Review of A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet

Emily R. Gerace
New York University
New York, New York, USA
erg395@nyu.edu

White, E. J. (2020). A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet. Stanford University Press, 157 pages, $14.00, paperback, ISBN: 9781503604636

In A Unified History of Cats on the Internet–the title of which the author points out is tongue-in-cheek–E.J. White traces the patterns of the online presence of cats to analyze other Internet phenomena such as memes, trolling, and exclusionary subcultures. Her analysis shows that the Internet does more than just record cultural, social, and political developments; it helps shape them, and is in turn, shaped by them. White’s well-researched and thorough approach to this interplay sheds light on the origins of harmful members-only forums like 4chan, which have recently played a key role in the increased creation and consumption of online misinformation.

An important part of White’s analysis lies in identifying the lag between people who established themselves on the Internet at its inception and the newcomers who joined the online world once the former group had already claimed it as their own. White points out that this distinction caused drastic, sometimes terrifying outcomes for the newcomers. It created ideal conditions for exclusionary phenomena ranging from cruel jokes, to the implementation of dog whistles, all the way to death threats against those who were deemed outsiders. Some of the earliest and most prominent attacks on these outsiders took place in online threads dedicated to sharing photos of cats. White’s explanation of cats as symbols of “pointless online sociability” helps clarify why these threads were targeted (7). Gatekeepers of the early Internet rejected what they understood to be mainstream and assigned social codes to their online interactions that set them apart from the rest of society. Since the newcomers’ invasion of their territory was already enough to cause resentment and repulsion, the frivolous sharing of photos of domestic cats in mundane situations sent some over the edge.

There is also a gendered component to this dynamic. Since men largely dominated the general public’s earliest interactions with the Internet, adding a new wave of users, some of which were women, threatened not only its exclusivity and social dynamics, but also its masculinity. White notes that original in-groups were typically composed of young men, who often aimed their territorial reactions at middle-aged women “to play on the cultural trope of the ‘cat lady’: out of touch, ineffectual, undesirable, unable to sustain human relationships and so, to replace those relationships, enamored with pets to the point of obsession” (33).  She also incorporates evidence of the Western world historically associating cats with women, and especially with female sexuality.  The convergence of these factors offers an opportunity to examine online “incel” (involuntary celibate) subcultures, predominantly heterosexual male spaces that breed intense forms of misogyny and carry their own sets of jargon– women become “femoids,” for instance, to downplay their humanity (Wynn). Many incels have found themselves at home on forums like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit, so much so that the few who go on to commit mass murder often turn to these spaces to voice their hatred before committing their crimes. This harmful subculture emphasizes the importance of White’s work in A Unified Theory; the trends she traces are not exclusive to the earliest stages of the Internet, and they have very real ramifications in the present.

White engages with concepts from digital humanities and new media studies without intimidating readers who are less familiar with them. She contributes to conversations about hacker aesthetics and mediation in a manner that is successful both in its generative content and readability. Her discussion of participatory culture, in which she draws on Adrienne Massanari and asserts that online communities “construct themselves… with and against other communities” (70) is particularly engaging. This phenomenon adds a layer of subject formation to White’s discussion of exclusionary practices on the Internet in which online communities define themselves in opposition to other–mainstream–subjects. Despite their desire to exclude the rest of the world from their inside jokes and lingo, they still need that world’s recognition of their rejection of the status quo in order to maintain the juxtaposition that lies at the core of their identity. Those who invade threads of cat photos, for instance, have rooted their identities within this alienation from the rest of society. Being outsiders to mainstream culture, once they had converted that experience into an identity, they zealously maintained the online infrastructures that allowed it to thrive. What their attacks communicate is that they are the masters of their domain, and that women posting silly cat photos ought to recognize that they are not welcome. Concerning the users who have eventually turned to violence, their acts might then be read as sadistic calls for recognition of their difference, their subjecthood, and their rejection of the cultures to which they feel they do not belong.

In addition to examining examples from the Internet’s earlier years, White delineates three eras of online cats leading up to the present: “1995-2004 (the webcam and personal blog era); 2005-2011 (the meme era); and 2011-present (the celebrity cat era)” (76). Of course, a great deal has shifted since the book’s publication in July 2020– namely, that Covid-19 has changed every facet of our lives. White’s note on the Infinite Cat Project can lead readers to further reflect on some of the changes the pandemic has engendered in social lives and Internet communities. She notes that the project–which documents years of published photos of cats looking at an image of another cat on their home computers–shows in its earliest images a “sense of isolation that once attended internet use,” which differs drastically from the modern ubiquity of the Internet through phones, smartwatches, and other devices (150). The online communities that formed and grew in response to pandemic isolation take this online prevalence to new heights. Medical experts and politicians turned to social media to reach the public about emergency measures. Teachers grappled with the difficulties of maintaining a sense of community in their online classrooms, often attempting to unite their students through discussion boards and social annotation software. People turned to TikTok for short creative content in such great numbers that at the time of writing, it sits in third place on Apple’s Top Free Apps, surpassing Instagram and even Google (“Top Charts”). One might wonder, then, what remains to be said about the third of White’s online-cat eras. The presence of celebrity cats has certainly not waned since 2020, but it is possible that the drastic changes of recent years have altered the types of cat content we consume, or the means by which we consume it. Could the pandemic have created a fourth category?

It is unfortunate that timing prevented Netflix’s documentary Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer from being featured in White’s A Unified Theory, as it focalizes some of the key topics from her book. Released in December 2019, the three-part series recounts the investigation–largely aided by a Facebook group of amateur detectives–that led to the arrest of Canadian murderer Luka Magnotta. Magnotta captured Facebook users’ attention in 2010 through horrific YouTube videos he posted of himself torturing cats to death. He eventually posted a snuff video in 2012, in which he brutally murdered a student named Jun Lin. Even before he murdered Lin, some Facebook users were calling for Magnotta’s death as punishment for killing the cats. Many of the users dedicated immense amounts of time, energy, and resources to identifying and tracking the killer; they developed digital maps, analyzed photos and metadata, and consulted professionals (Don’t F**k With Cats).

The documentary reminds us that there is a limit to what White calls “the Hollywood principle that cats in peril are funny” (80). Certainly, White does not claim that murdered cats are funny; rather, she points to trends of cats getting startled and placed into dangerous situations for comedic effect. Applying this angle to Magnotta’s videos, however, presents a problem: Where do we draw the line between harm that is funny and that which evokes such strong, negative      affect? Moreover, such an intense and organized response to the videos speaks to the particular significance of cats to Internet users, and it is unclear whether people’s reactions would have been the same if the victims had not been cats. White emphasizes that people seem to identify more with cats than they do even with dogs, at least partially due to cats’ perceived interiority and emotional breadth (65-66). It is likely that this identification of cats in close proximity to humanity helped drive the Facebook group to such impressive lengths and played a role in the public’s reception of the documentary itself. If Magnotta wanted to create shock, disgust, anger, and fear before murdering Lin, White shows us why cats were the most effective route to such emotional reactions.

The extensions I offer here exemplify the relevance of White’s work in the midst of rapid technological, social, and political changes. Many scholars might not have thought of cats as a starting point for serious analysis, and I think that is part of White’s point, as we see in the book’s cover page and title. The result is an approachable text that will resonate with anyone who has come across cats online, which, after reading A Unified Theory, I am inclined to think is anyone who has used the Internet at all.

Works Cited

Don’t F***k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer. Directed by Mark Lewis, RAW, 2019.

“Top Charts.” App Store, Apple, https://apps.apple.com/us/charts/iphone.

Wynn, Natalie. “Incels.” YouTube, 17 Aug. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fD2briZ6fB0.

Reviewer’s Bio

Emily R. Gerace (erg395@nyu.edu) is an English PhD student at New York University. She received her B.A. in English and Medieval Studies from Fordham University and her M.A. in English from the University of Toronto. Her research interests include early medieval literature; pedagogy and andragogy; and queer and gender studies. Her experiences as a community college graduate, adjunct instructor, and advisor have contributed to her focus on working with first-generation college students, English language learners, and other underserved students.

Suggested Reference Citation

APA

Gerace, E. (2023). Review of A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 10(2). http://journaldialogue.org/reviews/review-of-a-unified-theory-of-cats-on-the-internet/

MLA

Gerace, Emily R. (2023). Review of A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet, Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2023, vol. 10, no. 2. http://journaldialogue.org/reviews/review-of-a-unified-theory-of-cats-on-the-internet/.

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