Poor cats. There's an Internet full of the things, but little do they know the joke's on them.
I got to mulling the strange popularity of cats in the ether when I discovered that a spate of bloggers had declared it "Blogacatmas," the festival of posting cats on weblogs. There was a flash of fur, cats everywhere, and then it was over. Another week, you sigh, another outbreak of nerd humour on the Internet. But these people are onto something.
There's a stereotype that goes like this: When somebody running a website has run out of useful things to say, they post a picture of their cat. When they don't feel like writing one thousand words on their blog, there's always the option of posting Fluffy and pretending that she's somehow of interest to anybody. When the boiler of thought is out of steam, out wheezes a kitten.
Perhaps the stereotype was undeserved, but it stuck. In a gently self-mocking way, putting up pictures of cats has become the quintessential blogging gesture. And the cat, for its part, became the patron saint of tired websites.
Which leads us to the cabal of young on-line writers in Canada who are pushing the phrase "posting the cat" to describe the moment when a website passes its prime.
Coined by arts writer and blogger J. Kelly Nestruck (of fence.blogspot.com), the phrase takes its cue from the saying that TV shows "jump the shark" and decline at the moment they display a certain desperation (the prime example being when Fonzie was made to water-ski over a shark on Happy Days; everything was downhill from there). So, too, with websites, Nestruck says.
"The truth is that most blogs are just personal vanity projects of little consequence, the Internet equivalent of Christmas newsletters," Nestruck says. "And nothing pulls the curtain back and reveals that dirty truth more than when a blogger posts a picture of his or her cat."
Indeed, "posting the cat" can refer to any kind of desperate mistake, even ones that don't involve cats at all. For instance, it can mean banning reader comments from your weblog, alienating your users. It can mean prompting the departure of a flamboyant character from a discussion forum, leaving the place limp.
Or posting the cat can mean just that. In the depths of the CBC lockout, the somnambulant cbc.ca website actually posted a kitten as its front-page photo. Management had posted the cat. There are a lot of ways to ruin a website, but you can't beat the real thing.
None of which reflects too well on the cat, either. Even the celebratory Blogacatmas's co-founder, Joey deVilla, says he doesn't even really like the things. "I'm really a dog person," deVilla says in an e-mail message. "I'm allergic to cats; I'm not too keen on their general temperament."
His celebration, it seems, was more a salute to the Internet's tradition of putting up silly pictures of cats than to the cats themselves. What success cats have enjoyed on-line (see the bizarro Infinite Cat Project at http://www.infinitecat.com) is mostly thanks to their unrivalled knack for looking angry and aggressively confused.
Critics have argued -- and critics do argue about things such as cats on the Internet -- that there's a resonance between the rangy, self-reliant mentality of the cat, and the fiercely independent, stand-offish blogger or programmer. I don't buy it. The truth about cats and blogs is that it's an in-joke. On the Internet, cats are emptiness incarnate, and everyone knows it -- except the poor cat.
A quick word about "jumping the shark:" The widely used phrase actually originated on-line, at a website called http://www.jumptheshark.com. It contains a full database of television shows, and thousands of user-submitted votes on precisely when each show took the leap and started getting bad. If that sounds grim, note that there are provisions for shows that "never jumped" (or have yet to peak), and shows that "jumped back." The shark metaphor is accommodating that way; I'm not sure about the logistics of un-posting a cat.