“They just laughed and stabbed her. She didn’t even try to run away. It was like they were _playing_.”
For some reason Magrat shot a glance at Greebo, who had the decency to look embarrassed.
“Pointy ears and hair you want to stroke,” she said, vaguely. “And they can fascinate you. And when they’re happy they make a pleasing noise.”
Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies
I am a member of a discussion forum – supposedly, its main purpose is a forum for some talented modders of a particular computer game, but it has a lively free-for-all discussion area. Well, I say lively; other people would say “terrifyingly cutthroat”. It’s the kind of place where you can post any opinion you want, on any topic you want, and there will be dozens of people ready to tell you what an idiot you are for having that opinion. These are people who will arguing about the merits of The Hunger Site, who will rend you to shreds for posting ungrammatically, who will argue for pages about what is better, Divacup wii or PS3, but post a cat macro, and people will coo about how cute it is, or (more likely) post a bunch more of their own. Everyone loves them.
It’s clearly not a phenomenon limited to that one weird little community either. I Can Has Cheezburger has been the top blog on WordPress since it moved, and as anyone who was viewing the site a few weeks ago knows, that move was precipitated because ICHC was so popular its cheezservers were repeatedly meltzored by the pressure.
I’ve been thinking and reading a bit about the lolcat phenomenon. Obligatory academic disclaimer: admittedly, this is not my field, and I am not sure I really have the pop culture chops to write a serious critique, so what follows are my observations as a self-confessed lolfrend. Oh, and full disclosure – I have 3 cats.
Clearly, cat pidgin (awsum pun, hur hur) is a developing language; Anil Dash has analysed some of the important characteristics of it. I think he’s right in saying that lolcat has very quickly evolved its own rules about correctness, which seems very odd in a pidgin that relies on incorrect spelling and grammar for its humour and meaning. As he says “The rise of these new subspecies of lolcats are particularly interesting to me because “I can has cheezeburger?” has a fairly consistent grammar. I wasn’t sure this was true until I realized that it’s possible to get cat-speak wrong.” Anil Dash does an admirable job of explaning the joke without crossing the line into explaining it so hard it isn’t funny anymore (cf with this rather more heavy-handed treatment).
There’s an interplay here between what anyone can read as funny and the in-joke which David McRaney identifies in his interesting discussion tracing of the evolution of lolcats from leetspeak and image macros:
These image macros influence new leetspeak, which in turn influences new spoken leetpeak and new macros. All of this churns at a rapid pace and evolves with each new generation. Eventually, something like the lolcats comes along and splinters the whole language schema into a new branch where all new in jokes, references and acceptable formats are born.
As McRaney notes, the in-joke part of the cycle is clearly being played out at ICHC, where readers often post lolcats which teasingly respond to previous posts. I also have seen the language cycle back into chat – which McRaney identifies as one of its origins. (For example, people going to eat will say “I can has pizza”.)
Lolcat pictures (or lolcat-style) pictures are also evolving into narrative, possibly inspired by the exchange of pictures that occurs on ICHC, and also on forums, where people have been posting macros of various kinds to create conversational responses to one another. Loltrek was created as an answer to the question “what if lolcats had a tv channel;” srsly uses the pictures from a news story about a cat who takes the bus to explain things from the cat’s perspective, while this story uses lolcats’ humour to diffuse the author’s frustration with her computer repair people.
The in-joke nature of the lolcat phenomenon also makes it difficult to explain them to “outsiders”. Sure, some of the pictures are funny on their own, but this one, posted today, raises the layers of self-reference that make it impossible for outside readers to interpret to new heights (just check how many comments are asking for enlightenment):
So, lolcats evolved from the way we form groups and play with language when we shape our group identities. They also, as Robin Amer points out, appeal to our broader desire to create animals in our own image.
I think the lolcats reveal the anthropomorphic way we think of our pets. They’re something more than animals, yet something less than hapless toddlers (or ditzy teenagers). They can communicate with us, but they haven’t quite mastered our codes. They have a life of their own.
And while I agree with this as a general idea, I don’t think it really explains why there aren’t huge numbers of loldogs and other animals. Yes, they exist, but lolcat pictures are overwhelmingly pictures of cats, after all. Far be it from me to dismiss the appeal of the lolrus, but it cannot be denied that a good deal of the appeal of the lolcat relies on the cats in those pictures.
I think part of what is going on here is that lolcats show the dual nature of cats – on the one hand, they are about the cats’ inherent cuteness and appeal, on the other, their inherent nature their desire for comfort, for prey and for world domination. Sometimes, all of these traits are illustrated in one lolcat picture, which, as McRaney notes, is what makes them so effective and funny.
It is our specific anthropomorphisation of cats which lolcats illustrate, and I think that is partly behind the repetition of some of the recurring lolcat tropes. It is also what makes the humour of them compelling, too. They are funny because they are true – or at least they are true to our imaginary construction of cat personalities.
We may have an intellectual understanding that our cats’ affection for us is rooted in their desire for comfort and food, but we prefer to ignore it because they inspire affection in us. We attribute kindly feelings to our cats because we don’t want to admit that our love is unrequited. Part of the humour here is also based on our sneaking suspicion that cats are in on this whole anthropomorphising lark. They know that we can be manipulated by thinking they are cute; deep down we may know it too, but somehow this doesn’t manage to diminish their appeal. As Terry Pratchett notes, in the voice of Granny Weatherwax, “If cats looked like frogs, we’d soon work out what nasty cruel little bastards they are.”
This idea of cats’ use of cuteness to mask their greed is at the heart of the lolcat trope “i has [an item]”. Not only does your cat take your stuff, he rubs your nose in it. It is interesting that the iconic Cheezburger cat appears to be asking permission, because most of the other lolcats are rather triumphantly claiming ownership of objects they have appropriated (invisible or otherwise).
We see cats as suave; they are usually carelessly graceful, and as any cat observer knows, a cat caught in the act of doing something clumsy will often manage to project an air that the human observer interprets as “I meant to do that.” The “invisible [item]” trope works with this perception; cats caught in odd or compromising positions explain their behaviour by suggesting they are reacting to something we can’t see.
Likewise, the cat’s nonchalance is illustrated in lolcats that start “Oh, hai/hi.” This trope illustrates both the destructive tendencies of cats, and the fact that they don’t seem to care about human disapproval for destructive acts. While dogs might look, well, hangdog, when they get caught out, cats will try to make an argument that the destruction was actually a good thing.
The feeling that we care more about our cats’ approval than they do about ours is expressed in the trope “[item] cat is pleased/displeased”.
Our ideas about our cats’ intelligence play a major role in creating all of these in-jokes, of course. We know that they are manipulating us, and yet we let them do it (actually, we know that they know that we know…). Our anthopomorphic concept of cats includes the idea that they are clever tricksters. It seems quite believable that they are on our internetz when we aren’t looking, so of course they are hip to pop culture references. We may even suspect that they are hipper and cooler than we are. Cats probably even know for certain the origin of the “i’m in ur” meme.
Humans are the butt of many of the lolcat jokes – our cats are kind of mean to us, and then they laugh at us for being hapless. The fact that they can’t even type correctly kind of rubs it in.
But while the cats in the lolcats may express disdain for their human overlords, pictures which might indicate a real world in which there is cruelty to animals are completely taboo. Indeed, although there are some exceptions, the trend in lolcat pictures is for “natural” pictures of cats – cats just doing what cats do. Manipulation of the pictures is relatively rare, and it seems to be if not strictly against the rules, not quite cricket. The notable exception is in cases where people have made visible the invisible item, or responded in some way to the original photo. Likewise, there seems to be a trend against setting up the picture; good lolcat photos rely on the same kind of serendipity that engendered the phenomenon in the first place. The humour in the captions comes from the things cats do, and the interplay between our understanding of cats and our own common imagination.
Lolcats, at their heart, are about our affection for cats, and our hope that they like us enough to laugh at our jokes.
Note: Thanks to ICHC for the images, and the lulz.