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Online media has been blamed for producing a lot of negativity, from envy to narcissism to even violence. But one popular genre stands aloof from all this: the cat video.
Cat videos are often dismissed as frivolous entertainment, but it’s that very frivolity that gives them their power. “Humans have a long history of play,” says Jessica Gall Myrick, a media psychology researcher at Penn State University. “Cat videos are user generated content, so they really are a way that people are playing with the internet.”
Dr. Myrick notes that the positive emotions associated with watching cat videos also tend to foster social tolerance.
It’s this communal aspect that motivated filmmaker Will Braden to produce CatVideoFest, an annual film festival across the United States and Canada that benefits local animal shelters.
“We need a little distraction,” says Mr. Braden, who is known to online cat-media enthusiasts as the creator of the popular “Henri, Le Chat Noir” series of YouTube videos. “We need something that is inoffensive and fun – unapologetically fun.”
In an op-ed last year about political radicalization, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci noted how, when you watch enough YouTube videos on a topic, the platform has this weird way of taking things to an extreme.
“Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism,” she wrote. “Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons. It seems as if you are never ‘hard core’ enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm.”
So what does the algorithm do when you binge on one of the most popular online content categories, cat videos?
“What it does is it gives you more cat videos,” says filmmaker Will Braden. “It won’t even morph into bunny videos. It will just be cat videos all the way down. I promise.”
“Maybe that’s the culmination of the internet,” he says. “Maybe the algorithms have nowhere else to go.”
Mr. Braden speaks from experience. As the producer of CatVideoFest, the annual 75-minute curated reel of feline media, he views thousands and thousands of cat videos each year, “more cat videos, arguably, than anybody on the planet,” he says. The festival, shown year-round in cinemas across the United States and Canada, raises money for local animal shelters.
His takeaway from those countless hours of viewing: Watching cat videos feels restorative. “People would come to previous shows and just grab me by the shoulders and go, ‘I needed that.’”
The internet is often blamed with promoting narcissism, envy, and even violence. Cat videos, say enthusiasts, represent a kind of oasis of purity.
“We need a little distraction,” Mr. Braden says. “We need something that is inoffensive and fun – unapologetically fun.”
First, there were cats
Before Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Buster Keaton filled the silver screen, cats did. In 1894, just a few years after inventing the kinetoscope, an early motion picture viewing device, Thomas Edison produced “Professor Welton’s Boxing Cats.” It was filmed just one month after Edison Studios captured the very first boxing match of any kind on film.
Cats’ ubiquity in media stems from their universality, says Mr. Braden, who is best known among cat-video aficionados for his YouTube series “Henri, Le Chat Noir,” a parody of French new wave cinema that stars Henri, a long-haired tuxedo cat who muses in French about his ennui. The animal’s relative lack of expressiveness creates space for the imagination.
“There’s an element of us projecting ourselves onto cats, because they can be a little bit more of a blank canvas,” he says. “Part of Henri’s success, I believe, is because it takes that to an absurd extreme.”
Mr. Braden is not the only filmmaker who finds something refreshing about watching cats frolic online. Earlier this month, Werner Herzog, one of the world’s most acclaimed directors and screenwriters, told Public Radio International that he feels “rejuvenated” after watching cat videos like this one he picked out for listeners. And, while the psychological literature on cat videos remains scant, the small amount of research that exists suggests a cat video or two might actually brighten your mood.
Worthy of study
“People are dismissive of cat videos,” says Jessica Gall Myrick, a researcher at Penn State University who specializes in media psychology. “It’s just this idea that it’s such a trivial use of our time.”
But, she says, the ubiquity of cat videos online alone should make them worthy of academic inquiry.
In 2014, Dr. Myrick, who was living in Bloomington, Indiana, at the time, sought help from her town’s most famous feline resident: Lil Bub. Dr. Myrick asked Lil Bub’s owner to help find survey participants among the diminutive cat’s massive social media following.
“Within a day I had nearly 7,000 people take part in my study,” says Dr. Myrick.
She found that most participants reported that cat videos, as well as GIFs and memes, improved their moods. Consumers of cat-related online media reported feeling more positive, more energetic, and less prone to negative emotions. In other words, less like Henri. And research suggests that those are the kinds of mental states that make one less likely to draw Sartrean conclusions about other people.
“Emotions that are more positive tend to bond people,” Dr. Myrick says, “and make people more open to others who aren’t necessarily like them.”
“Humans have a long history of play,” says Dr. Myrick. “Play is thought to be adaptive and functional and good for us and helps us bond. Cat videos are user generated content, so they really are a way that people are playing with the internet.”
Camaraderie and cats
It’s that sense of community that Mr. Braden is aiming for with his CatVideoFest, now in its third year.
“This reel is a curated experience,” he says, “But a huge part of it is just getting together and laughing and enjoying it with a bunch of other people.”
“Everywhere we go, we benefit a local shelter or local animal welfare organization,” an aspect that, despite the logistical and accounting challenges, Mr. Braden describes as an “unchanging part of the DNA of CatVideoFest.”
After a CatVideoFest show this week in Amherst, Massachusetts, two attendees agreed it had boosted their mood, and that cat videos represented one of life’s uncomplicated joys.
“We like a good laugh,” said local author Jane Roy Brown, who praised the videos’ “pure silliness.”
Another attendee, permaculture farmer Sue Bridge, noted that cat videos have a way of resisting ironic detachment.
“You can’t stand at a distance with it,” she says. “It revives you.”