Internet Cats, Internet Llamas and Cultural Specificity on the Global Web

The web’s diversity expressed in a global map of animal memes

“A Global Perspective” on animal memes. The Civic Beat’s ongoing contribution to “How Cats Took Over the Internet” at the Museum of the Moving Image, curated by Jason Eppink. Photo by Negar Mottahedeh.

It’s been exciting days here for The Civic Beat: Jason Eppink’s terrific show, “How Cats Took Over the Internet,” opened at the Museum of the Moving Image. And as far as we can tell from the reviews so far, it’s been a hit. Here’s what The New York Times’s Jennifer A. Kingson had to say:

The exhibition — which may well be the first mainstream museum installation entirely dedicated to cats online — is made up mostly of images, videos and GIFs of cats and is meant to be a cultural deconstruction of their enduring popularity. The show takes a high-minded look at anthropomorphism and what it calls the “aesthetics of cuteness” as well as a low-brow wallow through cheesy trends — like the LOLcats who demand cheezburger — and bad puns, like Caturday, a fad that had people posting cat pictures on Saturdays.

One of the surprises of the show, as revealed in the review (I hope this isn’t a spoiler!) is that cats haven’t necessarily taken over the internet statistically — Jason found that cats and dogs tend to be shared in equal amounts. But as Carl Goodman, the Museum’s executive director noted, they are culturally significant, and that’s why the cats-on-the-internet phenomenon is worth thinking about critically in a museum.

And they’re also culturally situated. We’re excited and honored to have a global map of animal memes included in this show. The map reflects the hard work, ideation and research done by our map advisory team, which includes Jason Li, Ben Valentine, Ruth Miller and Matt Stempeck, and the many contributing researchers.

It’s been heartening to see reviews by writers at places like Vogue and Wired s who generally understand the themes we’re trying to communicate with the map and the research behind it — and that’s one of cultural specificity, which matters when we talk about the global web. The map hopes to show that he animals we find funny and cute and interesting to share on the web are culturally situated.

Sometimes it’s cats, sometimes it’s llamas, sometimes it’s goats; what we share online often reflects the conversations we have offline, and the relationships we foster with animals. And sometimes it’s no animals at all. Indeed, while memetic practice seems to be common in many corners of the web, the very act of sharing animal pictures on the web can itself be culturally situated. As we bring in more research from folks in different parts of the world, we hope to see more nuances and trends emerge. (The Museum has agreed to let the map grow over the course of the museum exhibition, which is great).

As one example, our map includes Negar Mottahedeh’s research from Iran, which suggests that animal memes are far from universal: the green chick is a cute animal, but animal memes make rare appearances in Iran’s web. Instead, Mottahedeh’s found that the color green has become a meme expressed in internet avatars and representing the opposition.

The more important meme in the above is the phrase that the chick is saying:

Three days after the election, a militia fired into a crowd of protesters, killing at least thirteen and injuring many more. The crowd raised the bodies of those murdered and broke into a chant: “Mikosham, Mikosham anke baradaram kosht ” (I will kill, I will kill, he who killed my brother). The recollection of this chant, which originated at an Iranian Revolution protest three decades earlier, sharply condemned the state’s betrayal of the Islamic Republic’s founding ethics of solidarity and radical kinship and its resolute stance against injustice.
Prof. Negar Mottahedeh in front of her entry at the global meme map. Photo courtesy Negar.

Cultural specificity matters when we talk about the global web. The fun and silliness of animal memes reveals a deeper point: just as different localities on the internet express cuteness/funniness about animals in very different ways, so too can internet cultures — and offline cultures —be very different from each other in many ways.

Misunderstandings, often rooted on shaky conceptions of foreign contexts, occur far too often in global reportage. Take, for instance, a few recent examples: #SomeoneTellCNN in Kenya — no, Kenya is not a hotbed of terror — , and the Taylor Swift non-controversy in China — no, the Chinese government isn’t freaking out about Taylor’s new album title. Stories like these happen frequently, especially when writing about global contexts.

And so, part of our hope with the map is to broaden the conversation. Talking about animal memes and just how different they are in different parts of the world is, I hope, a vehicle to saying, “Not every part of the world fits neat Western narratives about how things operate.”

The internet is super diverse — and interconnected in really surprising ways.

So many movements and so many people around the world are sharing cute, funny animals. But due to cultural, linguistic and technological barriers, these actions are largely invisible to each other: the ola k ase llama in Mexico (see video at the bottom of this post) probably hasn’t met the grass mud horse llama in China (see video just below this paragraph). The goats of the UK don’t seem to intermingle with the goats in Uganda. But by placing them on the same map, maybe we can spark more curiosity about how different corners of the web express themselves.

And when we talk about the “next billion” coming online, it’s important to understand just how diverse that next billion will be. They won’t necessarily be sharing cat videos, or any animal videos. As Wired writer Margaret Rhodes notes in her review, “As the demographics of the Internet change, so will its memes and fetishes.”

Arguably, that’s already happening, but there are still billions more people who do not participate fully in broadband, always-on internet (which doesn’t mean they’re not connected ; I’ve written recently about what connectivity looks like in other parts of the world).

We hope our map offers a small taste of that, and we’re thrilled to be a part of the larger exhibition.

More from us soon, including an open call for researchers to share their thoughts and perspectives on animal meme culture (or the lack thereof) in other parts of the world. There are many geographies not yet covered that we hope to include in the coming months, and we’re already in touch with a number of folks preparing their entries to this ongoing project.

For now, we have to thank Andrés Monroy-Hernandes (Mexico), Kate Miltner (United Kingdom), Peter Kakoma (Uganda), Mark Kaigwa and his fellow researchers Ramadhan “Ramzzy” Oluoch and Dennis Bett (Kenya), Negar Mottahedeh (Iran), Irteze Ubaid (Pakistan), Matt Stempeck (Russia) and Alex Leavitt (Japan), as well as our editor Dorothy Santos. And we especially have to thank “heroic curator” Jason Eppink and the Museum of the Moving Image for inviting us to participate.