The Rise And Plateau of an Internet Phenomenon

It seems that Minerva's owl has already flown on this subject. It seems that long after the rest of the internet has already moved on from the furor that was lolcats, the coelacanth of text internet that is e2 must learn about them.

A lolcat, also known as a cat macro, is a picture of a cat with a caption on it. Cats, for various reasons, are the most often used animals, but other animals, people and inanimate objects can also be used. The caption can be just about any phrase, but should (attempt to) be humorous, and often refers to a small corpus of jokes and themes. For example, variations on the famous "Im in ur..." phrase are one of the most basic forms of lolcat. Another is "Invisible X", where a cat (or other animal) is posed as if they are interacting with an invisible object.

The exact genesis of the lolcat is unknown. The idea of a picture of a cat with a caption on it is not something that takes a lot of creative or technical ability to create: cats tend to look puzzled or pompous, and I have a protololcat dating back to the year 2002, practically the eonet. However, lolcats as a phenomenon seem to date back to 2005 or so, and are assumed to have come from 4chan, or another such dodgy message board. I remember seeing them in late 2006, but still having to comb the internet to search for the few dozen canonical examples of lolcatitude. This all changed in a month or so when icanhascheezburger, a site dedicated to the posting of lolcats was founded. Because of, or at least in tandem with this, lolcats seemed to become much more popular on sites like livejournal, and soon lolcat style images were made featuring every conceivable animal, as well as celebrities, philosophers and politicians. Websites like roflbot automated the making of images. For several months, lolspeak infected the internets, until sometime in early 2008, the wholesale enthusiasm for lolcats seemed to have waned, although sites like Icanhascheezburger still seem to be doing a brisk business.

The downfall of the image macro and lolcat craze could be attributed to several things, amongst them:

  • The fad seems to be intrinsically self-limiting. The purpose of fads is that they are new and interesting. Once the 10000th picture of a surprised cat had been foisted on the internet, the marginal utility started to go down.
  • Part of this was the mainstreaming of the internet-something that is the kiss of death to the edgy kids that are the engine of interculture. When the pictures were passed around from person to person, they were more exciting. When they became ubiquitous, they were less exciting. Along with this, the humor of early lolcats was less cute, dealing with some R-Rated humor. Once they became more cutesy, they were less appealing.
  • The standardization and lack of creativity of the later lolcats. This actually caused me some consternation when I was busy making image macros, and people told me I was not using the correct formula. I used a different font and color in my writing than was used by icanhascheezburger: a white Impact Font with black trim. The automated tools that people used on icanhascheezburger, while making image creation easier, also gave people less control over the size, style and placement of fonts. The early image macros were actually not all in impact font. Along with this was the overuse of lolspeak, a style of grammatical and spelling errors that was at first charming, but also was not enough to carry an otherwise uninteresting picture.

These were some of the reasons why lolcats fell from their position of internet glory. Another is just the fact that internet time moves at a different speed than real time. In internet time, lolcats easily lasted for a decade or so, and actually may be due for a retro craze any year (month) now. Just as soon as Rickrolling stops being cool.