[Note: Every Friday on First Thoughts we host a discussion about some aspect of popular culture. Have a suggestion for a topic? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org]
Some people think the internet was created for dirty pictures and political arguments. But the true reason is that people needed the perfect medium to display pictures of cats. Initially, any pictures of felines would do, but over the past few years the strange subgenre called “cat macros” or “lolcats” has become dominant, developing form a peculiar meme into a form of brilliant folk art.
As the Wikipedia entry explains, lolcats— a portmanteau of “lol” and “cat”—are photos of cats with comedic captions created for the purpose of sharing with others on imageboards and other internet forums. The caption is characteristically formatted in a sans serif font such as Impact or Arial Black, usually in white letters with a black outline. (In fact, this type of lettering has come to define the genre, so much so that the use of other fonts and colors seem like a violation of an unwritten aesthetic code.) The caption is intentionally written with deviations from standard English spelling and syntax featuring strangely-conjugated verbs. Despite the odd construction, the syntax has, as Anil Dash notes in a post on the topic, a “fairly consistent grammar.”
The cats not only speak in a form of pidgin English (which makes the captions funnier) but they also tend to use “leetspeek”, a written form of slang used primarily on the internet and online video games. David McRaney explains how this peculiar brand of folk art works as communication:
[A] fusion of sorts between learned, direct language and rapid, practical digital missives takes place with Leetspeak and macros. Both relay a great deal of information in a small burst of code. Each depends on the receiver of the information having working knowledge of the culture and its references. In a sense, these serve as argots, and help identify both sides of the information transfer as belonging to the subculture where they appear. The in-joke is part of the communication. The separation of ingroup and outgroup helps drive the rapid evolution of both leetspeak and macros.
The appeal of cat macros is that they can be enjoyed as folk art, even by those who are in the “outgroup.” Listed below are a few of the various sub-genres:
Variations on the gamer meme “I’m in ur…”
Expressing a desire not to be eaten
Confessions of what they have eaten
Variation on “I has..”
Explanations of their behavior
Various non sequiters
More cat macros can be found in the following galleries (Caution: some images contain crude language):
- Slate.com’s slide show essay on lolcats