The joke that you tell about how the Internet is a waste of time if you are the kind of person who makes jokes about how the Internet is a waste of time is always something like, "The only thing the Internet is good for is cat videos and pornography." And I don't think it is being pedantic to point out that this particular line doesn't work if you substitute "dog videos." People would think you are weird. They would be like, "Why are you watching dog videos?" "Dog videos isn't a thing," they would say. But so – and I will try to look at some actual statistics as we get more into it – but this brings me to my first tentative answer to the "Cats On The Internet" question (which, I should also point out, is a question that people ask a lot.)
1. It's The Culture
Through various lucky accidents, cat stuff started to permeate Internet culture pretty early on, and dogs often found themselves imitating rather than innovating in the field. Cheezburger.com (and yes, sure, 4chan, etc., but let's try to stay focused) certainly has an important role to play in this story, with the introduction to the wider Web of those semi-literate feline sensations the LOLcats, who at this point even your mom has heard of. And while Happy Cat – of whom your mom is also, arguably, at least tangentially aware – is still the most popular image on Cheezburger, according to the site's Editor in Chief, Emily Huh, the most popular post on sister (dog-themed) site I Has A Hot Dog has nowhere near the same traction, either in terms of Facebook shares or in the annals of Internet culture as a whole.
Cheezburger's Top 5 All-Time Cat Posts
Cheezburger's Top 5 All-Time Dog Posts
Meanwhile on YouTube (always a dangerous way to start a sentence), the story is a little bit more complex. Based on media exposure alone, you'd think that the most popular pet on YouTube would be superstar cat Maru, whose love affair with boxes has garnered him over 150 million video views. But the crown for most popular pet YouTube channel actually goes to Mishka, the Siberian husky who says "I love you." Mishka has 296,000 subscribers (almost a third again as many as Maru), and 292 million video views – which nearly doubles Maru's total.
In fact, Mishka has the number 1 (all-time) pet video on YouTube, with 71 million views – though the well-loved Surprise Kitty and an epilepsy-inducing compilation called "Funny Cats" are not too far behind in terms of views.
So if cats aren't distinguishing themselves at the top of the pack on YouTube, maybe they're doing better in aggregate? Not exactly. According to Kevin Allocca from Google's excellent YouTube Trends site, searches for "dog" on YouTube yield about 2 million results – which is half a million more results than an equivalent "cat" search. And his analysis is just as damning: "Personal opinion is that cats are overrated as being most popular," he told me. "Data suggests dogs are more popular than people think."
There is, however, some hope for cat partisans, and it is related to the potential for individual pieces of cat media (I was just about to say "content," but then I remembered how much that word reminds me of a vomit bag) that go viral (i.e., achieve a high rate of sharing) compared with equivalent dog media. "When it comes to virality," says Allocca, "there seem to be more cat videos that 'go viral,' but dogs are incredibly popular on YouTube."
BuzzFeed's own data backs this up. Although we have a slightly higher number of cat than dog posts, the average reaction numbers (hearts, comments, "cutes," etc.) to these posts are remarkably similar – but the metric that really stands out is the average number of "viral" views (traffic coming from Facebook, Twitter, and other sites linking in). For the average cat post, that's close to 9,000. For dogs, that's only 5,000. And if you add up the numbers for the top 5-performing cat posts since 2011 vs. the top 5-performing dog posts, that discrepancy becomes very clear: Cats are at 2,655,412 – almost 2 million more than the top dogs, who could only muster a measly 700,729 views between them. Sad.
Which is super interesting and all, but so now we are right back to our original question. Why? Why why why? Here's another stab at it:
2. It's the Cats
My personal theory about why cats have more "viral potential" than their canine compatriots is that cats are better at making viral videos because the dogs are trying too hard.
Dogs are the equivalent of a "Viral Marketing Strategist" at an ad agency – sure, they'll have a hit now and again, but unless it's really exceptional work, you'll just ignore it, because you know they're doing it to get your attention. When a dog gets in a box, it's because he desperately wants you to think he's cool. When a cat does it, it's because it suddenly felt like the right thing to do at the time – it's cool and effortless. It feels natural.
Same goes for sinks.
And, most important of all, when a cat wears human clothes, it adds to his air of mystery and effortless stylishness.
OK, so that's clearly pretty biased, but maybe there's something to the notion that this particular bias is pervasive, at least on the Internet. Which brings us to a third possibility:
3. It's Us
Cheezburger's Emily Huh has this theory:
"In regards to why cats are more popular than dogs on the Internet, I think it's because cat owners don't have a cat park or a place where they can congregate in person to talk about their cats like how dog owners have a dog park to talk about their dogs. The Internet has provided a place for cat owners and fans of cats to talk about their own cats, comment on how hilarious, cute, or evil their cat is and swap stories, pictures, and videos."
Is it possible that the Internet is essentially serving the purpose of a great big virtual cat park? It certainly feels that way sometimes. And that's one potential explanation for the cultural bias in favor of cats online, even if it is belied by the stats which show an equivalent demand for dog stuff. Here's another explanation:
4. Path Dependence
In the late '70s, VHS- and Betamax-format videotapes were competing for consumer attention in a fierce videotape format war. As those of us who still remember videotapes know, VHS (though widely held to be inferior) eventually prevailed, and Sony's Betamax tapes at first dwindled and then quickly disappeared from the market. There are a lot of theories about why VHS achieved market dominance, but a leading one relies on what economists call "path dependence" – a tendency within institutions or industries to make current decisions based on past decisions, regardless of quality or inherent value.
With that in mind, it could well be that the real reason we are all living in this great big virtual cat park actually has nothing to do with the cats themselves. It could be that, through historical accidents like the sudden rise to prominence of the LOLcats, our feline overlords achieved a negligible early adoption lead over their canine competitors, which is constantly reiterated and reinforced by unknowingly biased publishers and content (ugh) producers like BuzzFeed, who privilege cats simply because that seems like the way we've always done it.
Of course, there is one other explanation that we haven't explored at all yet:
5. Dogs Are Idiots
Haha, just messing with you guys. Dogs are great. I love dogs.