Many of us watch cat videos without a second thought. We follow cats on Instagram, subscribe to multiple cat-themed sub-Reddits (r/startledcats, anyone?), and own Lil BUB or Grumpy Cat merch. Cats are weird and cute; why overanalyze it?
Some researchers seem to agree, using cat videos as the frivolous internet foil to their serious subject. In articles that pronounce things like “It’s not all cat videos” or “Not just silly cat videos,” researchers argue that the internet is more than for cats, that it can be a powerful educational or political tool instead. Cat videos, it seems, are simply not important.
Or are they?
One IU alum and former Media School professor, Jessica Gall Myrick, did a study in 2015 asking why people watch cat videos. What purpose does it serve? She confirmed through a survey of around 7,000 people that a big reason we’re drawn to videos of our aloof overlords is mood management. People feel a little bit happier after watching a cat fit itself into an impossible small vase (see the meme: “cats are liquid”), though cat videos also aid procrastination (no surprise there).
Myrick writes: “Practically, these findings related to positive emotions and increased energy after viewing online cat media promotes the idea that viewing Internet cats may actually function as a form of digital pet therapy and/or stress relief for Internet users.”
Another researcher, Radha O’Meara, looked at cats in relation to online surveillance culture. O’Meara posits that one of the key appeals of cat videos (as compared to dog videos) is cats’ “unselfconsciousness.” O’Meara claims that with dog videos, canine companions often seem to perform for the camera, looking at their humans for approval and completing tricks they’ve been trained to do.
But cats are a different story. Their humans seem intent on sneakily capturing their cat’s cute or bizarre behavior, trying not to distract the cat or call attention to the camera lest the cat know it’s watched and walk away. Or perhaps you’ve had the alternate experience of trying to get your cat to look at the camera for a cute photo, but it only turns its head away stubbornly. Cats simply don’t care. They will not perform for us. They live in their own world and concern themselves primarily with their own interests and desires.
O’Meara writes, “This, I argue, is rare in a consumer culture dominated by surveillance, where we are constantly aware of the potential for being watched.” We live vicariously through our cats, perhaps subconsciously imagining ourselves living such staunchly independent lives.
Lastly, Leah Shafer places cat videos within the context of art and cinema histories. She analyzes the aesthetics of the cat video, drawing parallels not just with the earliest films in the 1890s and 1900s, but with artist Takashi Murakami’s idea of the “superflat,” which refers to Japanese art and pop culture traditions that construct flat, 2D images, lacking in visual perspective and depth of field. Cat videos are embedded on YouTube and social media platforms, the screen surrounded by ads and thumbnails of the next bit of content queued up for your attention.
Shafer writes, “The YouTube interface offers this series of views: it draws the spectator in and across the screen toward its recommended promotions. The superflat aesthetics of the cat videos within the interface act as a kind of visual pedagogy that habituates viewers to a mode of viewing that is not about resistant possibility but about consumer control…” Cat videos — despite the pleasure they afford — train us how to be consumers of content, train our attention.
Cat videos are a lot of fun. They’re funny and cute and sharing them is a great way to bond with friends and family. But perhaps they’re not as frivolous as we thought.
Cat Video Scholarship:
Myrick, Jessica Gall. “Emotion Regulation, Procrastination, and Watching Cat Videos Online: Who Watches Internet Cats, Why, and to What Effect?” Computers in Human Behavior 52 (Nov 2015), pp. 168-176. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.06.001
O’Meara, Radha. “Do Cats Know They Rule Youtube? Surveillance and the Pleasure of Cat Videos.” M/C Journal 17.2 (2014). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.794
Shafer, Leah. “Cat Videos and the Superflat Cinema of Attractions.” Film Criticism 40.2 (July 2016). https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.13761232.0040.208
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.