Admit it! When was the last time you watched a cute animal video? I’m guessing it’s either yesterday, today or — you’re watching one right now, aren’t you?
The point is, few are going to deny that animal videos have taken over the digital world. But what is it about animal videos – and cats in particular – that have possessed the entirety of the Interwebz and our souls and made them so shareable and… well, so damn viral?
Now, don’t feel too bad if you have just shared yet another cat or dog or contributed to one of the 36 million views of a video showing ducks blown off their feet by the wind this morning. From neuroscience to psychology, these four perspectives may account for why you find yourself wedged in an animal video-watching rut almost everyday.
1. Cats Make You Chill and Cheerful
It might be a small sample size, but take a cue from nearly 7,000 people who underwent an Indiana University study on cat video-watching. Study results released in 2015 found that participants reported feeling more energetic and positive after glimpsing cats online than before. It also decreased negative emotions. To be fair, 36 percent of participants disclosed their bias as being as “cat person” while 60 percent liked both cats and dogs.
Nevertheless, there’s a perfectly great excuse to continue this internet cat consumption, especially if you’re tired at work: positivity and energy! If you really did take the time to watch a cat video while at work, don’t feel guilty about the distraction. The study suggests that “the happiness gained from viewing internet cats can moderate the relationship between procrastination, motives, guilt and enjoyment”. So take a chill pill and let YouTube “autoplay” the next cat video.
2. We Really Read Into Cats
But what is it about cats that make them so addictive? The way these creatures look may provide some clue into why they perch, purring, at the top of our Google search histories. Compared to dogs who lovingly follow you around, cats are a lot more unreadable. They don’t seem to care much about who feeds them, as long as somebody does.
That mystery makes them more compelling. Their very blankness is a canvas, on which we human (slaves) can paint emotions. “Since dogs are so easy to read, and cats aren’t, it’s easier to project yourself, others, or whoever you think is funny onto a cat,” said biology professor John Bradshaw and Foundation Director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, in an interview with Gizmodo.
On a content marketing level, this is gold for anyone earning some extra cash from YouTube views. Because most felines stare daggers at any human who doesn’t have a can of tuna in their hands, we anthropomorphize cats. Why? We’re desperate for meaning, to squeeze in an emotional back story to events. As content consumers, this process of anthropomorphising engages and involves us, making viewers feel more invested in our feline overlords.
The way these creatures look may provide some clue into why they perch, purring, at the top of our Google search histories.
Take the example of Henri, le Chat Noir, a YouTube star. You think Grumpy Cat is grumpy? Henri is les bleu. In short videos, the black-and-white tuxedo cat is cast as a feline philosopher with a propensity for pretentiousness at the world around him, including at the other “white idiot cat” occupying the same house. Melancholy-tinged piano tinkling accompanies his footsteps while Will Braden, director of the videos, speaks for Henri in a voiceover brimming with ennui and disdain.
A typical quote: “I am free to go. Yet I remain. The 15 hours a day I sleep have no effect. I wake to the same tedium.” Henri’s inability to find meaning and happiness in the world around him perpetuates our stereotype of cold-hearted and dismissive cats to the extreme. And that extremity is key. It pushes the personification into the realm of comedy.
Braden’s humanisation of Henri is also rather self-aware, if not a mocking jab at our pleasure of hovering up cat videos. Henri references other cat memes and the cat-friendly medium of YouTube in videos. “I’m told I’m famous on the internet. But for what? My torment?” glowers Henri at the viewer, in a vid that has gained over two milllion views.
In another even more popular upload, he castigates his other feline companion, his haughtiness clearly validated by nearly 10 million views. “I alone feel this torment. The white idiot writhes on his chair, begging for cheeseburgers” references one of the original internet cat memes harking back to 2007 — a picture of a fat grey cat with the text “I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?” above it. Just like us, Henri projects his feelings onto his white feline neighbour.
3. We are Being Tricked by Animal Faces
It’s not just cats that are chasing after our mouse clicks, of course. Baby animals garner great amounts of attention, with these critters heading the list: otters, pandas, red pandas, hedgehogs, Knut the polar bear and sloths that take an agonising 10 minutes to crawl across your YouTube window. Unlike our canine companions, we don’t actually spend that much time one-on-one with these more exotic creatures. Unless you’re a zoologist, you’re less likely to be able to read their moods and thus, more liable to anthropomorphise them.
The next time you upload a pithy LOLCATS quote (“Me can has the weekend now?”), you may be uploading more than you bargain for
Simultaneously, neuroscience might be at work here to explain our fascination with these animals. Take, for example, our craze over panda-related content. Their wide eyes, tiny noses encircled by fat cheeks and clumsy movements bear some similarity with human babies, sparking parts of our brain circuitry and the body’s response that would normally arise when we look at toddlers.
These infantile panda features are examples of neoteny — what developmental biologists refer to as the retention of juvenile appearances into adulthood. Not surprisingly, that affects us on a subconscious level. Our nurturing instinct emerges along with the hormone oxytocin, popularly known as the ‘love’ hormone that makes us feel good and is associated with bonding.
4. Your Cat Ratted You Out
Cuteness aside, not everyone likes animal content, science or no science. Heck, there are
monsters people who think we should let pandas go naturally extinct.
Still, we’re pretty sure animal-related content is here to stay. But the next time you upload a pithy LOLCATS quote (“Me can has the weekend now?”), you may be uploading more than you bargain for. That’s according to Professor Owen Mundy’s data experiment. Then a professor at Florida State University, the artist, designer and programmer used a supercomputer to extract latitude and longitude coordinates, embedded in the metadata of one million cat shots posted on image hosting platforms like Instagram.
The locations of the kitties (and their human live-in servants) were revealed and posted on the site I Know Where Your Cat Lives. You can see the extent of data exposure via a button to “See a new cat!” Out pops up a cat photo as well as the area you live in. As USA Today summarised it: “I Know Where Your Cat Lives feeds your cute cat fix. At the same time, you might come to the scary realisation of how easy it is to access your data online.”
So before posting a portrait of your animal companion, it’s best to check on the danger you may be exposing yourself to. Cats might have nine lives, but we don’t.