My involvement with cat videos has been an inter-office joke ever since I was addressed as "Internet Cat Expert Madeleine Davies" in a professional email query. But if you came to me seeking career advice, asking how you too may one day have the prestigious title of Internet Cat Expert, I would have no idea what to tell you. Do your homework and stay in school. Think positive thoughts. Maybe try The Secret?
One thing is for sure: To become an Internet Cat Expert, you certainly don't have to be a huge cat lover –- my only real experience with domestic felines comes from the poor and tortured cat that I had as a child. Dubbed only as "Kitty," she spent her life hiding in our back hallway and avoiding the constant flow of fostered, untrained German shepherds brought into the house by my father. Once, when my dad went on a 5-day vacation, he left me with the task of coming over daily to make sure that she was alive and fed. I forgot until day 3. I know. It's disgusting. The only excuse I have is that I was 10 and, rest assured, I have never again felt more guilty than I did the day I realized that I had been accidentally starving our family pet.
So, no, I am not a cat person IRL. I am not an anti-cat person either. Apart from the pack of ferals that constantly alternate between fighting and
making love outside of my bedroom window late at night, I feel fine -– good even -– when it comes to cats, but I ultimately know very little about them. That, however, is the beauty (and horror) of the internet. You can become master of something online while knowing very little about it real life. Sure, I don't know how to tell apart different cat breeds, but I can tell whether or not the people — you people — will respond to a video of a kitten chasing around a laser pointer.
Because of my curating skills (it sounds more respectable when I call it that), I recently found myself in Minneapolis in order to attend the first ever Internet Cat Video Festival. (When I first heard about the event, I sent the link to Jezebel editor-in-chief Jessica Coen. "Haha," I jokingly wrote. "You should totally send me to this." Less than a minute later, she told me to book a flight. Be careful what you wish for.)
For some reason, I was ridiculously nervous about covering the Internet Cat Video Festival, though I did have a plan. I would go in and ask outrageous questions that would quietly to not-so quietly mock these cat lovers to their faces. I would imply that their relationships with their own cats were less than platonic, I would make cracks about cat AIDS, I would ask them if they were sad that Keyboard Cat has in fact been dead for many years. I would, in short, be a total asshole, all for the sake of comedy. I had the power. I was a journalist and they were the people dumb enough to publicly display enthusiasm. Easy pickins!
And yet, I was utterly terrified. I was so scared that my hands had developed a slight tremor as I drove to Minneapolis' beautifully curated Walker Art Center where the festival was being held at Open Field, an outdoor gathering place that the museum uses to host summertime community events. In spite of my own mean intentions, I was terrified that the cat video fans would reject me, that somehow, they'd know what I did to Kitty at age 10. "Some Internet Cat Expert you are," they'd say, knowing I'm a fake and taunting me back to my rental car.
I arrived at Open Field around 5PM, more than three hours before the festival was set to begin. There was a smattering of about 100 people set up with blankets and picnic baskets, all waiting for me to swing by and mock them, but first I needed liquid courage. Luckily, this was the midwest and there were plenty of beer tents waiting to help me out (even at a museum).
Suddenly, I saw the jackpot -– a middle-aged woman standing alone wearing fishnet stockings paired with rainbow cat ears and a matching tail. And, by God, she was carrying a real life cat. "What a loser," I thought to myself as I hid in a corner nervously chugging a beer and pretending to check the email on my phone. "Boy, am I gonna get her," I thought, confident that she'd provide me with something great. But I'd need another drink first -– I was still lacking the nerve to actually walk amongst the cat people.
I was halfway through my second beer when I realized what I was doing. I couldn't be a drunk journalist my first time out. These cat people could talk –- they know how to go viral after all -– and I could get a reputation for being the girl from Jezebel who is a) an asshole, and b) completely blotto. And it's with that that I threw away the rest of the beer and sauntered over to the woman in the rainbow cat ears who had joined her friends (also in cat regalia) under a tent where, it turns out, they were representing the no-kill Minnesota cat rescue.
Shit. There was no way I could make fun of people devoting their time to the rescue of animals no matter how snottily superior I felt in my "human clothes." Futhermore, these broads turned out to be completely awesome. So awesome, in fact, that once a year they throw a fundraiser called "Rock for Pussy." "It's a David Bowie tribute event," said the party's co-organizer Kristin Heiberg. Suddenly, I found myself wishing that I had cat ears, too.
Don't get me wrong. These ladies were a bit fanatical. "Cats are more popular than dogs now," said rescue volunteer Kelly Leaf, actually pumping her fists in the air. "We're spreading the cat-ist agenda for the feline nation." Margaret Owen Thorpe, who writes the rescue's newsletters in the voice of specific cats looking for homes, added, "[Cats] talk to me and they tell me things."
These are two things that I heard repeated over and over among the various groups that I sat down and talked with (my nervous shake had gone away at this point). First, cats are definitely better than dogs. When I asked one bubbly girl why she thought cat videos have caught on more than dog videos, she summed it up thusly: Cats are cuter. Fuck dogs. (Well, she didn't actually say, "fuck dogs," but I put it out there and she agreed.)
I ran into a couple of people who had brought dogs of their own. "Haven't you ever heard the phrase ‘never bring a knife to a gun fight?'" I asked a woman whose dog Carsten was alternating between cuddling my legs and sneaking his head into someone's picnic basket. I was worried for Carsten. I was worried that the crowd would turn angry and tear him to bits. "He'll be fine," his owner said. "He gets along great with cats." Well, good. At least I knew that Carsten had a few allies if things were to turn violent.
Then there was the other theme that kept coming up: People who related to cats on a spiritual and emotional level. "I feel like I'm part cat," said a soft-spoken gentleman named Mitch who, at first, seemed a little reluctant to talk to me. I gave him a good stare – his face had been painted with black whiskers – and decided to believe him. Mitch was definitely part cat and suddenly I felt thrilled that he was given an opportunity to hang out with this growing number of people – some of who believed that they are part cat as well – in order to celebrate the animal that he so related to. I wasn't going to make fun of him either. In the end, I wasn't going to make fun of anyone because, while I went in thinking that the festival was a bit laughable and that its attendees were a trifle sad, I had thus far been proven quite wrong. What is sad, I've realized, is that we've gotten to the point in which people gathering together and celebrating something positive is considered lame.
My magnificent epiphany was interrupted by a flurry of whispers. "Lil' Bub," they all said. "Lil' Bub is here. THE LIL' BUB."
Just in case you're unfamiliar, Lil' Bub is a big star in the internet cat community with a highly trafficked blog, Twitter account and YouTube channel. Her videos rack up views in the hundreds of thousands –- she's no Maru, but it's a big fucking deal that she showed up.
I followed the crowd surge towards where Lil' Bub was seated in the grass as fans snapped photos while her owner Mike Bridavsky, a handsome and heavily tattooed sound engineer from Bloomington, Indiana, occasionally interrupted to make sure that Lil' Bub was doing alright. For the record, Lil' Bub, famous for her odd/oddly adorable look, seems like she's always doing about the same –- she's constantly chill with her tongue flapping in the breeze and her big eyes looking like they're about to jump right out of her adorable skull. If anything, it's Bridavsky who seemed a bit agitated. "You can cut me out of the picture," he told one woman as she took a photo of him with Lil' Bub. "I feel weird about this."
I suddenly decided that Bridavsky, with his good looks, kindness (Lil' Bub, who was initially feral, suffers from dwarfism, a shortened jaw and several other medical issues, making her adoption especially remarkable) and reluctant willingness to pose for photographs, must be a jerk and spent the next few minutes circling him and his internet-famous pet, attempting to look inconspicuous. When I finally worked up the courage to ask him for a brief interview, he immediately said yes, once again shattering my judgmental expectations. In fact, he was so nice and made such good eye contact that I, blushing furiously, was only able to choke out three questions. All in one big rush: "DidyouexpectallthisDidtheyflyyououtAreyougettingpaidtobehere?" Mike was good enough to not say, "Get away, you weirdo" –- something that would have been well within his rights -– and instead answered my questions calmly. "I started to realize how big this was going to once I got to Minneapolis. I was flown out by Vice. No, they're not paying me."
Throughout all this, Lil' Bub was sitting in Bridavsky's lap, tongue flapping out of her mouth in a way that I'm pretty sure meant that she was mocking me. Or it could just have been because she has no teeth. Either way, I felt suddenly overwhelmed and, with an "OKTHXBYE," jumped up and dashed away.
I still can't believe I looked so uncool in front of Lil' Bub.
It's worth pointing out just how diverse the crowd — which was growing steadily by the thousands — had become. Open Field was full of people of all ages, sizes and backgrounds. There were burly men with big beards and cat tattoos and old ladies with cat-airbrushed t-shirts. There were quiet, nerdy types and then there was the usual Midwestern festival crowd with their thick accents, love of beer and deep tans from many an hour spent on pontoon boats. There were even people dressed as cats who could have very well been furries. I talked to all of them and, despite their differences, the general consensus on why cat videos are so popular was almost always the same. Cat videos are more popular than other animal videos (to be fair, more dog videos are actually uploaded to YouTube, but cat videos boast more hits) because cats, unlike dogs or horses or even sloths, possess a level of embarrassment (both for themselves and for you), an awareness of the camera and disdain for whoever is watching. This is what makes their videos entirely irresistible.
I did, however, talk to one guy who was not a cat fan. His name was Pete and he was attending the festival with his girlfriend Melissa, a cat lover who's been lobbying for them to get a few cats of their own for some time. It was her hope that a solid hour of cat-fueled viral videos would be what finally persuaded him. I was not so optimistic. "They're vicious creatures," he said. Their relationship will be torn apart.
Then there was Daniel who, brought along by his coworker, also had his reservations about cat videos. "I kind of avoid that stuff," he told me. "I'm a newbie, I'm a virgin. I'm a little worried about watching an hour of this." I reminded him that no video should run over three minutes, so even if it's painful at least it would be over fairly shortly. (I guess the virgin metaphor was pretty apt.)
It was getting dark, closer to showtime, but I had one more question that I wanted answered. "What about baby videos? Are cat videos better than baby videos?" The answer was a resounding yes. As I looked around trying to find a place to watch what Open Field had put together, I spotted a baby whose mother had dressed her like a cat. Making eye contact, I tried to telepathically convey my condolences. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm sorry that your mother probably wishes you were a cat. I think you're fine the way you are."
It was time to begin the show and the field was packed. With not a single place left to sit, I ended up stuck watching the selections — cat video classics as well as never-before-seen footage (like a kitty telenovela) crowdsourced by the event's organizer Katie Czarniecki Hill — wedged against a group of college dudes who were treating it more like a rock concert than an event held at a museum for the benefit of internet cat nerds.
The bros weren't the only ones getting rowdy. The crowd, which at this point consisted of over ten thousand people, was going absolutely crazy. I was forced to once again pity the infant in the cat ears as the audience cheered uproariously at a video of a cat knocking a baby over. I hope the costume worked and she was able to pass. They had a similar raucous reaction to Dubstep Cat and the cats with cups on their heads ("Oh, no. You did not," I overheard one woman say, assumably to the owner who dared to make their cats wear these stylish cup hats). The audience issued a collective aw at a bucket full of kittens; the video of the mother cat hugging her baby into her chest had some people in tears. When the world famous Maru came on, I wasn't at all surprised when one of the college guys screamed "WOOO" and threw up both hands in the sign of the horns. This is Lollapamewza. This is Calicochella. This was the night of Cat Video and the fans were celebrating. Right behind me, a drunk girl wiped out hard.
When, around the 45-minute mark, the long-awaited Keyboard Cat finally came on, I recalled the question that, a mere three hours before, I was planning to ask as a joke. Was I sad that Keyboard Cat, whose video was actually made in the early 80s, is long dead? As I watched the crowd sing and dance along with her (Keyboard Cat, so it turns out, is a girl), I had to think that she would have enjoyed that night in her own eyes-closed way. Maybe she was watching us from Cat Heaven and could still appreciate it.
At 10PM, when the night finally came to a close (with the director of Henri 2: Paw de Deux taking home the Golden Kitty Award), I was tired but satisfied. While my snarky plans had completely fallen apart, I wouldn't have had it any other way. I was walking out with a better attitude and appreciation for the art — yes, art — of the internet cat video. To quote Scott Stulen, one of the programmers for Open Field who helped with the evening's video selection, "We've all been jurors for regular art — more traditional visual art programs — and it really falls in the same category. How does form and content follow? Is this something unique that we haven't seen before? Is the different vision of the creator in this or did you just happen to capture a specific moment?"
Then there is, of course, the community that these videos had inspired. The college kids, the young professionals, the larpers and the families who had all came out to watch the festival in each other's company.
"There's probably a simple truth in that the more virtual we become, the more we need to be in physical presence with one another," said Sarah Schultz, the Walker's Director of Education and Curator of Public Practice. When she told it to me that way, I was almost moved to tears. The Internet Cat Video Festival made an act of isolation (sitting alone in front of your computer screen) into a celebration of togetherness. Walking towards the parking ramp, I noticed that people who were previously strangers were now interacting with ease. Cars were letting other cars pull ahead of them. Everyone was happy and being kind. While my bones ached from standing and my head hurt from exhaustion, I was sad to leave the small utopia that the Walker had created.
Reluctantly driving away from the festival, I thought once again of Keyboard Cat and her place amongst the constellations (probably next to Mufasa). "You should be proud of what you created," I whispered towards the stars. "And, please, if you see Kitty, remind her that I'm so so sorry."