Why do cats rule the Internet? Because they're cute, they're sassy and they behave so differently from humans -- or, as io9 editor-in-chief Annalee Newitz puts it, because cats act like they're from another planet, and the people most involved with web culture, self-styled "geeks" -- are drawn to that.
"I've been living with cats for my entire adult life and I can tell you with serene confidence that unlike dogs, cats are aliens," Newitz writes in a recent essay. "Dogs live in packs, like humans, and seem to natively understand the idea of dominance and submission that is so pervasive in Homo sapiens culture. Cats don't [care] about who is in charge, though. They don't navigate their worlds by looking to a leader."
Newitz learned this by watching the puzzling interactions between her own cats, Time and Space, who appeared to hate each other for no reason. Space would mind her own business while Time tried to play, and Newitz recounts that she would find the two attacking one another, seemingly without reason. Loathe to the idea of getting rid of one or both of her cats, Newitz went to great lengths to try to understand their behavior:
The reason for all [their aggression], the vet explained, is that the dominance/submission binary of human and dog culture doesn't exist for cats. Instead, they have attention/ignore. So Space was interpreting Time's attention as an attack. And then she would attack him, and we would proceed to the ninja moves. The thing was, to our eyes it looked like Space was starting all the fights. She would get all reactive and smack Time's head for no reason, and then he would (understandably) get up in her face.
But this wasn't a fight for who got to be Top Cat. It was a fight to ward off attention. To achieve peace, we had to get them to ignore each other. So that meant the cat who was paying attention was really the aggressor. Lazy, friendly Time was actually the one causing all the trouble! Despite all our human-centric misgivings, we had to start squirting Time with water any time he paid attention to Space being a complete jerk. And you know what? It totally worked. As long as Time ran into another room to lick his fur, Space would instantly chill out.
As soon as Newitz understood that cats' social behavior is fundamentally different from humans, life with her own pets started to improve -- and she started to see certain parallels to how some human relationships work.
There's probably a behavior lesson in this for everyone on the internet, but more than that there's a fascinating window onto an alien perspective. Unlike humans, cats are not deeply social animals. Yes, many types of cats form small family groups in the wild, and occasionally wild house cats will band into gangs. But they don't view their social groups as having classes, or bosses. Plus, they are ambivalent about the very presence of a social group. Sometimes just getting a direct stare from another animal will send the cat into aggression mode. I still don't quite understand the dynamics involved, but I know what works. And I love speculating about what that non-human social sensibility is like.
Her new understanding hasn't led her to think she can read her cats' minds, Newitz writes, but it has helped her grasp just why she -- and others -- might be so drawn to the mysterious animals. "Geeks love their cats because we adore aliens," she says. "But we also love them because they remind us of the aliens in ourselves, as we lower our eyes and awkwardly try to fit into the conversation one more time."