does staff writer Porter Barron. Cook sighs, and frowns. There’s no way he’s letting me write about cats, he says.
But cats are huge, I offer. They never went away. They’ve outlasted every other Internet animal. Two of the biggest Internet celebrities of last year were cats.
Cook shakes his head, wearily chuckling at my persistence.
You’re not saying no, I add.
Cook, exasperated, sighs, and moves on.
A few weeks ago, I’m at home, sipping coffee and checking my email. I see an email from Cook, who’s pitched me the occasional assignment and … wait, does that say “LOL Cats?”
“Still want to do this?” he writes.
I am incredulous, yet intrigued.
“Yes, it kills me to even ask,” he adds.
As the Internet turned 25 years old last week, Tim Berners-Lee, the knighted Englishman who invented the World Wide Web information management system — you know, the series of tubes — that allows people to access pages hosted on computers across the globe, fielded questions on his invention in an installment of Reddit’s Ask Me Anything series.
One Redditor asked him, “What was one of the things you never thought the Internet would be used for, but has actually become one of the main reasons people use the Internet?”
Porn, most users surmised. But Berners-Lee’s answer: “Kittens.”
Indeed, the Internet, it seems is made of cats. There are small cats, like Lil Bub, a cat born with several genetic mutations that gives her the permanent body shape and appearance of a kitten. She’s shaped like a pug — stubby body, stubbier legs — and her too-big head is marked by big, perky ears, enormous, expressive eyes and a wet and wagging exposed tongue. She is cute as all hell.
There are big cats, like Tubcat, who is fat enough to fit a human-sized bathtub, or Longcat, who is exceptionally long.
There are grumpy cats, like Grumpy Cat, the perma-frowning cat who, along with Lil Bub, is one of the Internet’s biggest feline celebrities.
Then there are LOLcats, the precursor to today’s Internet cat celebrities.
To get a good sense of what lolcats are really all about, the Cheezburger Network’s a good place to start. Its flagship site, Icanhazcheezburger, is kind of like the Library of Alexandria for funny cat pictures. It wasn’t the first repository of cat memes (that’s largely thought to be 4chan), but it’s the largest, and houses the most culturally significant examples.
The process is simple: You direct your browser to the site, you see a lolcat. You click, you see another. Click again, see another.
Enough clicks, and you’ll get to what might be considered the Vitruvian Man of cat pictures: Happy Cat, ostensibly the grandfather of them all, a fat gray shorthair whose bright eyes and wide smile give it an almost-human expression.
Superimposed on the image is a block of text — all-white, large font, Impact typeface. It bears a now culturally widespread phrase, and the site’s namesake: “I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?”
Icanhazcheezburger launched in 2007, and since then has turned into big business: In 2011, the Cheezburger Network logged approximately 37 million unique hits — and brought in more than $30 million in venture funding.
“Lolcats have withstood the test of time because the subject matter of cats is something that everyone can understand and relate to, regardless if they like cats or not,” says Emily Huh, director of business development for the Cheezburger Network. “Everyone knows someone that has a cat or has a cat themselves, so the subject matter is something that is evergreen and not just a trending topic that may be phased out when a show or video game has lots its popularity.”
Lolcats have spawned best-selling books, art shows, an off-Broadway musical, even a Bible translation into the lolcats’ wacky — cats don’t care much proper spelling, syntax or subject-verb agreement — pidgin English. (A sample from Genesis 1:1 — “Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs.”)
The lolcats meme itself has abated, but cats remain as popular as ever on the Internet.
One Lil Bub video is just an hour of the perma-kitten sitting, sometimes sleeping and constantly purring, in front of a fire for an hour. Posted Dec. 18, it’s been watched more than 2 million times.
And Lil Bub is the less popular cat: A Google search for Lil Bub yields about 4.4 million results — more than Bella Knox, the recently outed Duke University porn star. A search for Grumpy Cat? Nearly 52 million hits — more than prospective No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney. Grumpy Cat has more than 4 million Facebook likes; Lil Bub, a comparatively meager 654,000.
Grumpy Cat has an agent, and a movie deal. Lil Bub’s Vice magazine-filmed series Lil Bub & Friends, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Both cats have been featured guests at South by Southwest, and on national television.
There’s even a festival dedicated to the cat video: The Internet Cat Video Festival, curated by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, a capital-M art museum. It’s taken the largely solitary act of watching a cat video and turned it into a social experience: More than 10,000 people came to the inaugural festival in 2012. So, too, did Lil Bub.
The inaugural festival was won by Henri, a black-and-white longhair who narrates — OK, whose owner narrates — his life as if he were an existentialist French philosopher. Boston, San Francisco, Memphis and Austin all restaged the Walker’s festival. (Columbia restages it, in part, at Harbison Theatre on Friday.)
“There’s something about the cat video that transcends language and transcends culture,” Scott Stulen, the festival’s first coordinator, told PBS’ Mediashift. And it’s more than simple entertainment, because people feel such a strong connection. “There’s definitely something much deeper to it,” he concluded.
So, yeah, cats are at the top of the Internet animal food chain.
What no one knows is why…