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Most internet users find it easy to relate to cats (as both are lazy, antisocial, egocentric, never-satisfied cynics that overreact to everything), which is why cats have become the official animal of the internet.

—From the entry “Cat” in Encyclopedia Dramatica


The paper provides an overview of the macro-isotopy “cat”, a totemic figure disputed between the elitist and often-esoteric subculture related to the origins of Internet and the standardized mass culture permeating social media. Due to its features, “cat” is a cultural unit which is easy to anthropomorphize and iconize, according to a variety of textual practices, including so-called Internet memes (lolcats) and one of the most interesting examples of sign proliferation to date: the creation of a whole new language (lolspeak) based upon systemic misspellings and mistakes.

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  1. The paper is the result of a close cooperation between the Authors. Please consider paragraphs 2, 4 and 5 (first part) as authored by Mattia Thibault and paragraphs 1, 3 and 5 (second part) by Gabriele Marino. The Authors wish to thank linguist Ilaria Fiorentini (Ph.D., University of Insubria, Italy).

  2. The syntagm is here used improperly on purpose: it imitates its use within online discourses, indicating the most peculiar part of the Web.

  3. Playfulness seems to exist mainly as a contextualized discourse, featured with some appropriate textual markers (cf. the famous “Poe Law”), over the Social Web. If such markers are absent or are not recognized, a given joke, for instance, will be mistaken as something belonging to the default semiotic domain (namely, seriousness), with all the subsequent misunderstandings (e.g., taking an article from the satirical website “the Onion” for real news).

  4. The Facebook public group “Internet Cat Research Group a/k/a Institute of Kitteh Studies”, counting more than 150 active members (scholars and enthusiasts from around the world), has to be understood in this perspective.

  5. Other approaches are, of course, possible and have been attempted, the most prominet example being The Interne Galaxy by Manule Castells [5].

  6. It might be useful, at this point, to specify that the Internet (here in its proper, neutral meaning) is the World’s biggest computer network, which allows each terminal to communicate with any other, according to a series of protocols. The Web (short for World Wide Web) is a information-sharing model employing the physical network of the Internet and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP; which is only one of the different “languages” spoken over the Web). The Web is organized into pages, that can be visualised on a computer through a Web browser (e.g., Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox etc.), as they are formatted in a Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Some services, such as the e-mails, can be viewed through HTML pages, albeit they use different protocols from HTTP to concretely work.

  7. According to Eco, the model author a sort of simulacrum of author inbuilt in a text. It might be fairly different from the empirical author (as is Robert Walton from Mary Shelley) or more subtly intertwined (the real Moliere from the idea of Moliere that I can desume from his works). A profile works in the same way: it is an identity constructed through a series of textualities (profile picture, likes, statuses…) and might diverge a lot from the empirical author—even completely in the case of fake profiles.

  8. The hypertextual architecture of the Web makes it extremely challenging to draw any border between these lines. If, on the one hand, we could claim that Facebook belongs to the Social Web and 4chan to the Internet, this is not entirely true. A Facebook page such as “WH 40 k Humor”, featuring only Internet memes dedicated to the wargame Warhammer 40.000, can hardly be considered as central to the semiosphere. Furthermore, the users of these areas are often actually the same people, who adopt different behaviours and online lifestyles, according to the website they are visiting at a certain moment; this is the key semiotic difference between empiric actors (people sitting in front of their device) and narrative actants (functions, role figures as textualised).

  9. This phenomenon of “aberrant decoding”, in Eco’s terms, is causing a steady polarization, when not a full radicalization, of the Internet around specific themes. Politically incorrect jokes ended up in attracting politically incorrect ideas, drawing off a part of its original users and attracting a new sort of audience (cf. the #GamerGate case).

  10. An entry with this name was created in 2006 on Urban Dictionary, the online “bible” of slang.

  11. As it generally happens when a “new trend” seems almost impossible to be make sense to mainstream media; see the case of Pokémon Go, in 2016.

  12. The grammar mistake (first person pronoun and third person verb) is intentional and mirrors the lolspeak.

  13. Nyan Cat is also the “loading” icon on Know Your Meme (an online collaborative encyclopaedia keeping track of old and new memes), testifying the meaningfulness of this particular meme for meme-enthusiasts.

  14. The last scene from the 2015 Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out is sarcastic exactly about this kind of “phenomenological inexplicability” of cats’ behaviour.


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Correspondence to Mattia Thibault.

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Thibault, M., Marino, G. Who Run the World? Cats: Cat Lovers, Cat Memes, and Cat Languages Across the Web. Int J Semiot Law 31, 473–490 (2018).

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