Internet memes are an increasingly widespread form of vernacular communication. This paper uses LOLCats, one of the most popular and enduring Internet memes, as a case study for exploring some of the social and cultural forces that contribute to memes’ popularity, both individually and as a whole. A qualitative audience study of 36 LOLCat enthusiasts indicates that individual memes can be used by multiple (and vastly different) groups for identity work as well as in–group boundary establishment and policing. This study also shows that as memes travel from subculture to the mainstream, they can be sites of contestation and conflict amongst different stakeholders looking to legitimize their claim to the canonical form.
Participatory media, vernacular creativity, and Internet memes
Genre, humor, and the construction of the social
The widespread adoption of networked technologies has changed the way that people interact with the world and with each other. Developments in ICT have enabled changes in commerce, politics, and interpersonal communication. Widespread consumption and creation of user–generated content (UGC) has ushered us into an era of participatory culture, purportedly breaking down the barriers between producer and consumer (Bruns, 2007). This has provided new tools for fighting governmental corruption (Shirky, 2010a), organizing during political crises (Howard, et al., 2011), and communicating during disasters (Bruns, et al., 2012). It has also given us Peanut Butter Jelly Time.
Peanut Butter Jelly Time is an Internet meme, a “(unit) of popular culture that (is) circulated, imitated, and transformed by Internet users, creating a shared cultural experience” . Once the exclusive province of message boards and other ‘computer geek’ hangouts, Internet memes have become ubiquitous in networked environments, becoming “as important to the American consciousness at this point as Hollywood movies” (Grigoriadis, 2011). Advertisements emulate them, political campaigns incorporate them, and popular TV shows reference them, all in an attempt to capture the zeitgeist.
Internet memes have gained some traction as objects of academic research, as they can be used as “prism(s) for understanding certain aspects of contemporary culture” . Researchers have investigated YouTube memes and “viral video” (Burgess, 2008; Shifman, 2012), the nature of memetic spread and distribution (Bauckhage, 2011; Shifman and Thelwall, 2009), and the role of Internet memes in public discourse (Phillips, 2012; Milner, 2013a). However, an investigation into the underlying drivers of memes’ ubiquity has not yet been undertaken. In order to fully unpack how memes function within the media landscape, it is essential to speak to the users and audiences that engage with them regularly.
While Internet memes are notoriously ephemeral (Bauckhage, 2011; Bernstein, et al., 2011), one meme has managed to remain culturally relevant for years: The LOLCat. LOLCats (or ‘cat macros’) are, at their simplest, pictures of “cats with systematically misspelled captions” . However, they have sparked an enormous cultural reaction and become one of the most recognizable examples of “Internet–borne cultural iconography” . Named “the cutest distraction of the decade” (Entertainment Weekly, 2009), I Can Has Cheezburger, the site which popularized the images, received approximately 37 million unique hits in the year this study was conducted (Quantcast, 2011). Based off the popularity of I Can Has Cheezburger (as well as the other meme–oriented sites in its portfolio), Cheezburger Networks received US$30 million in venture funding in January 2011 (Erlich, 2011). LOLCats have spawned a product line (Madison Park Group, 2011) a Bible translation (Grondin, 2010), several international art shows (Rountree, 2008; Photographers Gallery, 2012; Wallace, 2013), an off–Broadway musical (Pomranz and Steinberg, 2009), and a TV show on the Bravo Network (Watercutter, 2012).
Despite their clear cultural resonance, LOLCats have been essentially ignored in the academic literature. When they are mentioned, it is usually with indifference (Burgess, 2008; Jenkins, et al., 2009) or blatant disdain. In a June 2010 TED Talk, Clay Shirky (2010a) invoked LOLCats to illustrate an example of a “throwaway” creative act that could potentially lead to more valuable endeavors. LOLCats, he argues, have little value in and of themselves except as a stepping stone to greater things. Shirky is not alone in his trivializing of LOLCats; even as David Gauntlett was arguing that we should “embrace and value” the “zesty, everyday, creative liveliness” embodied by phenomena like LOLCats, he described the sites that host them as “daft Web sites” filled with “silly photos of cats with comic captions” .
While it’s true that LOLCat images are simple and occasionally silly, they are just as much a part of the “peer–to–peer cultural production” landscape  as the YouTube videos and blogs that have been exalted and heralded as breaking down the barriers between the consumer/producer relationship and turning audiences into “produsers” (Bruns, 2007). Online content is playing an increasingly important role in social, political, and cultural agenda–setting , and, as this paper will show, LOLCats are a key example of the types of content that are changing the way people engage in cultural participation, creative engagement, community interaction, and identity construction. They are also an example of how the same content can be used to perform vastly different, almost oppositional, shared group identities.
In order to understand how LOLCats work — and what function they serve for their users — this study looks to unpack LOLCats as both textual objects and cultural practice. By speaking to the users who create, consume, and share these objects, this project will explain who engages with LOLCats on a regular basis, and illustrate the social functions of LOLCat creation and consumption. It will explain the generic and textual rules that govern how LOLCats are made and appreciated, as well as the ways in which LOLCats are situated within a wider body of memetic texts. By detailing the considerable cultural work that is being carried out in this one meme, this paper not only makes a case for memes’ overall importance, but their larger cultural and communicative significance.
Participatory media, vernacular creativity, and Internet memes
The development and proliferation of LOLCats is part of a technological and cultural shift towards a “participatory culture” in which the traditional boundaries between media consumers and producers are severely blurred, if not eradicated (Bruns, 2007; Couldry, 2003; Lievrouw and Livingstone, 2002). Conceptualizations of the ‘active audience’ have evolved from a theoretical argument concerning textual interpretation to a literal portrayal of the behavior that is taking place on a widespread basis . Thanks to the development of user–friendly creative tools and a series of platforms that facilitate hosting and distribution, users have started “taking media in their own hands”  with widespread cultural, social, and political implications.
At the heart of participatory culture is the explosion of “amateur creativity and media production”  that has irrevocably changed the popular media landscape. Jean Burgess’ concept of “vernacular creativity” describes the blending of traditional folk activities (such as storytelling and scrapbooking) with contemporary media knowledge and practices. These creative practices “emerge from highly particular and non–elite social contexts and communicative conventions” and have wide–ranging implications for access, self–representation, and literacy . Burgess’ conceptualizations of these creative acts are particularly useful for those who are interested in Internet memes; her framework both describes and lends credence to the cultural practices that are used in memes’ creation and dissemination.
The concept of the meme was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (1976) as part of a theory that explained why certain ideas, catchphrases, trends, and other pieces of cultural information replicate through a population. A highly contested term long before its widespread adoption and use by netizens, it is a “conceptual troublemaker” whose application to the world of digital culture has been fraught with analytical angst (Shifman, 2013a). Despite these debates, the term has been accepted as an imperfect descriptor for the pieces of shared and imitated popular culture that are a “fundamental part of what participants experience as the digital sphere” .
While certain memes are relatively self–contained, the majority of memes are part of a complex, interconnected, and esoterically self–referential body of texts that are inextricably bound to the context of their creation and consumption. As Burgess astutely notes in regard to video memes on YouTube, memetic texts are “the mediating mechanisms via which cultural practices are originated, adopted and (sometimes) retained within social networks” . In other words, on meme–riddled sites and platforms like YouTube, 4chan, Tumblr, 9GAG, and Reddit, memes are often the means through which users/members interact with each other. This communication through visual means has resulted in what Cole Stryker calls the “language of memes”, a “visual vernacular” that allows people to pithily communicate emotions and opinions . However, despite the particular evolution of this new genre, Burgess asserts that the communicative practices underlying memes are “deeply situated in everyday, even mundane creative traditions” .
Genre, humor, and the construction of the social
Miller (1984) argues that “when a type of discourse or communicative action acquires a common name within a given context or community, that’s a good sign that it’s functioning as a genre” (Miller and Shepherd, 2004). Genres are generally identifiable through their combination of form and agreed–upon function , even if the knowledge of that form and function is largely tacit and difficult to clearly articulate .
While genre is most familiarly used in the context of audio/visual media or literature, the concept and application of genre has considerable implications for the digital realm. Within this literature, genre is considered to be an essential element of online interaction since the effective use of online documents — from Web sites to blogs — depends on the user’s ability to recognize its nature, structure, and purpose (Toms, 1999). Furthermore, genre dictates not only the way communications are structured, but the way they are received . The question of reception connects to the notion that genres are both socially constructed and constructing. Genres are the “keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community” : communities that were likely informed by genre to start with (Brown and Duguid, 2002). Whether textual or social, genres are important framing devices, especially as generic conventions set up expectations (Kuipers, 2009).
One of the most obvious generic ‘expectations’ for many Internet memes — LOLCats included — is that they be humorous in some way. In their meta–analyses of popular Internet memes, Knobel and Lankshear (2007) and Shifman (2012, 2013b) found that humor is a cornerstone for memetic success. Shifman asserts that humor can provide unique insight into a society or culture ; while the existence of humor is universal, its appreciation is tied to the context of its creation, whether that be a group of friends or an entire nation (Boskin, 1997 in Shifman, 2007). Furthermore, a shared sense of humor can bring a society or culture closer together; as Kuipers (2009) notes, “sharing humor signals similarity and similarity breeds closeness ... laughing together is a sign of belonging”.
Humor is a mechanism through which we erect and maintain symbolic boundaries (Kuipers, 2009) which are used to execute a number of personal and social functions: asserting tastes, exploring identities and situations, and defining insiders and outsiders (Jenkins, et al., 2009; Gelkopf and Kreitler, 1996). Particularly applicable to the study at hand is identification humor (Meyer, 2000), more familiarly known as ‘in–jokes’. In–jokes are important components of both memes and online communities (Stryker, 2011; Baym, 1995) due to their facilitation of “in–group–ness”  through the assumption of exclusively shared knowledge .
In–jokes can take many shapes, from single words to entire systems of meaning (Apte, 1985). One related phenomenon is slangs, a form of linguistic humor (Apte, 1985) that is used for “bonding and ‘sociability’ through playfulness” . Slangs are often specialized languages developed by a group for the purpose of in–group communication and identity marking , and can function as a source of humor on multiple levels. One way is through “accent humor”, the exaggerated use of incorrect grammar and vocabulary . The other is through the reinterpretation of familiar words and phrases to create a code that is understandable only within a group context . The latter type of humor can be an essential element in creating group identity and solidarity in online communities; as Baym (1995) notes, the group–specific meanings which arise out of humorous interaction can provide “central objects” around which online groups can define themselves.
The question that inspired this research overall was “Why in the name of Ceiling Cat  are LOLCats so popular?” What is it about LOLCats that not only fueled their initial popularity, but helped maintain it for years? This study looked to not only answer these questions, but also understand the role that humor, language, community, sharing, and creation practices played in both popularizing the meme and entrenching it in the Internet cultural canon.
In order to fully understand the phenomenon at hand, this study required an audience–oriented approach; focus groups were the most appropriate methodology for a variety of reasons. To start, focus groups allow for the replication of the interactive dynamic that is inherent to participatory culture. LOLCats are fundamentally social; as Clay Shirky (2010b) quipped, “no one would create a LOLCat to keep for themselves”. Furthermore, attitudes and perceptions are largely developed via social interaction; focus groups work primarily because they tap into this tendency , allowing to the researcher to explore “what individuals believe or feel as well as why they behave in the way they do” .
Focus groups are particularly suited for gaining insight into complicated topics where behavior or motivation may be multifaceted (Rabiee, 2004; Krueger, 1994); This is particularly beneficial when discussing a deceptively complex topic like humor, where the insights generated from group interaction are frequently “deeper and richer” than those gleaned from individual interviews . Additionally, the permissive nature of properly conducted focus groups can encourage individuals to disclose opinions and feelings that may not otherwise be divulged through alternative interrogatory practices . While focus groups present the risk of group think or outspoken individuals influencing others (Krueger, 1994) this is countered in well–moderated groups by the opportunity for group members’ disclosures to provide a “jumping off point” for others to evaluate in the context of their own perceptions and emotions (Gaskell, 2000).
Participants were sourced through a combination of snowball sampling and recruitment on a variety of social networking and community sites: Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Reddit, Craigslist, and The Cheez Town Cryer. As incentive, participants were offered the chance to win a £25 Amazon gift card. These two sampling techniques were utilized with the goal of representing the range of involvement levels within the LOLCat user population; while some LOLCat users are deeply involved with the community, others enjoy them in a more casual way. Participants for the groups were also selected with this representational breadth in mind. While the participants’ engagement with LOLCats differed in intensity, they were, overall, demographically homogeneous, a general requisite for conducting successful focus groups (Krueger, 1994). The participants ranged in age from 21 to 72 years; the overwhelming majority (86 percent) were 30 years of age or younger. The gender balance was evenly split, with 47 percent women and 53 percent men.
The aim of this study was to explore as many of the textual and social aspects of the LOLCat phenomenon as possible while allowing the study participants to openly contribute their opinions with minimal influence. Consequently, the discussion guide was designed primarily as a topic guide that reflected the key elements of the LOLCat genre. These topics were inductively established after a comprehensive review of the I Can Has Cheezburger Hall of Fame, a collection of the most popular LOLCats on the site.
To aid in the discussion of the more abstract textual aspects of LOLCats (such as humor and anthropomorphism), I elected to include stimulus in the second half of the focus groups as suggested by Gaskell  and Krueger . Stimulus was selected in two ways. Participants were invited to submit their favorite lols in advance of the groups; this allowed for an exploration of the factors that guided their selection rationale. Given that the number of participants who elected to send images varied by group, supplementary stimulus for the groups was selected from the I Can Has Cheezburger Hall of Fame. Images were selected in order to represent the topics included in the topic guide.
The majority of focus groups (four of six) were held in person. However, in order to include a selection of more active LOLCat users who had responded to my original posts, I held online focus groups using Google Hangouts. The online focus groups were conducted using the same discussion guide and the same procedure as the face–to–face groups, the single difference being the absence of stimulus; the affordances of the Google Hangout platform did not allow for the organic inclusion of images into the discussion.
Methodological considerations: Online focus groups and Google+
Methodological literature documents several drawbacks of online focus groups. Edmunds (1999 in Rezabek, 2000) notes that even when video cameras are used during live groups, it’s difficult to see other participants’ facial expressions. Rezabek (2000) noted that some participants’ fear of, or inexperience with, online video technology impacts their willingness to participate in discussions and affects the group dynamic. These concerns, while valid, were largely inapplicable to the two online groups that were conducted for this study due to the platform which was used and the participants who used it.
Google+ was launched in July 2011. One of its most lauded features was Hangouts, which function as advanced group chats. The uniqueness of the Google Hangout is that it emulates face–to–face (F2F) conversation. This is accomplished through an audio functionality that, once triggered by vocal or other audio input, switches the video feed of the speaker to the main window, directing focus to the person who is speaking. While this may have been confusing or distracting for the uninitiated, the groups who were interviewed online consisted of technically savvy early adopters, many of whom regularly used Google Hangouts in a social capacity. Due to this familiarity and comfort with the platform’s functionality and emerging norms, the online focus groups went quite smoothly.
Qualitative analysis allows researchers to describe and explain phenomena or social worlds through the process of reviewing, synthesizing, and interpreting data . Thematic analysis is a “flexible and useful research tool” that can help accomplish this description and explanation by providing a complex and detailed account of qualitative data . Furthermore, the flexibility of thematic analysis allows for the identification of unanticipated themes and insights , a particular advantage for an exploratory project such as this one. However, thematic analysis is not without its challenges or drawbacks; one of the most significant is that it invariably requires a certain amount of assumption and interpretation on the researcher’s part. Nonetheless, as long as these potential pitfalls are kept in mind, thematic analysis can help provide valuable insight into the ways people experience their worlds .
The recordings made of all six focus groups were manually transcribed and analyzed based on the process outlined by Braun and Clarke (2006). In order to allow for the cultivation of unforeseen results, I took a data–driven approach that relied on the inductive development of themes (Braun and Clarke, 2006) which were established by examining the transcripts for instances of recurrence, repetition, and forcefulness, as per Owen (1984). Extracts matching each theme were identified and ‘bucketed’ into individual documents for further evaluation; these individual documents were then analyzed, condensed, and reorganized in a recursive process until the final themes were decided upon (Braun and Clarke, 2006).
The results section is organized by the four main findings of the study. The first identifies three separate groups of users that engage with LOLCats in different ways. The remaining sections on genre, humor, and emotional expression reveal how LOLCats’ appeal rests in the interaction between the textual and social, and connects to issues of identity and interpersonal communication.
The three LOLCat user constituencies
Over the course of the focus groups, it became clear that ‘LOLCat users’ were not one amorphous group; as it turns out, they appeal to “very different networks of the Internet”, as one participant (Female, 25) put it. This is likely because LOLCats are “simultaneously obscure and accessible” (Rutkoff, 2007) and “a very easy way into a meme” (TB, Female, 26). During my analysis and coding of the focus group transcripts, I inductively established three user groups, into which I subsequently categorized each participant: Cheezfrenz, MemeGeeks, and Casual Users. It is worth noting that the presence and proportion of these three groups in the participant population are inevitably bound up in the selection process. Thus, it is possible that other user categories exist that are not represented here. Nonetheless, the results provide strong evidence that these three groups represent important constituencies for LOLCats, and that the appeal of the phenomenon differs by group.
“Cheezfrenz” and “Cheezpeeps” are how community members are referred to on I Can Has Cheezburger. They are invested LOLCat lovers whose interest in LOLCats generally stems from their affinity for cats. They actively seek out LOLCats, usually on a daily basis, and engaged in all three types of LOLCat engagement: sharing, creating, and consuming. The Cheezfrenz in my sample were all involved with the I Can Has Cheezburger community on some level, and some were also involved with the Cheez Town Cryer, a community site created by I Can Has Cheezburger commenters. According to one focus group participant who attended a LOLCat convention called Cheezburger Field Day, the most ardent Cheezfrenz tend to be older women; while all of the Cheezfrenz who attended my focus groups were female, they ranged in age from 21 to 72. Cheezfrenz comprised 11 percent of the participant sample in this study.
Classifying the “MemeGeeks” as such is not meant pejoratively; “geek” and “nerd” were used frequently within this group as a badge of honor or compliment. While MemeGeeks enjoy LOLCats, their interest in them is almost nostalgic, stemming mostly from LOLCats’ place in the meme canon and their role as the (perceived) progenitor of other less mainstream memes, particularly Advice Animals. A minority of the MemeGeeks actively sought out LOLCats since they had mostly moved on to other memes. However, their previous involvement consisted primarily of creating them and sharing them on content oriented platforms like 4chan and Reddit. MemeGeeks’ interest in memes overall is part of a larger interest in the Internet and computer culture, with many MemeGeeks referring to themselves as “children of the Internet”, “from the Internet”, and “(living) on the Internet”.
At 63 percent, the MemeGeeks represented the largest proportion of users in the study. The majority (66 percent) were males between the ages of 24 and 28, and overwhelmingly worked in the digital industry in some context. While this may have been a factor of the selection process, it was also largely a matter of self–selection, with many of the MemeGeeks responding to online ads/posts.
The Casual User group made up the remaining 25 percent of the participant sample. The Casual Users were mostly comprised of the “Bored At Work” population  and cat owners. They did not tend to create their own LOLCats, but shared and consumed pre–existing images that they received via email or saw on Facebook. The appeal for this group is grounded in the LOLCats’ humor, and can best be summed up as an appreciation for cute, anthropomorphized cat images with funny language superimposed upon them. The casual users worked in a variety of industries and were evenly distributed by gender.
The LOLCat genre
One of the clear findings from the focus groups was that the form and structure of the LOLCat were not only distinct, but that the proper execution of the generic conventions were essential to its appeal. Participants repeatedly referred to font, text placement, image subject, syntax, animal characterization, and intertextuality as integral to the proper execution and full enjoyment of a LOLCat.
For both the Cheezfrenz and the MemeGeeks, knowledge of generic conventions was an indicator of in–group membership: improper application of the unspoken rules was the mark of an outsider, or “n00b”. Interestingly, the MemeGeeks frequently attributed many of the generic transgressions found in the LOLCat corpus to the older women and “crazy cat ladies” who largely belong to the Cheezfrenz. This gendering of creative and consumption practices happened repeatedly throughout the groups, particularly by the MemeGeeks who used it as a mechanism to distance themselves from the other participants.
More than just defining group boundaries, however, adherence to generic conventions is also instrumental to LOLCats’ appeal in a more straightforward way: making them funny. This manifests itself in two distinct ways. The first is through the actual set up of the “joke” in the LOLCat image. Incongruous humor, or the clash between expectation and experience (Shifman and Blondheim, 2010) is a common format for macro humor (Milner, 2013b) and this was borne out in the groups. Participants consistently stressed that the “set up” of the joke needed to be in the top clause of the image text with the punchline, or resolution, on the bottom.
The second way genre materialized was more subtle, with the style of the genre itself acting as an integral part of the humor. Adherence to specific design elements was considered paramount to LOLCats’ enjoyment. Even if the content (such as the image or joke) contained within the LOLCat was humorous, participants explained that using the wrong font or diverging from stylistic expectations essentially ruined it for them. As one participant explained, “You know, come on, you’ve gotta do it properly. There is a style, here. And that’s part of what makes it funny” (JT, 38, MemeGeek ). These findings echo the literature on genre and humor in other contexts (Toms, 1999; Kuipers, 2009): like a TV sitcom or a spoken joke, the established generic conventions of LOLCats are appreciated in and of themselves, as well as in their role as a framing device.
“Memes are jokes your friends don’t get” — The role of in–jokes
The notion of the in–joke was raised repeatedly throughout the groups. The MemeGeeks especially prized LOLCats for the fact that they were “a bit of an insidery club, which is cool” (MK, 32, male). Similarly, MemeGeek JE explained that “the funniest thing is being part of the group that understands the joke. Having to explain it to my boyfriend always makes it sound really rubbish” (29, female). The in–jokiness of LOLCats was largely achieved through two textual features: Lolspeak and intertextual references.
Lolspeak: Form and function
Lolspeak’s main function was creating and enforcing group boundaries. One of the most recognizable features of LOLCats, Lolspeak is a dialect (Lefler, 2011) characterized by its childlike tone and incorrect grammar. It has been taken up with great gusto by the LOLCat community and operates as the lingua franca of the I Can Has Cheezburger comment boards. The following example of Lolspeak is excerpted from an e–mail message I received in response to my solicitations for focus group participants:
Lolspeak: Ohai! I wud like tu b in deh focus groop, if it am alrite wif u
English: Hi! I would like to be in the focus group, if that is alright with you
Lolspeak was found to be entertaining (or at the very least, interesting) to all three user groups, mostly because it was considered to be the voice of the cat in the image; as one Casual User noted, “Obviously, you’d imagine that cats can’t really speak properly” (PT, 28, male). However, the fact that “The speak belongs to the cat” (GV, 30, male), failed to deter either the MemeGeeks or the Cheezfrenz from using it as a slang. It is in this way that the use of Lolspeak creates the sense of “in–group–ness” that makes identification humor so appealing. However, the ways in which Lolspeak was used by the Cheezfrenz and the MemeGeeks differed, and constructed group identity and cohesion in different ways.
MemeGeeks enjoy Lolspeak because to them, it is an emblem of Internet culture and is seen to incorporate other linguistic technocultural elements such as text speak (“OMG”, “LOL”, “WTF”) and leet speak (“PWn3d By 73h L337 h4xxOrs”). One MemeGeek explained that she engaged with LOLCats for “The Internetty part, not the cute part–like, the speak. Like Lolspeak”. For her, the appeal of Lolspeak was that “It’s its own language that makes no sense, and that the context is like, within the private joke of the community that you have to trace its origin back, back to the Internet” (LW, 25, female).
Figure 1: Example of Lolspeak.
Lolspeak’s status as “teh furst language born of teh intertubes” identifies it as an in–joke for those who understand the context of its origins. This use of Lolspeak was particularly clear during the focus group conducted with a cohort of coworkers whose jobs required deep understanding of the online cultural landscape. These coworkers actively used Lolspeak and other forms of Internet argot in a jokey, competitive manner during the full duration of the focus group to demonstrate that “We’re Internet people” (MH, 26, MemeGeek, male). Aside from performing that particular identity, the use of Lolspeak as a slang provided an opportunity for the entire office to playfully establish similarity through shared humor (Kuipers, 2009; Thorne, n.d.).
The Cheezfrenz’ use of Lolspeak was seen as a source of enjoyment, but even more as an indicator of who was truly committed to the I Can Has Cheezburger community. Speaking “perfect Lol” was seen as a great accomplishment that only few could master; this was illustrated in discussions of the level of virtuosity demonstrated by the head of the community (“The Cween”). Those who are unable (or unwilling) to master the rules of Lolspeak are seen as less invested, even if they are active contributors to the community in other ways. In one of the more compelling examples of this, AB (72, female), a leader in the I Can Has Cheezburger commenting community, noted that even though her son had accomplished the difficult feat of creating several lols that had been voted to the front page of I Can Has Cheezburger, he was not quite up to snuff as his Lolspeak was “erratic” and he “couldn’t keep it up”. Unlike the MemeGeeks who tended to use Lolspeak in a bantery way that had tinges of one–upmanship, the Cheezfrenz almost exclusively used it in an emotionally supportive and affectively positive manner. This difference in tone was characteristic of both groups’ engagement with the meme overall, the significance of which will be discussed shortly.
Virtuosity in slang performance is not always appreciated by those for whom it is unfamiliar (Kirshenblatt–Gimblett, 1976 in Apte, 1985). This was often the experience for the Cheezfrenz, who reported “frequent trolls ... pop up on the comments column saying we’re a load of retards who don’t speak proper English” (AB, 72, female). However, for those who do understand and enjoy Lolspeak, it can signal connection in a fragmented world. According to Cheezfrend KB, “it’s like an inside joke that the whole Internet gets” (Female, 26). This supports Shifman’s argument that sharing and creating forms of networked humor often serves to create and reify a shared inter–subjective experience, often on a global level .
The importance of intertextual references
Intertextuality is a key element of meme and remix culture, especially as juxtaposition of incongruous texts is a key element of meme humor (Shifman, 2013; Williams, 2012). Much like the connections between a network of users can help define a social group, intertextual links can help erect symbolic boundaries around a culture through a system of mutual referentiality. As Shifman notes, memes are not “isolated discrete units”, but “building blocks of complex cultures, intertwining and interacting with each other” . For many participants, LOLCats were part of a fantasy world with a cast of recurring characters and plotlines, and one of the reasons the meme was so emotionally resonant for them was because their favorites would crop up time and again.
Figure 2: Monorail Cat is a common reference in the LOLCat canon.
Intertexuality was central to MemeGeeks’ enjoyment of LOLCats, much more so than either of the other groups. For many MemeGeeks, LOLCats’ value rested in their subcultural capital. Once LOLCats were co–opted and incorporated into mainstream culture, they lost their punch; many of the MemeGeeks spoke dismissively of those who didn’t understand the full context of the LOLCat phenomenon or how it fit into the larger online cultural landscape. As one MemeGeek quipped, “For them, it’s just a singular image; whereas for me, it’s a way of life” (TB, 25, female).
To illustrate their difference from the bandwagon jumpers, MemeGeeks often demonstrated that they both understood and appreciated “the past”. This referred interchangeably to the early days of computer culture and the time before LOLCats migrated outside of their subcultural origins. To establish their identities as true “Internet people”, MemeGeeks expressed a strong preference for LOLCats that included multiple layers of selective cultural knowledge, particularly other obscure memes and elements of ‘old school’ computer and gaming culture.
Figure 3: LOLCats with gaming references were particularly prized by the MemeGeeks.
This use and appreciation of multilayered referential humor has several functions. First, having — and continually invoking — shared references bolsters the foundations of the group’s unity (Baym, 1995). Secondly, repeated references take on significance in and of themselves within the group, providing “codified forms of group–specific meanings” (Baym, 1995). In turn, these meanings provide further fodder for reinterpretation and remixing, with the ultimate outcome being a dense thicket of references that are cryptic for those who aren’t “in the know” (Stryker, 2011). This all serves to reinforce the symbolic barriers of the communal walls: the more referential knowledge needed to get the joke, the higher the barriers to entry, and the more exclusive the group feels. Casual Users and Cheezfrenz also appreciated lols that made them “feel part of the joke” (RK, 31, female); however, this was far less common in comparison to the MemeGeeks, and much less important for their enjoyment of LOLCats.
LOLCats and emotional expression
Jenkins, et al. assert that “spreadable” content like LOLCats makes its way through the Web because it is “personally and socially meaningful”  to the people who are sharing it; at the heart of it, people embrace certain types of content because it “allows them to say something that matters to them”, often about their relations to others . This was very much the case with the LOLCat Users in this study.
Participants in all three user groups reported both sending and receiving LOLCats as a form of emotional expression, particularly as “reactions” to situations they (or their family and friends) were going through. The practice of responding with an image or animated GIF is relatively common on message boards and in blog comment sections, so engaging in that practice in an interpersonal context is, perhaps, a natural evolution.
Participants reported using LOLCats to express a range of emotions — including caring, embarrassment, and frustration — in a variety of situations. Thanks to the fact that they are highly anthropomorphized, LOLCats are remarkably useful for expressing feelings; they are fundamentally a storytelling medium that users can “push anything through” (ND, 27, male). Perhaps as a result of this, there are millions of images that humorously capture the ups and downs of the human condition. As one Casual User noted, “there are so many of them, you can actually connect it to whatever situation you come across” (BD, 26, male).
Figure 4: The anthropomorphic nature of LOLCats make them useful for expressing difficult emotions in a humorous manner.
Several participants mentioned that they would use a LOLCat as “subtext” to communicate their feelings, particularly negative or difficult emotions. This involved posting LOLCats on social networking platforms as a method of indicating to certain friends and loved ones that they were in a particular emotional state. The highly anthropomorphic nature of LOLCats is highly conducive to this sort of communication, as it not only provided the emotional distancing necessary for participants to laugh at their own foibles, but also express emotions that might otherwise be seen as “unacceptable” for any number of reasons (Winick, 1976 in Meyer, 2000; Smith and Powell, 1988 in Lynch, 2002).
Although some participants used LOLCats to engage in a sort of emotional steganography, much of the sharing and creating reported by the Cheezfrenz and Casual Users took place privately between very small groups of people or dyads that knew each other on a deeply interpersonal level: close friends and family members. The reasons participants gave for sharing and creating LOLCats often sounded like categorizations in a greeting card aisle: “just for fun”, “for a party”, “for a birthday”. A few participants told stories about how a friend or family member had taken the time to identify the perfect LOLCat to send them in a particular situation or context. Especially within the Cheezfrenz and Casual Users, when asked why they would create or share a LOLCat with a particular person, the response was often to the effect of “because I knew they’d like it”. This seems to diverge from much of the existing literature which focuses on sharing and creation on public platforms and venues such as YouTube, Facebook, and blogs (Bowman and Willis, 2003; Burgess, 2008; Shao, 2008; Leung, 2009).
Furthermore, and likely tied in to the previous point, is that the participants in this study shared and created LOLCats primarily with someone else’s enjoyment in mind (Sherry, 1983) — not for the purpose of recognition which is widely suggested in the literature (Bowman and Willis, 2003; Shao, 2008; Gauntlett, 2011; Shifman, 2012). Most of the creating and sharing of LOLCats, even in public venues, was done with little thought as to whether or not the creator/sharer would get credit. Part of this is related to the fact that there are few authorial markers on these sorts of images; furthermore, even if one were to claim ownership, there is little hope of proving it. As one MemeGeek noted, “You can never be like, ‘I’m the guy behind Ceiling Cat’” (MT, Male, 27). However, credit — aside from making one’s friends and family laugh — is not really the point. As MemeGeek CS (Male, 27) remarked:
We’re spending hours making these fun things for no compensation, and not even any recognition. I guess like, the Cheezburger platform and reddit, like, with the upvoting and downvoting, they try and make it so that you can have some kind of mechanism for rewarding people for their creativity, but I feel like, you know, people are going to do it anyway, just because the inherent fun in it, and just, being able to share something with someone else, enough to motivate them to spend all that time and effort.
Fundamentally, people engaged with LOLCats for their own entertainment and to make meaningful connections with others, whether on a dyadic or a communal level.
At first glance, the story of LOLCats seems to be a straightforward case of subcultural co–option. To a certain extent, this is true; as one MemeGeek noted, “This is our language, these are our shared cultural reference points. And, when it goes mainstream, you know, you feel like you’ve lost something, and it’s time to move on to the next little bit of obscurity” (CS, 27, male). Whitney Phillips (2012) documented how 4chan’s /b/ board was less than thrilled with the introduction of meme templates (or “LOL Builders”) because they lowered the barriers to entry required to participate in the creative practices of the community. Once technological prowess was no longer required in order to modify an image, anyone could join in; perhaps this is why one MemeGeek referred to LOL Builders as “technology for old people to write text on pictures” (LW, 25, female).
However, it is not just that LOLCats’ “cool factor” was diminished through their adoption by mainstream audiences. MemeGeeks distanced themselves from LOLCats because they took on meaning that contradicted the values of their community. The elements of LOLCats that made them so appealing on a widespread basis — particularly, the ability to use them as emotional conduits — are ultimately what lead to their rejection by the collectives that created them.
4chan, the participatory collective responsible for turning LOLCats into a subculturally significant format, is governed by a “logic of lulz” (Milner, 2013b). It is a logic that positions earnestness and emotionality as weak and deserving of mockery, and insists upon what Joseph Reagle (2013) calls “the obligation to know” within geek culture, particularly when it comes to technical skill. Conversely, the Cheezfrenz operate, as it were, by a “logic of lols”. The Cheezfrend community is a source of great emotional support for its members (Calka, 2010) and is governed with an ethos of gentleness and caring. In the words of one participant, it is “a place to be safe and kind” for people who “want to be nice, want to be happy, want to give support, want to smile” .
Once LOLCats became associated with the Cheezfrenz, they were no longer an in–joke representative of computer and gaming culture; they were imbued with “a strong stench of sort of sentimentality” associated with “aging women in the Midwest” (FA, Male, 27). LOLCats no longer adhered to the “logic of lulz” because they were feminized; even worse, they became symbolic of an earnest, technologically inept audience: specifically, “mums at home thinking, ‘Oh, I can do one of those’ and then typing it down and not doing it right” (MR, 26, male). LOLCats from “the past” were enjoyable, but LOLCats in their current incarnation were no longer acceptable. As MemeGeek GL (31, male) lamented, “They’re definitely more along the lines of cute these days. And, sadly, I can’t appreciate cute.” The MemeGeeks who were involved with LOLCats from their early days on 4chan explained that they preferred other memes, particularly FAIL, because they recaptured the “aggressive ... original essence” of LOLCats (GL, 31, male).
Figure 5: LOLCats adhering to the “logic of lulz”.
Figure 6: LOLCats demonstrating the spirit of lols.
Jenkins, et al. (2009) point out that this evolution of meaning is bound to happen, particularly when it comes to “spreadable media” like LOLCats. As content passes through various communities, it is interpreted in new ways and takes on new connotations; these are usually specific to the needs and desires of that community, and quite often divorced from the original intent of the creator (Jenkins, et al., 2009). What is particularly fascinating about LOLCats is that the Cheezfrenz adopted a text that was birthed in an antagonistic environment and then used that text to build a community whose main purpose was to create a safe space from the values and behavior embodied by the text’s creators. This was not lost on the MemeGeeks; as LW (Female, 25) noted, “They’re not Anonymous , they’re the opposite of Anonymous.”
In undertaking this research project, I sought to understand the underlying mechanisms of a strange — and strangely popular — Internet phenomenon. What I ultimately discovered is how seemingly trivial pieces of media — pictures of cats with captions — can act as meaningful conduits for intricate social relations. Wacker (2002) states that media are how we define ourselves and our relationships ; the outcome of this research, for better or worse, certainly validates that claim.
The contestations present in the case of LOLCats are not unique to this particular form. Conflicts over control and legitimacy are taking place in communities all over the Internet, and at their cores are entrenched disparities of power and voice. The cultural history of the Internet has roots in communities where participants were assumed to be white and male; perhaps not surprisingly, the attendant social dynamics were not particularly welcoming to (or inclusive of) women and people of color (Kendall, 2002; Gere, 2002; Nakamura, 2002). The story of the “social web” is similar in many ways. When women and people of color start participating on platforms that are the province of white, technically literate early adopters, they are often met with hostility; racist reactions to “Black Twitter” and the outcry surrounding Oprah fans’ adoption of YouTube are just a few examples of this (Baym, 2010; Florini, 2012). In content–oriented communities, this type of blowback can be particularly intense when a beloved text or set of texts is seen to be corrupted by ‘outside’ — often feminizing — forces. LOLCats are not the only example of this: Leora Hadas (2013) has illustrated how, within the Doctor Who fandom, the mostly female fans who focused on the romantic relationships within the series were rejected for being “insufficiently fannish” , and that the issue of romance became “a litmus test for communal belonging among members” .
Participatory culture has been heralded for subverting traditional power relations and giving voice to the people through new and unique means (Rintel, 2013). In recent years, memes have been singled out as a powerful venue for political speech, particularly in totalitarian regimes where expressing oppositional sentiment carries harsh penalties (Mina, 2012; Milner, 2013a). However, memes also have the power to co–opt and silence (Steele, 2013). As Ryan Milner (2013b) points out, white masculinity is the constructed centrality in many participatory collectives, and as such, quite a few memes engage in problematic representations of women and people of color. This raises the key issue of what subjectivities are baked into these formats: how does that impact what we express and who chooses to participate in this way?
As the tension between the MemeGeeks and the Cheezfrenz demonstrates, perceived authenticity is of major importance, and influences not only who “gets” to create a meme, but what memes are considered to be “correct”. When it comes to participatory culture, it may be true that almost anyone is allowed to speak; however, not everyone gets heard, and this has a clear impact on the shaping of cultural agendas. If we accept that people create, share and spread memetic texts because the content is emotionally resonant for them on some level — that it connects to how they feel, or it allows them to express something — what voices get silenced because their affective sensibilities fall outside the boundaries set by dominant forces in our cultural collectives? If memes indeed create a global, shared, inter–subjective experience as Shifman (2010) argues, this case study — along with many others — should prompt us to ask, “Whose experience?”
About the author
Kate Miltner is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Her current research examines trivialized forms of online popular culture and practice. You can find her on Twitter @katemiltner and online at katemiltner.com.
E–mail: miltner [at] usc [dot] edu
The author would like to thank the members of the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England and the Media and Communications faculty at the London School of Economics and Political Science, particularly Dr. Alison Powell, for their mentorship and comments on this work.
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Received 15 May 2014; revised 26 July 2014; accepted 28 July 2014.
Copyright © 2014, First Monday.
Copyright © 2014, Kate M. Miltner.
“There’s no place for lulz on LOLCats”: The role of genre, gender, and group identity in the interpretation and enjoyment of an Internet meme
by Kate M. Miltner.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 8 - 4 August 2014