Most internet memes are ephemeral in nature, but LOLCats are not like most memes, said enthusiastic “LOL Scholar” Kate Miltner – who received her Master’s degree from the London School of Economics after writing her thesis on LOLCats – at re:publica this week.
If the audience turnout at the Cat Memes session – which was about four times larger than Impact Investing – was any indication, cat pictures with silly captions are still very much relevant and popular more than half a decade after becoming a sensation with the arrival of humour publishing site I Can Has Cheezburger.
The allure of LOLCats
So why is it that we’re so drawn to Monorail Cat, Grumpy Cat and others of that ilk? According to Miltner’s research, the allure of LOLCats is associated with its genre, humour and ability to facilitate interpersonal communication.
After conducting six focus groups, Miltner found that LOLCats acted as a venue for people to express their emotions and connect to others. “Interestingly, participants reported both sending and receiving LOLCats as a form of emotional expression,” stated Miltner. “Particularly, as ‘reactions’ to situations they or their family and friends were going through.”
At first glance, cat memes look nothing more than an exercise in amateur graphic design and poor grammar, but there’s more to the “proper execution and full enjoyment” of a LOLCat than one would think. In fact, Miltner found that there were rules and conventions that were essential to the appeal of the meme, including font, placement of text, subject, syntax and characterisation of the animal.
More than just silly cat photos?
While it seems there are more pressing matters in the world than a seemingly trivial collection of cat photos, Miltner argues that investigating memes – or the audiences that engage with them – can shed light on where we stand as a culture.
Not only that, memes are big business. Cheezburger Inc, owner of I Can Has Cheezburger, is a multi-million dollar media empire and was ranked 28 on the Wall Street Journal’s top 50 venture capital-backed companies list last year.
Miltner closed her talk with an insightful quote by MIT Professor Sherry Turkle: “Some are tempted to think of life in cyberspace as insignificant, as escape or meaningless diversion. It is not. Our experiences, they are serious play. We belittle them at our risk.”