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The Cuteness Surge

Writing in the Phoenix, Sharon Steel describes how, in a time of global upheaval, many Americans are turning to Hello Kitty, Lolcats, and Juno, among other elements of what she dubs the cuteness surge

“We’ve had manifestations of this cute business, through good times and bad, militaristically,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop-culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. “We’re living in dangerous times. There’s a fear of terrorism and a war we have no idea how to manage. That’s going to bleed over into lots of different things.” These “cycles of cute,” as Thompson calls them, might transcend the news, though they tend to hint at the gloominess that’s ever-present, regardless of what’s on Page One. 

If there is anything cuter than a photo of a snuggly kitten, it is a photo of a snuggly kitten festooned with intentionally misspelled cutesy text. After sparking an Interweb sensation in early 2007, icanhascheezburger.com has continued to prove its lasting value in Internet meme paydirt. The site began with the posting of a photo, a single pudgy, glassy-eyed, smirking gray feline with the words “I Can Has Cheezburger?” written above the kitty. It may have been accidental, it may have been part of a grand scheme, but either way it was the loudest salvo yet in the recent cuteness surge.

It also birthed the term “lolcat,” a coinage referring specifically to the combination of kitty photos and the intentionally misspelled baby-talk captions that accompanied them. It hasn’t hit Webster’s yet, but urbandictionary.com has five different entries for “lolcat.” (And 37 entries for “lolz.”) No matter which one you trust most, the “lol” root, clearly, comes from Internet abbreviation-speak for “LOL,” meaning “Laugh Out Loud.” OMG!!! Teh kitteh fren-zee iz makin us lolz!

As professor Thompson indicates, there's nothing new about elements of mass distraction. The late Neil Postman described this, pre-Internet era, in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Now, even sober news organizations like the Associated Press are prioritizing Britney.

And while I enjoy a good goof as much as the next person, when it comes to time-wasting, feline-related stuff on the Internet, give me some micro-kitties, set up on a pool table, playing the Vines.

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