What wuz we expecting? Cheezburger?
That might be the problem, actually: a surfeit of expectations. It’s true that when we read that Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center launched an Internet Cat Video Festival in 2012, we thought an academic analysis of the lolcat phenomenon was under way. We envision ardent curators scrutinizing our diversions and diagnosing the contemporary psyche. Because we missed the festival, we pounced on the Museum of the Moving Image’s new show, “How Cats Took Over the Internet,” like a kitten pursuing a laser pointer.
Alas, “How Cats Took Over the Internet” isn’t so much a show as it is two rooms, one screening cat videos, the other tracing a vaguely interesting history of cat media and then offering some downright contradictory facts. It opens with the stuff the show aims to analyze: a reel of highlights from the Walker festival, playing on a loop in an open screening area with benched seats. As a cat diving into a vase — “Fat cat in pot (attempt 2)” — segues into another unspooling toilet paper (“Willie is better than your cat”), which then moves on to yet another feline with boss DJ skills (“Vinyl Cat”), the audience vibrates with infectious chuckles.
The displays in an adjacent room aim to contextualize the kitten GIF phenomenon. A primer on cat obsession through the ages begins with two early films (1894’s Boxing Cats and 1903’s The Sick Kitten), reminding us that as long as there have been moving images, there have been cat videos. But it was cat magazines that were the true home of kitty porn before the interwebs took over. Here they’re represented by a projected slideshow of periodical covers, from Britain’s Victorian-era Our Cats to the early-twentieth-century The Fortnightly Cattarian right up through Cat Fancy, the crazy-cat-lady rag first published in 1965 (and now known as Catster).
The genre of the cat video is about user-generated content, and that era, this show suggests, started with the rise of home video recorders and the 1989 debut of America’s Funniest Home Videos. From there, a wall-size timeline charts the course of the past two decades of workplace procrastination, beginning with a mid-1990s newsgroup called rec.pets.cats. From there we get to see those Flash animations of kittens singing White Stripes songs that we emailed around in 2002. We remember important milestones like the birth of the Caturday meme in 2005 and the rise of lolcats and I Can Has Cheezburger. We acknowledge the existence of Grumpy Cat, she of the sweet book deals and licensing agreements.
Then things get weird. A section called “Looking at the Numbers” purports to analyze feline video traffic, but it manages, between banal reminders that being with pets is good for your health, to actively negate the show’s “took over the internet” premise. Turns out cats aren’t even close to taking over the internet.
Though this dreadful fact is acknowledged right away — “little data exists to support the claim that cats represent an outsize proportion of Web traffic or attention,” the wall text informs — the numbers that follow remain unsettling. In a graph charting Reddit’s cat versus dog mentions from 2008 to the present, pet comments represent just one-quarter of 1 percent of all comments on the site. One-quarter of 1 percent. On Tumblr, cats and dogs combined account for less than 1 percent of all “engagement” on the site. Most damning, perhaps, is the data from YouTube, whose “Pets & Animals” category makes up only 1 percent of views — and where cats are outwatched by dogs, 16 percent to 23.
Is there any hope for cat fanciers? We’re assured that cat videos go viral more often than doggy ones.
‘How Cats Took Over the Internet’
Museum of the Moving Image
36-01 35th Avenue, Queens
Through January 31, 2016
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 8, 2015