I wrote this essay as an assignment for a module in my MSc Digital Marketing course. Don’t ask me how much marks I made but I really liked writing it. I hope you like it too.

TS Eliot once wrote

“You now have learned enough to see

That Cats are much like you and me”

(Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, 1939). That pretty much sums up the theme of this discourse that tries to explain why the Internet loves cats more than any other thing or not? This essay will explore the virality of cat pictures on the Internet and in turn explain the virality of memes in general as cat pictures were part of the first set of memes created on the Internet. This discourse proposes a theory that cat pictures and videos are manifestations of paidia play of humans. It also talks about implications on marketing and how practitioners can create content akin to cat pictures to make campaigns work.

The ‘myth’ of cats and the Internet

Let’s be honest, people do believe that the Internet is run by cats and human beings are just part of it. But the truth is cats don’t have the statistics behind them. People do search for dogs more than cats on Google, Instagram has more pictures of dogs than cats, Facebook has more posts about dogs than cats and not so surprisingly, dogs have more videos on YouTube than cats (Figures 1,2 &3). In fact, 2013 is deemed to be the year of sloth (Rothman, 2013). Different animals have taken control of the Internet in different years. But the reason for the perception to swing towards to cats side is because of the virality it garners. Since 2011, cat pictures are 4 times viral than their dog counterparts and Ben Huh of Cheezburger network confirmed that people submit 10 photos of LOLCats for every Hot Dog photo (Thornton, 2013).

Figure 1: Google search trends for Dogs and Cats viral cat pictures

Figure 1: Google search trends for Dogs and Cats

Figure 2: Hashtags comparison of Dogs and Cats on Instagram viral cat pictures

Figure 2: Hashtags comparison of Dogs and Cats on Instagram

Figure 3: Youtube search comparison of Dogs and Cats viral cat pictures

Figure 3: Youtube search comparison of Dogs and Cats

To put in to perspective, how important this cat sensation is, it is imperative to understand the different businesses that have stemmed from this phenomenon. The Cheezburger blog network that started through the famous “I can haz cheezurger” meme is valued at $35 Million as of 2013 (Verduyn, 2013). UK shares 3.8 million cat photos and videos compared to 1.4 million selfies (Metro, 2014). Pluto TV, an Internet TV network started an exclusive channel for cat programming (Sumologic, 2014). There is an Amazon best selling book on how to make your cat an Internet celebrity (Amazon, 2014). Above all, the web sensation Grumpy cat got its own Christmas movie in 2014 and made $64 Million in the same year. So it becomes inevitable to figure out what makes people to share cat pictures.

Figure 4: The phenomenon of cats viral cat pictures

Figure 4: The phenomenon of cats

There are quite number of articles from marketing practitioners explaining the reasons behind the virality of cat pictures. From Mashable to the Guardian everyone has written a piece on it. From scientific explanations to psychological reasons, people have tried to identify motivations behind this phenomenon.

The reasons that were proposed include cats are cute, cats are evil and cat owners are introverted, hence they use the Internet has become their own dog park. But, all these reasons are superficial and far from convincing. For example, dogs are adorable and in fact dogs are more attached to humans than cats. As mentioned earlier, dog pictures are shared more on the web but cat pictures have more virality. In order to cognise this phenomenon, it is critical to go back in history and also understand the basic human nature of play.

The role of mythology and science

Cats have formed part of human civilisation since the start. There were ample proofs published on Science magazine that all domestic cats came from on species in the Far East and the process would have started 12000 years ago (Zax, 2007). This is clear from the fact that Egyptian mythology had Gods with faces of big cats and Bast, a feminine God had domestic cat’s head. Bast was reckoned to be beautiful and independent. She was the Goddess of pleasure and personified playfulness, grace, affection and also cunningness (Ikram, 2005). In Norse mythology, cats were linked to Freyja, the mistress of Magic. Cats were doomed as part of witchcraft and devil worship by Christianity in Middle ages like any other mythological gods. Marie Louise von Franz in her seminal book, “The Cat: A tale of feminine redemption, talks about the independence of cats and openly flaunt their autonomy. She notes further that cats expect human companionship but they don’t need it.

Not only mythology, but science also talks about the playfulness of cats. In recent research by Atsuko Saito and Kazutaka Shinozuka (University of Tokyo), it was found that cats recognize the voices of their owners but don’t care about it. They don’t explicitly show their affection like dogs (2012). The researchers also say that cats domesticated themselves and humans might have had a very minor part in it. There are thousands of research papers on cognitive abilities of other animals but cats couldn’t be researched because they are too independent to study (Grimm, 2014). For scientists, cats have been a black box because they are extremely smart to manipulate them in to a study. Independence and playfulness of cats have been the reason why people want them as pets.

Cats – manifestation of paidia

Roger Caillois in his groundbreaking work Man, Play and Games defines play as an activity that is not obligatory, has its own space and time, is uncertain in its outcomes, creates no material wealth and has elements of make-believe and unreality (1961). He categorises all playful acts between two extreme points – Ludus and Paidia. Paidia is the spontaneous expression of playfulness while Ludus is governed by rules. All sports in the world have started as paidia and moved to become a ludus.

Caillois says that all play (be it ludus or paidia) starts from an urge and these urges can be classified in to four categories; Agon (competition) – all sports can be categorized in to this, Alea (chance) – betting and gambling, Mimicry (simulation) – roleplaying, games of illusion and Ilinx (vertigo) – swinging, dancing.

Cats are the perfect manifestation of paidia whereas dogs are the perfect manifestation of ludus. The play by pet animals can be classified in to mimicry and ilinx. A cat abides by its own rules and it doesn’t care about what humans perceive them. A cat owner can’t control what it does although they are domesticated. On the other hand, dogs conform to the rules of the owner. A dog can be trained to do things that the owner wants it to do.

To explain this, let’s take the examples of two famous pets from the Internet world. Maru (the cat) and Jesse the Jack Russell (the dog) are among the top ten animals on the Internet. The most famous video of Maru has 20+ Million views while Jesse’s has 12+million views. Maru’s videos (Figure 5) are all about the impulsive reactions on normal things it owner does. For example, it tries to play with vacuum cleaner or it tries to play with a carton box. The only thing the owner does is, he places certain things and captures the unstructured reactions of his cat.

Figure 5: Maru's playfulness viral cat pictures

Figure 5: Maru’s playfulness

On the other hand, Jesse’s videos (Figure 6) are about how the owner has trained it to fold the laundry, ride a shopping trolley in the supermarket or cleaning the house. These tricks are cute and they are part of the play but all of these trained by the owner. Everything happens under some rules made by humans when it comes to dogs. The spontaneous reactions of dogs (in fact any animal) are rare.

Figure 6: Jesse's ludus play viral cat pictures

Figure 6: Jesse’s ludus play

The same goes with other famous cats on the Internet. They mimic or role-play for the humans. They are manifestations of what humans want to play in real life. As children, humans find paidia in every aspect of life. They discover creativity in chaos, and everything starts with an exploration. Children explore, learn and find the means to play with anything. Children also express their emotions impulsively and without any inhibition. And adults can’t do the same thing. So in order to manifest their paidia, humans use cats to express the different emotions and notions of play. Be it the grumpiness through grumpy cat or the cuteness through snoopy or authority through Colonel Meow or the extreme playfulness through Nala, humans are using cats to manifest their carefreeness online.

The other way to prove this theory is that the place where the virality starts. Almost every cat viral picture and 90% of the memes start from the anonymous online communities of 4chan, Reddit or other similar communities. Through research on 150 different memes, Christian Bauckhage found that the majority of memes start and spread because of homogeneous communities and not Internet at large (2011). All these homogeneous communities have something in common – they are serious and playful at the same time. The playfulness comes to the fore when they start creating memes and makes the most unassuming characters as Internet celebrities.

The virality of cat pictures also provides a platform to understand virality of memes in general. Although, the memes spread like a viral epidemic between communities but understanding what content will make a meme or a picture viral is still an enigma. In a research by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, it was found that social transmission of content depends on the internal state of a person rather than motivation to share. Any content that has a manifestation of the play will trigger the urge to share. Take for example, the viral meme content that took over the Internet in 2014 – the ALS Ice Bucket challenge is the perfect example of paidia becoming ludus for a good cause.

Implications on marketing

As cat pictures started becoming viral, marketers chose to use them in diverse campaigns. And not so surprisingly, most of them were epic failures. For instance, Cheerios tried to use the Grumpycat in its commercial and failed because it didn’t understand the idea behind why grumpy cat became famous. Buzz (Cheerios’ Honey Bee) tries to make the Grumpycat smile.

Greenpeace undertook one of the successful campaigns using cat memes. Cats Save Tigers was a campaign to spread awareness of dwindling Tiger population in the world. The commercial had the most famous cats of Internet like Lil Bub, Princess Monster Truck, Hamilton the hipster cat and many more doing their own things for their Tiger counterparts. The campaign became extremely popular because it allowed users to create their own memes through a website and share them on different social networks. Within a month of launch, there were 35.4 million mentions on Twitter of #catssavetigers and one picture of Captain Pancake (Internet cat) received more than 3.42K comments on Instagram (Mcleod, 2014).

The difference between these two campaigns was that the successful one didn’t try to change the nature of the original content. The originality was preserved and at the same time it allowed people to create their own memes to support a larger cause. It was indeed paidia being used and the users responded to the same. Jonah Berger lists the following things as the aspect of viral meme based on the cat pictures

1. Focus on ordinary people (manifestation of play)

2. Flawed masculinity

3. Humor

4. Simplicity

5. Repetitiveness

6. “Whimsical” Content (Kissmetrics, 2013)

Memes and viral content are different. Memes can be mimicked while content is shared. That’s why memes are perfect manifestations of paidia. However, any content that taps in to the inner playfulness of humans can become viral. It is crucial for marketers to create content that can be mimicked and shared by ordinary people that talk to their inner paidia self.

Cats are an enigma for scientists because of their intelligence, independence and playfulness likewise cat pictures are an enigma on the Internet. There are a number of theories on why they are viral and this essay is an attempt to propose a theory based on paidia. Cat pictures on the Internet are the collective expression of playfulness and independence of humans like many other things.


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Posted by Sylvian

Marketing Analyst by profession, a quizzer by passion, a blogger by choice, a poet by chance, a non-conformist by gene and a rebel by birth

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