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Cats on the Internet: symbolic independence fighters?


The Internet without pictures and videos of cats is hardly imaginable. Whether funny or cute, natural or posed - everyone posts, comments, shares or likes sooner or later so-called cat content. But is it all about fun? Or are cats as Internet stars a symbol of independence? Does this look like a fluffy little independence fighter? - Shutterstock / serjiunea

It could all be so simple: The internet phenomenon "cat" is so successful because videos and pictures with the velvet paws are simply cute and fun. From a philosophical point of view, however, there could be more to it.

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Perry Stein, author of The New Republic, got to the bottom of it. He concludes that cats have become Internet stars because of biological and social factors. Accordingly, people react instinctively to the child pattern that most cats conform to. The children's scheme describes an appearance that is noticed, among other things, by a round face, a small nose and large eyes - like a baby.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense for people to feel caring and protective instinct when they see a living being that resembles a human baby. So it is in our genes to be enraptured by the sight of cats and their cuteness.

In addition, Stein said, cat owners would use the Internet as a huge park to run their velvet paws. After all, they would have to compensate for the fact that they usually cannot walk their idiosyncratic pets like dogs in order to exchange ideas with like-minded people and make social contacts.

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We symbolically celebrate our independence

Jordan Shapiro from Forbes magazine does not go far enough to explain this. It leaves behind "cute" and "funny" as an explanation for cats as an internet phenomenon, and also does not leave biological and social evidence alone. Instead, he elevates the Internet pussies to symbolic independence fighters on the Internet.

In return, Shapiro mentally takes a quick run through world history to emphasize the change in the symbolic meaning of the cat: the cat hype began with Bastet, the goddess of fertility among the ancient Egyptians. The Middle Ages, on the other hand, led cats into rough places: they were perceived as a symbol of the devil, a superstition that cost many velvet paws their lives.

In the here and now, the symbolic change of meaning ends for the time being, according to Shapiro: The cat as an internet star, with its independent nature, symbolizes the independence that the internet enables its users.

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Do internet cats serve our need for voyeurism?

In 2015, the New York Museum of the Moving Image even dedicated an entire exhibition to the velvety-eyed stars: "How Cats Took Over the Internet". The curator of the exhibition, Jason Eppink, believes that the velvet-pawed internet phenomenon also has something to do with voyeurism. Cats generally don't interact with the camera or the people behind them. They just do their thing, and they don't care whether they're filmed.

So there is a kind of barrier between the cats in the internet videos and us as the audience. At the same time, we are not completely excluded. Instead, we're interested in what the cat does next in the movie. It is similar with voyeurism: the secret observation of something that cannot avoid our gaze, but at the same time does not take notice of the gaze, puts us in a privileged position. This gives us a feeling of power, which goes hand in hand with pleasure gain. In the case of cat videos, however, no one is harmed.

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Cats as a projection screen for our own emotions?

Biology professor John Bradshaw sees another reason why cats are the undisputed internet stars, but dogs are not. He thinks that dogs show their feelings much more openly than cats, so that it is not possible for people to point out (you can read that it is not that easy again in the guide "Dog behavior: understanding body language"). Cats, on the other hand, like white canvases, their facial expressions and body language are difficult for people to interpret, said Bradshaw.

As a result, we humans interpret everything in the expressions of our room tigers - mostly what we want. That makes it easier to humanize cats, Bradshaw concludes. But it always remains exciting, because while cats do something with which we can identify at one moment, they act completely strange again the next moment.

Bradshaw sees the reason why it is easier for us to interpret the signs of dogs than that of cats in the domestication history of both types of pets. Dogs were bred as faithful companions of humans around 20,000 years ago. But cats have only recently become human companions. For a long time they were on their own as independent pest control companies.

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