Cover of A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet by E.J. White
A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet
E.J. White


168 pages.

Paperback ISBN: 9781503604636
Ebook ISBN: 9781503614031

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Excerpts and More

How cats became the undisputed mascot of the internet.

The advertising slogan of the social news site Reddit is "Come for the cats. Stay for the empathy." Journalists and their readers seem to need no explanation for the line, "The internet is made of cats." Everyone understands the joke, but few know how it started. A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet is the first book to explore the history of how the cat became the internet's best friend.

Internet cats can differ in dramatic ways, from the goth cats of Twitter to the glamourpusses of Instagram to the giddy, nonsensical silliness of Nyan Cat. But they all share common traits and values. Bringing together fun anecdotes, thoughtful analyses, and hidden histories of the communities that built the internet, Elyse White shows how japonisme, punk culture, cute culture, and the battle among different communities for the soul of the internet informed the sensibility of online felines. Internet cats offer a playful—and useful—way to understand how culture shapes and is shaped by technology.

Western culture has used cats for centuries as symbols of darkness, pathos, and alienation, and the communities that helped build the internet explicitly constructed themselves as outsiders, with snark and alienation at the core of their identity. Thus cats became the sine qua non of cultural literacy for the Extremely Online, not to mention an everyday medium of expression for the rest of us. Whatever direction the internet takes next, the "series of tubes" is likely to remain cat-shaped.

About the author

Elyse White is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at Stony Brook University, and the author of The Republic of Games (2018) and You Talkin' to Me? The Unruly History of New York English (2020). A self-professed dog person, she's now the human associate of Aaron Purr and multiple foster kittens.

"I read the book

I must applaud

Some parts I ate

Some parts I clawed"

—Curious Zelda, author of The Adventures of a Curious Cat

"Engaging and entertaining, A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet traces the emergence of the internet's mascot from punk culture and japonisme, misogyny and trolling. Elyse White provides a definitive overview of one of online culture's least understood phenomena, and a fascinating ride through internet history."

—Ethan Zuckerman, MIT Center for Civic Media, author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection

"Ever-present and infinitely adaptable, cats are among the internet's most enduring memes. Elyse White gives the internet cat compendium its due, outlining the historical, social, and cultural significance of the felines that have long dominated our feeds. A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet is an essential look at life online."

—Ryan Milner, author of The World Made Meme