The Philology of LOLCats

Anil Dash explains how LOL Cats teach us about the evolution of language, and confesses about his Internet prankster past.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What is the point of LOL cats?

Anil Dash: The LOL cats are really interesting for a lot of reasons. I love language, and I love the image that people have of the internet being the place where you go to see cat pictures, and from a bunch of different web communities such as 4Chan and some of the other kind of underground web communities, people were captioning cats with a text about what they thought the cat would be saying. That is kind of a funny little shtick: you have a cat and cats are great fodder for the web because, I have a cat, and they are kind of evil in the inside, but they are also kind of helpless. That combination of “really diabolical” but “not able to do anything about it is” really great fodder.

Then, all of the captions followed a pattern of how people were doing the grammar of the speech of these presumable cats talking. I made an observation this is really consistent: this is how language forms. I’m very fortunate, I have a good number of friends that are linguists or help create dictionaries, and they know a lot about etymology and how language develops. I said, “You know, is this something like a pidgin language?” and they were like, “No, this is more of a Creole.” A Creole is what one group of one language uses to adapt their language to another group that would understand them.

This is the language that cats are speaking in hoping that humans will understand them, and so that idea: taking this cat pictures, LOL cats, seriously, I think really strikes a lot of people’s fancy. It might be the most popular thing I’ve ever written. I’m blogging 10 years and I wrote about LOL cats and I can go anywhere in the country, almost anywhere in the world, and if I’m in a group of people who know me professionally, in the first few minutes somebody will bring up LOL cats. If you got to be known for cat pictures on the web—at least it’s the smart take on cat pictures on the web. You know, I love it. I love the web’s culture. I love how inventive people are in coming up with new stuff; they are having fun with it and keep remixing it and I hope that never ends.

Question: Are you trying to bury your prankster history?

Anil Dash: No. So I’ve had some fun over the years online. Usually taking a little obscure element of web culture, a geek culture and taking it to the outsiders that are having some fun with it. I’m not at all embarrassed about it. I like to have fun. I think you have to have a sense of humor, or you can’t take yourself too seriously.

I fear though, one of the things I did at work. There’s an offensive website on the web called goatse. It’s a picture you literally don’t want to look directly, but somebody made a non-offensive t-shirt about it, it was kind of a joke, and one of the classic things we used to do on the web five or ten years ago was we would send somebody a link to this image, and they would click on it before they realize it, and then they would yell at you for doing it.

It was just a harmless prank, a lot like what Rick Rolling became later, although Rick Astley is nowhere near as offensive. So I had a shirt that had this logo for it on it, and when the New York Times wanted to do a story about presenting your reputation online, I wore the shirt for their photo of me for the story. It was one of those things where I knew everybody in the web would get it, and I knew the Times probably wouldn’t.

Maybe, these days, they would—but back then they didn’t, so it was a lot of fun. What I fear is, people look at Wikipedia and the first couple of Google results to decide who you are, and I think some day 50 years from now I’ll die, and so, “What would we put in on guy’s tombstone?” “Well, he wore an offensive t-shirt, he wrote about LOL cats.” There are more substantive to things I’ve done in my career but they tend to be overshadowed by the really fun ones. I think there are worse things to be thought of than as somebody who likes a good joke.

Recorded on: July 17 2009