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With cutesy images of kittens and captions breaking every grammatical rule in the book, you’d be forgiven for not giving much thought to LOLcats.

Often, they’ll pop into your inbox from well-meaning friends, or they’ll appear on your Facebook feed. You read them, smile, then dismiss them, and get back to work. However, the popular memes have become a cultural phenomenon – much to the chagrin of critics who claim these types of internet crazes are producing a dumbed-down generation of kids with a low attention span, that can’t spell. 

Instead, Kate Miltner, who has recently been awarded the best Master’s degree ever from the London School of Economics, is arguing memes such as LOLcats (‘laugh-out-loud cat’) are a way of “making meaningful connections with others”. And, if anyone should know, it’s Miltner, 29, who wrote her dissertation on how LOLcats make us smarter.

In her paper, Miltner, from the US, writes: “LOLcats have spawned two best-selling books, a Bible translation, an art show, and an off-Broadway musical. 

“LOLcats have also inspired the development of a massive international community; in July 2011, thousands of Cheezburger [a website dedicated to LOLcats and other LOL animals] fans converged upon Safeco Field in Seattle for Cheezburger Field Day.”

However, the concept of a LOLcat is not that new. As early as 1870, photographer Harry Pointer created a series of small images featuring cats in various situations, running with amusing text. And the word “meme” was first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene as “an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”.

But it’s doubtful either of these men could have foreseen that their findings would evolve into what we have today. LOLcats were given their name in 2006. Until then, the images were just “silly photos of cats with comic captions” on “daft websites”, as author Clay Shirky called them in his book Cognitive Surplus.

Today, there are hundreds of websites dedicated to serving the needs of LOLcat lovers – from Cats That Look Like Hitler and I Can Haz Cheezburger? to Caturday At X Boards Gallery and The Definitive Lolcats Glossary.

A quick glimpse at Cheezburger, which commands three million unique hits a month, uncovers two images. “stop! yer steak’z kontameenated. dun worri i eatz fer u,” are the words underneath a photo of a cat with his paw on his owner’s dinnerplate. “THAT WAS THE LAST TIME THEY FORGOT TO CLEAN OUT MY LITTER BOX,” reads another, as
a “kitteh” walks away from a nuclear mushroom cloud. 

Sure, they’re amusing for a moment, but what’s the long-term appeal? What makes internet users want to engage and share these seemingly easily dismissed images?

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