The strange literary pedigree of the LOLcat

Memes  are a relatively new idea that describes a very familiar concept.   Memes are like cultural genes.  They transmit cultural information and ideas through speech, gestures, and writing.  Memes can also be contagious and sweep through a population, such as the earworm.  Merely reading that the Macarena is an example of the contagious earworm is enough to have that damn music start running through your head.  You may not remember all the words, or the dance, but, oh, you remember the general tune and madness that went with the Macarena.

It’s cousin is the internet meme, those silly things that sweep the internet sporadically.  Internet memes are notoroious for mating with other memes and mutating into new forms.  Memes combine and mutate offline as well, but mass medias spreads them faster and the interent sends the rate of transmission to warp speed.  The internet meme probably most familiar to even inexperienced internet users is the LOLcat.

See, anyone can make a lolcat!

Internet memes appear to spontaneously appear out of nowhere, but even the Lolcat has a pedigree tied into original print media and constantly refers back to older memes.  The idea of a picture of a cat with an amusing caption is hardly new.  You can find whole books of them as soon as printing photos became economically feasible.

As soon as the photocopier became available, this type of picture was widely circulated through offices.  Sometimes it appeared via fax machine.   Virtually every break room had the many times photocopied picture of a cat hanging off a limb with some variation of “just hanging in there” as a caption through much of the 80s and 90s.  The photocopier allowed some basic mutation of photos and text as you could cut and paste an image and text together, but you still had to GET the picture and use a fairly expensive (if relatively common) piece of office equipment to distribute it.

Of course publishers continued to churn those out these images  on greeting cards, calenders, magazines, and books, but they were a lot more home made ones out there as well.

The internet just allowed them to be circulated more quickly and by a greater variety of people.  Digital cameras also allowed people to quickly generate the necessary photos. The production cost fell through the floor and there were no gatekeepers to tell people NOT to do things.  There are even websites that will do all the hard editing work. Just link to or upload a picture and type in the text! (such as ROFLBot, which was used in the photo above)

The internet version mutated and merged with the longstanding  literary tradition that animals are terrible typists (see The Silent Meow by Paul Gallico or The Bunnicula series by James Howe) and spawned the LOLcat we all know and love.  The LOL part refers to early internetism of LOL, which was short for Laughing Out Loud.  It was just faster to type and is now widely used in text messages.  But you still need to know what the abbreviation itself stands for to even understand the name of the meme itself.

Keep in mind that these bring together a bunch of memes that you either recognize in a split second… or don’t.  Either you have built up that huge catalog of cultural memes and KNOW what you’re looking at… or you don’t.  If you’re NOT well read, the internet often seems to be a confusing mess of references that aren’t explained… rather like a some particularly difficult literature.  You know its referencing SOMETHING, but what that something is, that’s a mystery.  The internet merely lacks a filter, so it often draws from very obscure sources or smashes together the high brow and lowbrow… like cute cat pictures and literature.  That is often both the charm and the downfall of the internet, that is simultaneously speaks to many different levels of society.   If you know NOTHING about the cultural references, you can still enjoy photos of cats.  If you DO, it can often add to the appeal… or completely invert the situation show in the picture.

This image doesn’t make any sense if you’re not at least passingly familiar with the book its referencing.  The book itself spawned the bit of cultural meme so the name Jeckyll and Hyde, even if horribly distorted in spelling (it’s actually misspelled here) or with the gender swapped, instantly gives you the idea of the split personality.  The cat here has the bicolor face, split by a banister railing and brings to mind a lot of bookcovers and movie posters depicting something very similar.

But if you don’t have the basic cultural literacy regarding Stevenson’s book, you have NO idea what is going on here.

This one is a simple play on a well known title, but replaces it with a well known internet-ism, “nom” meaning to eat or chew on something enthusiastically. (It’s one of the new words on the Oxford American dictionary for 2010, though they put it in as nom-nom when it’s more often used as simply nom. But I digress…)  The snarky will note that the kitten in here is not if fact nomming Tom Sawyer, but Huck Finn… but we’d prefer not to see what kind of play on words would have happened with Huck.

This one is a trifle harder than the Jeckyll and Hyde cat since it’s NOT a direct lifting from the book title, nor is it an exact quotation.  If you aren’t familiar with 1984, this is a cute picture of a cat watching TV. It’s cute, comforting even. Aw, look at that cat watching that other cat! It’s fascinated!  If you ARE familiar with Big Brother from 1984, this takes on a VERY different meaning.

This one is a bit strange as it gives you a hint as to the book title, and even many COVERS of the book, but  Around the World in Eighty Days doesn’t actually contain a hot air balloon! It appeared in a movie adaptation and has appeared on many bookcovers since, it even appears in derivitive works, but not in the book itself.  (though Verne DID write “Five Weeks in a Balloon” which is similar, but isn’t as well known.  the two books have merged together in most people’s minds)   The balloon here also requires you know roughly what a hot air balloon looks like.  This isn’t a very good imitation, but its just enough to bring up the (wrong) image of the book cover.

This looks simple, but piles together a lot of memes.  It requires you know what a lolcat is so you understand HOW to interpret this image. Then it requires you understand both a meme from the internet (nom) AND that you understand that this is a reference to Hamlet’s soliloquy!  The position of the bird also requires you have seen a production of Hamlet to recognize the usual pose and realize that piece of food is standing in for what’s traditionally a SKULL in most productions, which again gives this a much creepier interpretation than you’d get from first look.

Again, since there’s no cat, it requires you understand that this is done in the style of a lolcat.  This initially looks like a rabbit reading a book about rabbits. The caption tells you to interpret this as a bunny, and not the fluffy pet sort, but as the Playboy bunny.  Suddenly the image takes on a very different connotation as “I read playboy for the articles!” was a frequent defense of buying a magazine filled with scantily clad women.   (Though this was actually quite possible as Playboy DID actually print a lot of original scifi stories by well known authors)  Clearly this rabbit isn’t quite as innocent as he looks and this picture isn’t as simple as it appears since it requires translating a visual image to a written pun.

Deconstructing humor often robs it OF its humor, but the point here wasn’t to demonstrate why these pictures are funny, so much as just how much KNOWLEDGE does into even seemingly the dumbest type of humor.  If you aren’t well read, these just aren’t funny. The internet is often viewed as a vast cultural wasteland where no one reads.  But to really actually enjoy much of the humor on the internet, you need to have absorbed quite a lot of memes that originally appeared in books.  The Lolcat had a long offline pedigree before everyone got in on the act and started making their own variations.  It just allows for a much wider range of people to try their hand at making cultural references, designing visual and written puns, and skill with both verbal and written language as well!  (as Lolcat speak is often phonetic, it requires both knowing how the word is pronounced and all the various ways that letters can be combined in English to produce those sounds) And while they do often add emerging words from the internet, they’re still built on a bedrock of understanding that includes a basic knowledge of the “great books”.

Because the internet is filled with experiments and there are no gatekeepers, the internet is indeed filled with a lot of crap.  So is the average bookstore! (see Sturgeon’s Law)  But much of internet culture couldn’t exist without the cultural touchstones provided by books.  A lolcat delivers a few tiny memes in a humorous package.  You have only a split second to use all that knowledge gathered by years of offline reading to recognize and enjoy that image… or be baffled by it. A book gives you a huge FEAST of memes in one compact codex that often holds the secret to hundreds or thousands of other things in our culture.  If the internet is a vast array of doors with a joke behind each one , the codex is the key that unlocks the door.

And just to demonstrate it really IS a symbiotic relationship and the codex is alive and well in the internet age, behold, LOLcats the book!

5 thoughts on “The strange literary pedigree of the LOLcat”

  1. Very enjoyable article. To pick a tiny nit, however, your link to Sturgeon’s Law on Wikipedia actually goes to the article about the fish of the same name. 🙂 I believe those fish are anarchists who do not adhere to ANY laws!

  2. I luvs teh LolCat. Many gud peeps there, who haf fun wif wurds. It’s also an amazing way to study how culture develops and is passed on. There’s thousands of papers and some doctorates in that site!

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