A Brief History of Cats on YouTube

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Nyan Cat

According to the New York Times, scientists at Google’s X lab have been hard at work creating a “neural network” of 16,000 computer processors. Once switched on, this virtual brain did what any reasonable human would do: it looked for cats on YouTube.

Well, more specifically it sorted through 10 million YouTube stills in an attempt to identify pictures of cats, an amazing feat considering the machine had to invent “the concept of a cat” before it could recognize one.

It’s a sign that when humans finally invent the super-intelligent robots of the future, they too will be obsessed with funny cat videos. Our love affair with cats on film dates back more than a century; in 1903, George Albert Smith made a silent short titled “The Sick Kitten,” notable for its then-groundbreaking close-up shot of a kitten eagerly taking medicine from two small kids.

Flash forward to today, and YouTube serves as veritable treasure trove of adorable cat dilemmas — from one kitten’s quest to fit inside of an ever shrinking array of cardboard boxes to another cat’s full-blown existential crisis.

“Cats are like the Internet’s mascots,” says Christopher Torres, the 26-year-old creator of Nyan Cat. In April of 2011, a pixelated animation for his comics website PRguitarman was set to an obscure Japanese song and posted on YouTube.

The result? More than 78 million views, a line of Nyan Cat merchandise and countless video tributes, including a hilarious real-life Nyan Cat video featuring one Mister Snacks Fluffington. (Torres’ favorite cat video, aside from his own, is the classic “Keyboard Cat“.)

The video that started it at all is the accurately named “Puppy vs. Cat,” embedded above for your viewing pleasure. Uploaded in May of 2006, it shows a besieged cat crying as seven puppies warily investigate it.

According to YouTube Trends Manager Kevin Allocca, the most popular cat video of all time (non-musical, live-action category) is “Surprised Kitty,” a 17-second clip that’s so cute I initially thought it was CGI or a Muppet or something. But no, it’s real! It was uploaded in October of 2009 and has since garnered more than 63 million views.

Maru, the box-obsessed cat from Japan, is the most popular cat on YouTube; his channel has resulted in more than 165 million views. Allocca points out that many of YouTube’s most popular pet videos come from Russia, including this clip of a feline walking on two legs like a character from Scooby Doo. With more than 15 million views, it was the second most popular live cat video of last year.

Why cats? It’s hard to tell. Mishka, the dog famous for saying “I love you,” is the most popular pet on YouTube, and occasionally other types of animals — like Hamlet, the tiny pig who braved a set of stairs for oatmeal — go viral. Still, there’s something about watching a normally proud animal thrust into a humiliating situation that’s especially funny, like watching a man in a top hat slip on a banana peel. Or maybe we’re over-thinking it.

“Cat videos are just cute,” says Torres. Indeed.

MORE: Me at the Zoo: First Video Uploaded to YouTube Seven Years Ago Today

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