Pop Semiotics:
Cat Macros as Communication

Not long after Al Gore invented the internet, his wife Tipper uploaded a picture of the family cat launching one of the most ubiquitous trends in web culture. But over the past year, a strange subgenre called “lolcats” or “cat macros” has developed, turning a meme into a form of folk art.
As the Wikipedia entry explains, lolcats— a portmanteau of “lol” and “cat”–are photos of cats with comedic captions created for the purpose of sharing with others on imageboards and other internet forums. The caption is characteristically formatted in a sans serif font such as Impact or Arial Black, usually in white letters with a black outline. (In fact, this type of lettering has come to define the genre, so much so that the use of other fonts and colors seem like a violation of an unwritten aesthetic code.) The caption is intentionally written with deviations from standard English spelling and syntax featuring strangely-conjugated verbs. Despite the odd construction, the syntax has, as Anil Dash notes in a post on the topic, a “fairly consistent grammar.”
The cats not only speak in a form of pidgin English (which makes the captions funnier) but they also tend to use “leetspeek”, a written form of slang used primarily on the internet and online video games. David McRaney explains how this peculiar brand of folk art works as communication:

[A] fusion of sorts between learned, direct language and rapid, practical digital missives takes place with Leetspeak and macros. Both relay a great deal of information in a small burst of code. Each depends on the receiver of the information having working knowledge of the culture and its references. In a sense, these serve as argots, and help identify both sides of the information transfer as belonging to the subculture where they appear. The in-joke is part of the communication. The separation of ingroup and outgroup helps drive the rapid evolution of both leetspeak and macros.

The appeal of cat macros is that they can be enjoyed as folk art, even by those who are in the “outgroup.” Listed below are a few of the various sub-genres:

Invisible objects

Variations on the gamer meme “I’m in ur…”

Expressing a desire not to be eaten

Confessions of what they have eaten

Variation on “I has..”

Character cats

Explanations of their behavior

Various non sequiters

More cat macros can be found in the following galleries (Caution: some images contain crude language):

See also:

Other posts in this series:

Published by

Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • http://dearmore.wikidot.com Readmore

    That is some of the strangest stuff I’ve ever seen. At first I thought you meant it was some kind of variation on steganography–but that would have been too “normal”.

  • John M.

    I’m a cat guy but this is over the top.

  • http://evangelicalperspective.blogspot.com Collin Brendemuehl

    As an anti-cat person (I enjoyed Alf), cats deserve all the punishment they receive. And more. Send them to “catmo” for their just deserts.

  • ken mac

    Slow day?

  • http://prosthesis.blogspot.com macht

    Joe, have you read the pidgin bible?

  • http://www.fireandknowledge.org Josh S.

    And thus it penetrates another subculture. I has enough.

  • http://vitaro.wordpress.com Rob V.

    The timing of this post is creepy! I was JUST looking at ICanHasCheezburger.com the other day because I kept seeing it as the number one site at wordpress.com and decided to check it out. Was NOT prepared! I was fascinated by the pidgin English. Thanks for the post, I had no idea how widespread this was.
    What a strange race we humans are…

  • http://chublogga.blogspot.com Chublogga

    Somebody recently sent me a cat picture.
    So naturally I had to jump on the bandwagon:

  • giggling

    haha sweet. i loved SHORYUKEN. =D

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com/intellectuelle Bonnie

    My kids laughed themselves silly over these — what does that tell you? (about my kids, yeah)

  • http://wondersforoyarsa.blogspot.com Wonders for Oyarsa

    John W, there HAS to be a way to tie the Iraq war into this somehow… ;-)

  • Minnieh

    LOLZ. I practically pissed myself. ;]] I liked the “Dnt worii, i iz from tech support” one.
    A LOT.

  • Duncan Cornes

    mmmhhhhhhh Kitty
    I wants one

  • Duncan

    mmmhhhhhhh Kitty
    I wants one

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