Internet Cat Video Film Festival purrs into Minnesota

Cat-meme lovers unite for a meowing—or wowing—first-ever event

Hill nods. "Putting this all out there is like a performance piece — a group performance piece," she says. "The social interaction is just as interesting as the cat videos themselves."

"We've done this at a critical moment," Stulen continues. "The cat video is so ubiquitous that it's become a joke. But it's not a joke, because people have very strong opinions about it and take it very seriously."

Winston sits calmly on the bed. A red dot from a laser pointer undulates over the bedspread, pulsating with increasing insistence. Winston gazes around the room nonchalantly, looking everywhere but at the dot. Yellow text scrolls over the screen. "Wikipedia lists a paragraph's worth of Exotic Shorthair characteristics. Almost none apply to Winston."

Mike Bridavsky with his famous feline Lil Bub
courtesy of Mike Bridavsky
Mike Bridavsky with his famous feline Lil Bub
Lil Bub!
courtesy of Mike Bridavsky
Lil Bub!

Winston isn't normal. That's the thesis of Rich Juzwiak, a longtime blogger in New York who now works for Gawker. Winston would meow without making a sound, he loved to eat bananas (so much that his stage name became Winston Bananas), and he was totally nonplussed by things most other cats were crazy about (laser pointers, for example). Juzwiak was sure that other people would be just as perplexed and entranced by Winston as he was.

"It was like, 'I live with this alien and look at what he does,'" Juzwiak says. "I find the way Winston looks at the world fascinating."

In addition to being weird, Winston was great on camera, although he wasn't particularly cuddly with Juzwiak off-camera. Juzwiak was closer to the couple's other cat, Rudy, while Winston favored Juzwiak's then-boyfriend.

"It was almost like Winston knew he had this task to carry out," Juzwiak says. "We had a great working relationship."

Juzwiak started a blog in 2005, writing about anything that caught his attention — mostly pop culture, but also Winston and his weirdness. In 2006, Juzwiak began posting Winston Bananas videos to his blog. His readers went, well, bananas.

Now on YouTube, Winston Bananas videos have, collectively, received millions of views and remain popular even today. At the time, however, Winston wasn't a total star like some of today's YouTube cats.

"I would say cat videos were a thing back then, but definitely not the thing that they would become," Juzwiak says.

What was more of a thing was LOLcats, images that combined a photo of a feline with a grammatically incorrect caption. For example, a photo of a cat playing with a sock is accompanied by a caption that reads, "Lookit dat! I has a sok!" (This type of kitty grammar became known as "LOLspeak.")

According to Wikipedia, the first recorded use of the term "LOLcat" appeared on 4chan, the anonymous internet image forum. By June 2006, "LOLcats" was popular enough that is was registered as a domain name.

Though humans have been anthropomorphizing cats for centuries, people on the internet did it in a new, quirkily funny, and oddly cohesive way. Still, most of the people who knew about LOLcats were tech geeks — internet cat culture wasn't discussed on talk shows or around the dinner table.

In January 2007, Eric Nakagawa, a software developer in Honolulu, had a bad day. He was feeling so dejected that he immediately contacted his friend Kari Unebasami, a web editor who had an extensive collection of LOLcats saved on her computer.

"Can you send me one of those funny pictures?" he begged. "I need a pick-me-up."

Unebasami sent him a picture of a fat, gray British shorthair looking pensive, his head tilted and mouth slightly open. "I Can Has Cheezburger?" read the caption.

It was so random and ridiculous and weird that Nakagawa had no choice but to laugh. His day immediately got better after this little "cute hit."

Back then, it was hard to find LOLcats if you didn't know where to look. "They already existed, but they weren't really organized," explains Nakagawa.

He and Unebasami bought the domain name I Can Has Cheezburger, and began curating (his word) their favorites. Very soon after it launched, I Can Has Cheezburger attracted the attention of the popular group blog Boing Boing. Then the mass media started paying attention. Almost instantly, the site went wildly viral, attracting 500,000 views daily.

The two friends soon quit their jobs in order to maintain the site. They slept very little, working what Nakagawa describes as "23-hour days."

That lasted for nine months. At the end of 2007, the two friends sold the site for a whopping $2 million to Ben and Emily Huh, who now run the Cheezburger network, which receives 400 million views a month across its 50 humor sites.

According to Nakagawa, the LOLcat pictures were a precursor to the cat video phenomenon.

"YouTube has grown dramatically since then," he says. "The same kind of quirky, weird, eccentric humor of the LOLcats lives on in the YouTube videos."

"I am Maru. The strangest cat on the planet!" the headline above the video announces. Ukulele music plays as a chubby Scottish Fold gets his head stuck in a variety of receptacles — a paper bag, a tube of bubble wrap, a plastic cup — while walking dispassionately around a sprawling apartment decorated sparsely with modern white furniture.

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