The cuteness surge

By SHARON STEEL  |  February 1, 2008

“We’ve had manifestations of this cute business, through good times and bad, militaristically,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop-culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. “We’re living in dangerous times. There’s a fear of terrorism and a war we have no idea how to manage. That’s going to bleed over into lots of different things.” These “cycles of cute,” as Thompson calls them, might transcend the news, though they tend to hint at the gloominess that’s ever-present, regardless of what’s on Page One.

All your kittehs are belong to us
If there is anything cuter than a photo of a snuggly kitten, it is a photo of a snuggly kitten festooned with intentionally misspelled cutesy text. After sparking an Interweb sensation in early 2007, icanhascheezburger.com has continued to prove its lasting value in Internet meme paydirt. The site began with the posting of a photo, a single pudgy, glassy-eyed, smirking gray feline with the words “I Can Has Cheezburger?” written above the kitty. It may have been accidental, it may have been part of a grand scheme, but either way it was the loudest salvo yet in the recent cuteness surge.

It also birthed the term “lolcat,” a coinage referring specifically to the combination of kitty photos and the intentionally misspelled baby-talk captions that accompanied them. It hasn’t hit Webster’s yet, but urbandictionary.com has five different entries for “lolcat.” (And 37 entries for “lolz.”) No matter which one you trust most, the “lol” root, clearly, comes from Internet abbreviation-speak for “LOL,” meaning “Laugh Out Loud.” OMG!!! Teh kitteh fren-zee iz makin us lolz!

Ordinary people who used to scoff at emoticons and the overuse of AIM acronyms were suddenly saying things exactly like this, all the time. Though the original lolcat meme, called “Caturday,” first started in the 4chan message boards years ago, I Can Has Cheezburger was instrumental in breaking the animal-based image macros and the phonetic “lolspeak” vernacular into the mainstream.

I Can Has Cheezburger isn’t the only site trafficking in pictures of cute cats saying and doing cute things. There’s also cuteoverload.comkittenwar.com, and babyanimalz.com, just to name a few. Still, I Can Has Cheezburger is the first thing that Google belches up when you search “lolcat,” and it houses thousands of user-submitted pictures of cute “kittehs,” hamsters, walruses — any animal, in almost any circumstance, as long as it’s strange, funny, bizarre, or cute enough for users to vote it in and comment on. An average of 8000 submissions are sent in per day (O RLY? YA RLY), according to site administrator Ben Huh. As to the ephemeral appeal of the site itself — visitors go there for the cute pictures, the cheekiness of language, the public opportunity to riff on the validity of the pictures in lolspeak, or any combination of these — Huh says it can’t be pinned down. “The tough part about running the site is providing a daily update of pictures that hits every one of those subgroups,” he says. “What the cats do is provide a non-threatening form of expression of someone’s sense of humor.”

Other zealous lolcat-inspired ventures include LolSecretz (a mash-up of I Can Has Cheezburger and PostSecret, a Web site where users anonymously submit postcards of their deepest, most classified private info) and Lolcatbible, the translation of the entire Holy Testament into “lolspeak.” In the latter, Genesis commences thusly: “Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.”

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