The Cat Thread
The best application of all of my technology and community-building expertise: Messages about cats
A purr-fect origin story
The Internet is for cats. Deep down, I’ve always known this. But despite years working in the technology industry and studying the art of online community-building, I never found a way to make it click for me.
The Cat Thread changed everything.
On New Year’s Day in 2015, I sat with a few friends whom I hadn’t seen in months at a poolside bar as we played catch-up on each other’s lives. Invariably, after the obligatory life updates, our conversation devolved around the topic of our respective furry little felines at home. Then out came the phones: Cats in the sun, cats in bed, cats in boxes, cats playing with toys, jumping cats, lounging cats, selfie cats, the list went on.
Dozens of photo shares later, we all felt lighter. Happier. And it still wasn’t enough.
“It’s easier to share cat photos with fellow cat people,” said my friend. “Sometimes I just want to share about a funny or cute thing my cat did. Not that it’s always Instagram-worthy or that anybody else would care, but since I know you and your cats, it’s better this way. We should do this all the time.”
WAIT. BUT WE CAN.
And so began the Cat Thread.™️
We started off small — with about five people and a group text message thread. Those first days were pretty crazy. Nobody knew what they were doing, and since we were still all with each other IRL, when somebody sent a photo, everybody else would feel the buzz of the phones in their pockets, and the entire conversation would derail for a few minutes.
It was quirky and cuddly and absurd.
“This can’t possibly be sustained,” my husband said.
But when we all departed sunny Florida back to our respective homes, the thread continued with surprising momentum. Despite being one of the originators, I found myself needing to do little to encourage the thread along. Every few days, another cat photo would pop up, bringing that group thread back to the top of our text message conversation list.
This is also when we started to observe traffic patterns among our usage. For instance, Caturday (every Saturday) would always prove to be one of our busiest days for messaging.
Like any good new community, establishing ground rules was paramount. While we never explicitly stated them, our cat community coalesced naturally around the following ideas:
Rules of the Cat Thread™️:
- Send photos of cats.
- Include a brief message to explain your cat’s pose (optional).
- No idle chit chat.
At some point, somebody shared a photo of a possum they found in their yard.
NOT A CAT, chastised another participant on text. +1 +1 MOAR CATS we all agreed. We all mentally amended the primary rule in our heads to: “Send only photos of cats.”
A growing co-meow-nity
One year later, our thread had grown to about eight people. And about 11 cats. The way of adding a new person was not dissimilar to how you might get tapped to be the school mascot in college: It always happened at first with a thorough vetting in person, you needed to gain buy-in that your friend would follow the rules on the thread, and then you could introduce them (and their cat) to the group.
If they failed to follow the rules, everybody knew who would be to blame.
Our group convened in person in April 2017. We all couldn’t believe it had been over two years since our thread was created — and that it was still growing strong. But there was one problem: One of our participants had moved out of the country and texting was not working for her. Furthermore, between the iPhone and Android compatibility issues, some people were (gasp!) losing precious photos of kitties.
Weighing the pros and cons of migrating our nascent community, I knew it was time for a platform shift. In a room with the majority of Cat Thread participants present, we called for a vote:
Would you support a move from Text Message to WhatsApp?
Most people said yes. A couple were on the fence. But we had physical onboarding on our side. Once again, we spent the next 30 minutes as a group making sure everybody was invited to and joined our new WhatsApp community. At least this time we could formalize ourselves with a name: Let’s go ‘Cats [thread].
I’m not going to lie, the transition was tough. We lost a few people in those early days. A couple of people held out even for six months or more. But overall, WhatsApp did for our kitty-loving group what Netflix did for TV: It helped us all binge even harder.
A tale of too (many) kitties
Today, our Cat Thread features 18 active participants, approximately 23 regular cat cameos, and 690 photos sent since our migration to WhatsApp.
In all this time, we’ve only lost one member (it was too many cats for her to handle), and everybody else hops in for regular postings. Cat photos aside, one of the best parts about building communities is watching what happens organically. And the Cat Thread has had some incredible and unexpected side effects.
For instance, when one member shared a photo of her kitty in a “suiticle,” a onesie that prevents a cat from scratching itself, this morphed into a cat-help discussion for another participant. Another fun Easter Egg is when one Cat Thread member visits another person’s home and makes a guest post on behalf of the kitty we all know.
But not everything on the Cat Thread is upbeat and fluffy. We’ve also seen three or four kitties pass away. The first time this happened, it threw our community into a state of shock. But now I see that our our thread helps serve as a grieving mechanism, letting people one final portrait of their kitty and how much joy they brought to their lives. And while bittersweet, a few months later, we’ve seen those same displaced kitty owners re-emerge on the thread with a new kitten (or two) to introduce to us all.
It may not be the most complex system in the world, but sometimes simpler is better. And when it comes to cats, this thing works.
Just last week, this message came through from one of our participants:
“I’m giggling uncontrollably on the train at these photos right now. This is the best corner of the internet.”
Like I said, the Internet is for cats. You just need to find a way to make it work for you too.
Also posted on Dry Erase.