Is the Internet as Obsessed With Cats as We Think It Is?

Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image
Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image / Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image

Today, Friday August 7, New York's Museum of the Moving Image opens its doors on a new exhibit that shows just how broad the world of movies and film has become. "How Cats Took Over The Internet" explores a central tenet of the modern online experience—that cats rule the world wide web. But when he started to dig deeper, Jason Eppink, the curator (who does not own a cat and is, in fact, allergic to them) found the trend that's become a cliché wasn't exactly reflected in the numbers.

Even on sites where cute content flourishes—Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr, BuzzFeed, and Instagram—posts tagged as featuring cats and dogs seldom exceed .3 percent of a site’s traffic. And cats don't even always edge out their canine counterparts. The exhibit features a wall full of color-coded charts comparing the virality of cat content to content centered on dogs. On Reddit, the number of comments about cats and dogs has remained relatively equal since the site launched in 2007, with dogs in the lead for most of that time. Dog posts have exceeded cat posts on BuzzFeed for a few years now. Even on YouTube, the so-called "ground zero for cat videos," the Pets & Animals category accounts for less than 1 percent of all videos—and while 16 percent of views in that category are of cat clips, dogs garner 23 percent of views.

So why have cat videos become synonymous with online time-wasting? (One recent study claims they're actually energy boosting.) Another portion of the exhibit tackles this phenomenon with a number of different theories (interspersed with cat videos, of course). They cite the appeal of a "virtual cat park," an idea coined by Jack Shepard, editorial director at BuzzFeed. According to this theory, the Internet serves as a gathering place for cat owners, the same way a dog park serves to bring dog owners together. Similarly, there's the idea that self-described cat people—who, pre-Internet, felt stigmatized by society at large—were especially eager to join up with fellow cat lovers.

Another theory points to cats' tendency to ignore the humans (or cameras) around them, which gives cat videos a more voyeuristic feel. Add to that the fact that people are inclined to identify with living creatures in general (a characteristic called biophilia), attribute human-like internal lives to their pets (anthropomorphism), and just think kittens are downright adorable, and it isn't surprising that the idea that "Cats Rule the Internet" became a self-perpetuating truism.

"How Cats Took Over The Internet" is at the Museum of the Moving Image from August 7, 2015 to January 15, 2016. All images courtesy Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image.