Somebody else's cat: A study in the protohistory of the internet cat meme

January 2018

Dr Loplop is a London-based cat photographer and internet celebrity.

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The following text by Dr Loplop was originally commissioned for The Photographers’ Gallery as part of its 2012 Media Wall project For the LOL of Cats: Felines, Photography and the Web. Further essays in the series include The War and Peace of LOLcats by Olga Goriunova and Cat Photographers [or the desire to see through animal eyes] by Daniel Palmer.

"Our aim is for this group to be a cheerful, relaxed place to hang out, ambitions of Global Domination notwithstanding".
'Somebody Else's Cat' Flickr group discussion.

The birth of a meme
Like many viral phenomena, the Somebody Else's Cat group began by accident in the context of a specific online community, the image hosting site Flickr. Around the time of its acquisition by Yahoo! in 2005, Flickr's user base encompassed a wide range of interest groups, from casual users uploading family snaps to professionals showcasing their work. Within this broad spectrum, an emerging class of enthusiastic amateur photographers came to dominate the Flickr Explore pages, empowered by the rapidly growing popularity of the critique group.

Critique groups were used socially for the exchange of constructive feedback, and also as a means of maximising an image's ranking within Flickr Explore. This was accomplished by effectively 'gaming' Flickr's Interestingness algorithm with mutually-appreciative comments and group-ordained hyperlinked 'awards', often embellished with appropriately ostentatious animated GIF images. As Flickr became more popular, an influx of newcomers discovered its social value and began to disseminate pictures of their pet cats, a phenomenon increasingly resented by the more serious-minded enthusiasts. It was in this context that the first Somebody else's cat image—a generic snapshot of a black cat —was submitted to a critique group [1]Submitted on March 2006 to the Flickr group: "Quantum Selection Group (group removed in May of the same year). as a lighthearted parody of the growing furore surrounding the perceived prevalence of cat photographs in Flickr Explore.

Didn't you get the memo?
During the discussion that followed, one member offered the comment: "obligatory someone else's cat photo? I must have missed that memo." In response, the first page of a fake memo from the 'Big Flickr Boss' was mocked up, with the intention of creating a fictional backstory around the concept of somebody else's cat. Following the memo's surprisingly positive reception within the critique group, a fellow member created the 'Somebody Else's Cat' group [2]Created on 31 March 2006 by user "togr". as an extension of the original parody, thus validating the widely-held assertion that there was "a Flickr group for everything". Duly, the memo was installed as the first image in the group pool, where it serves as the constitutional document to which all questions of governance are referred.

By coincidence, the following day Flickr unleashed its now infamous 'cats' April Fool's Day joke, in which the Interestingness algorithm was altered to include only images tagged "cat" until midday local time. Indeed, feline photography had long been a running joke among the site's creators: "When we interview peeps for employment here at Team Flickr, we always ask: Kittens, babies, sunsets or flowers? Pick one." [3]As indicated by the Community Manager Heather Champ in her interview with the flickr user lomokev, aka Kevin Meredith, in September 2008 (see particularly question 4). See also the blog post 'eyes of the world' in March 2006. Flickr was later to reinforce this perceived superficiality of cat photos with the introduction of a "Take me to the kittens" button [4]Introduced alongside content filters in March 2007, the phrase has since entered popular usage in online photographic communities, even spawning an eponymous exhibition, see here. which appeared whenever a user clicked through to an image outside of their safe search content filter.

Group dynamics
Eager to capitalise on the emergent cat zeitgeist, the new group embarked on a coordinated membership drive, utilising the available search optimisation techniques including backlinks within comments, careful tailoring of relevant group keywords, consistent image tagging ("not my cat") and sustained cat-related discussion forum activity. Discussion threads generally centred around the practical and philosophical angst of representing somebody else's cat through the medium of photography, along with an unhealthy enthusiasm for establishing rules,[5]See discussions around: tagging,
eviction of photos of people's own cats,
division of labour,
or posting limits.
the latter finding its expression in the constantly evolving and collaboratively-written parodic 'rules' section.

The activities of the group extended to the formation of longstanding partnerships and rivalries with other cat/species groups. Notable rival groups included 'Tonkinese cats', 'No cat here, now move on', 'Cows are the new cat' and 'Photos without a rabbit'.[6]See, for example this discussion group Cats quickly became the excuse for a much wider range of social interactions, taking place not only in the comment threads, but also the tags, notes and circuitous link trails[7]The creation of repeated link trails leading to specific, often irrelevant, images gave a foretaste of the 'Rickrolling' meme first documented in May 2007. that began to congeal around each image.

Global Domination
Consequently, within three weeks of its creation, the Somebody else's cat group had climbed Flickr's group rankings to become the most relevant result returned by the search term "cat".[8]It had reached the top 10 results within three days of its creation, see more here The growth of the group pool[9]It took 1 week to reach the first 100 cat photos ; circa 1 month to 300; circa 2 months to 1000; on 30 October 2012, the total stood at 50,492 images. and number of members[10]It took circa 2 weeks to reach 100 members; circa 6 months to 1000 members; circa 18 months to 3000 members; then 4000 and 7000 while on 30 October 2012 the group counted a total of 8189 members. were likewise exponential at first, no doubt buoyed by its prominence in group search. Thus, in spite of an unapologetically non-mainstream appeal, during its first year Somebody else's cat rose to become the tenth largest cat group on Flickr.[11]The group remained the 15th largest cat group on 30 October 2012. For some, its unconventionality was a barrier to entry, but generally not an insurmountable one.[12]FlickrMail to author (3 April 2006) "I'll have to admit I was a bit afraid of joining after reading the crazy posts, but crazy flickr people are quite entertaining". Somewhat surprisingly, this may also have contributed to a more cohesive community spirit, resulting in an almost entirely self-policing group that remained largely free of the ubiquitous trolling, spamming and posting of inappropriate images.[13]However, it is worth noting that the use of mandatory "not my cat" tagging has dropped substantially from its initially high level of participation.

Cats quickly became the excuse for a much wider range of social interactions, taking place not only in the comment threads, but also the tags, notes and circuitous link trails that began to congeal around each image.

The cat as cultural force
So, what is the enduring appeal of Somebody else's cat? Beyond the initial flurry of ironic image-making and pseudo-academic discourse, the cat emerges as a locus of creativity, collaboration and community. The cultural significance of the nascent cat-related memes of this period[14]A chronology of key examples includes: 4chan's 'caturday', circa 2005; Somebody else's cat, March 2006; early lolcats, June 2006; cat meme story in Time magazine, July 2007. is perhaps no better illustrated than by Ethan Zuckerman's subsequent 'Cute cat theory of digital activism'.[15]As Ethan Zuckerman (2008) mentions: "Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers. Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats". In this context, the group's benign content and international audience could be seen to act as a 'feline shield' for the more subversive activities taking place on the same platform. Through its emphasis on quotidian images with minimal narrative content, it also provided a foretaste of what was to enter the mainstream via present day microblogging platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram.[16]Instagram launched in October 2010; see also 'Cats of Instagram'; Twitter photos introduced in 2011.

The enduring legacy of Somebody else's cat, however, remains the "cheerful, relaxed place to hang out" that it aspired to be, albeit with one eye on the as yet unfinished business of Global Domination.

References

[1]

Submitted on March 2006 to the Flickr group: "Quantum Selection Group (group removed in May of the same year).

[2]

Created on 31 March 2006 by user "togr".

[3]

As indicated by the Community Manager Heather Champ in her interview with the flickr user lomokev, aka Kevin Meredith, in September 2008 (see particularly question 4). See also the blog post 'eyes of the world' in March 2006.

[4]

Introduced alongside content filters in March 2007, the phrase has since entered popular usage in online photographic communities, even spawning an eponymous exhibition, see here.

[6]

See, for example this discussion group

[7]

The creation of repeated link trails leading to specific, often irrelevant, images gave a foretaste of the 'Rickrolling' meme first documented in May 2007.

[8]

It had reached the top 10 results within three days of its creation, see more here

[9]

It took 1 week to reach the first 100 cat photos ; circa 1 month to 300; circa 2 months to 1000; on 30 October 2012, the total stood at 50,492 images.

[10]

It took circa 2 weeks to reach 100 members; circa 6 months to 1000 members; circa 18 months to 3000 members; then 4000 and 7000 while on 30 October 2012 the group counted a total of 8189 members.

[11]

The group remained the 15th largest cat group on 30 October 2012.

[12]

FlickrMail to author (3 April 2006) "I'll have to admit I was a bit afraid of joining after reading the crazy posts, but crazy flickr people are quite entertaining".

[13]

However, it is worth noting that the use of mandatory "not my cat" tagging has dropped substantially from its initially high level of participation.

[14]

A chronology of key examples includes: 4chan's 'caturday', circa 2005; Somebody else's cat, March 2006; early lolcats, June 2006; cat meme story in Time magazine, July 2007.

[15]

As Ethan Zuckerman (2008) mentions: "Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers. Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats".

[16]

Instagram launched in October 2010; see also 'Cats of Instagram'; Twitter photos introduced in 2011.