Why Cats Rule the Internet

There are just as many dogs on the Web, so why do cats get all the attention?

What are people searching for online? Cats. Lots and lots of cats. Mr Thinktank/flickr

Cats may not be man’s best friend, but the Internet apparently didn't get the memo.

“Cats” is one of the most-searched-for terms on the Internet, and YouTube videos starring felines account for more than 26 billion views, making them the single most popular category on the site.

However, on YouTube, as well as sites like Reddit, Buzzfeed and Instagram, dogs are posted and tagged just as often as cats. In fact, YouTube actually gets more searches for dogs than cats. Yet cat content gets almost four times more viral views than content featuring dogs, according to Jack Shepherd, Buzzfeed’s editorial director.

What’s behind this phenomenon?

We come from a long history of cat people.

Our fascination with felines is hardly new. Cave paintings of cats date back 10,000 years, and ancient Egyptians considered the animals to be sacred, even mummifying some felines just like humans.

However, with the advent of the Internet, we suddenly had a much easier way to share cat content.

"It's not so much creating this interest in cats, it's more exploiting this interest that was already there,” Miles Orvell, a cultural historian, told New Republic.

Even lolcats — those humorous cat photos captioned with poorly spelled catspeak — date back to more than a century ago. During the 1870s, photographer Harry Pointer snapped photos of cats mimicking human activities and captioned them with witticisms.

The topic of how cats became the stars of the online world is so fascinating to curator Jason Eppink that he created an entire exhibit on the topic at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image.

“How Cats Took Over the Internet” traces the evolution of kitties from cat-centric chat rooms to famous felines like Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub, but according to “Wired,” if other cultures had dominated the Web in its early days, this exhibit might be about another animal entirely.

“Cuteness varies from culture to culture,” writes Margaret Rhodes. “...in some African countries, goats are the most popular pet, so they embody cuteness. Because the U.S. and Japan dominate Internet culture, cats dominate the Internet.”

And there’s something to be said for the cuteness argument when discussing cats’ Web domination.

Human brains are actually wired to think certain features — big eyes, tiny noses, round faces — are adorable. It’s in our nature to find them cute because human infants require adults to act as their caregivers. Cuteness is necessary for survival, and it's a secret dogs are in on as well.

kitten in tree
Admit it. You think this little guy is adorable. virgonira/iStockphoto

We want to solve the mystery.

But cuteness alone can’t explain why the Internet is made of cats. Perhaps another reason for our obsession with all things feline stems from the fact that to this day, cats remain mysterious, wild creatures.

Unlike dogs, which we domesticated and bred for our needs, cats basically domesticated themselves.

As we began farming, they moved in to prey on rodents attracted to crops, and they stuck around for the easy meals. Even after living alongside us for more than 9,000 years, scientists have concluded that house cats are still only “semi-domesticated,” and cats remain far less studied than dogs, meaning much of their behavior remains a mystery to us.

If you’ve ever spent much time around a cat, you’ve experienced firsthand that a cat’s affection isn’t freely given. You have to earn it, and this aloofness taps into a social psychology principle known as scarcity, which basically argues that we assign greater value to items that are scarce or difficult to obtain.

In other words, when that adorable kitty plays hard to pet, you want to pet it that much more.

“I think it's the very aloofness of cats that makes us want to caption their thoughts, or put them in front of a keyboard and see what happens,” says Shepherd.

We think of them like people.

Because we can’t possibly know what cats are thinking, we ascribe human emotions and activities to them.

We say that they’re grumpy or surprised or that they’re talking or playing piano. Indeed, some of the most famous felines earn their status not because they’re fluffy and cute, but because we anthropomorphize them.

"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," Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger Network told The Huffington Post.

According to a Central Missouri State University study, people even ascribe the same personality traits to cats that psychologists use to definite human personality: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness and openness.

Neuroscientists have found that anthropomorphism uses similar brain processes as those used for thinking about other people, so when we anthropomorphize cats, we could simply be trying to understand them.

"Juxtaposing surprising meanings over cat images like lolcats, allows us to engage in an activity humans have long been doing: projecting our thoughts onto the mysterious countenance of felines," Sam Ford, director of digital strategy with Peppercom, told Mashable.

Siamese cat with laptop
Just another cat person watching some cat videos with the cat. lolostock/iStockphoto

The Internet loves cats because cat people inhabit the Internet.

While dog owners can meet fellow dog lovers on walks or at the local dog park, until the Internet, cat owners had no such place to connect with fellow feline lovers. But when they logged on, they didn’t simply find a few like-minded people — they discovered millions of them.

Numerous studies have found that people who identify as either cat people or dog people, possess certain characteristics.

A University of Texas study concluded that people who prefer cats are more introverted, sensitive, non-conformist and creative, and these traits are shared by many Internet users.

"Cats have an independence and playful inventiveness that appeals to the solitary geeks who spend their time writing computer code," says Jack Schofield, author of the Ask Jack Guardian blog. "Cats require relatively little maintenance and are basically nocturnal animals, so they're a perfect match for the Internet geek/coder/hacker lifestyle."

So by their very nature, the people who are most inclined to create and share Web content are often the same people who are likely to self-identify as cat people. And because users determine what content goes on the Internet — and what goes viral when they share it with their network — it’s hardly surprising that this content frequently features felines.

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.