Take a picture of a cat doing something cute. Then make up a caption--something witty that the cat would be saying if cats could talk. Bear in mind that cats can't spell all that well and that they're not so hot on subject-verb agreement either. Photoshop the caption onto the image, and post your creation on a blog. What you get is lolcats: lol for laugh out loud, cats for cats.
What you also get is the reigning instance of an Internet meme, a running gag that won't stop running but instead reproduces and mutates in the petri dish of the Net's collective imagination. A Google search for lolcats returns 3.3 million results. The website icanhascheezburger.com the definitive lolcats archive, gets 200 to 500 submissions a day. "The breadth of cultures [lolcats] has spread to is mind-boggling," says one of the site's two curators, who prefer to remain anonymous. "We think it has evolved beyond Internet subculture and is hitting the mainstream."
It's easier to show lolcats than to explain it. The oldest known example--which probably dates to 2006--is an image of a chubby gray kitty looking at the camera and asking plaintively, I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER? Later came a shot of a kitten in a state of feline outrage, standing over a plate of what look like clementines and meowing DO NOT WANT. A ginger cat caught in midleap, hind legs pedaling furiously, appears over the words INVISIBLE BIKE. A fierce-looking tabby crouches in a well-stocked refrigerator: IM IN UR FRIDGE EATIN UR FOODZ. You get the idea. These home-made cartoons seem to lift the veil on a truth that we all quietly suspected anyway: cats are small, childish, sentient beings, mischievous and innocent at the same time.
Lolcats has a mindless, goofy quality that's deceptively simple. Every one of the examples cited above is part of a dense web of reference and self-reference that only people who spend way too much time online can fully appreciate. The IM IN UR FRIDGE lolcat, for example, is a nod to a screen shot from a video game, much circulated on the Web for its brainless quirkiness, in which one player says to another, I'M IN UR BASE, KILLING UR DOODS. Part of the lolcats' appeal lies in the way it domesticates the wild linguistic frontier of the Internet, rife with chat abbreviations, hacker acronyms, typos and trans-hemispherical East-West garblings.
Fans can watch the layers pile up in real time. I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER? has already begotten a gray cat licking its chops and saying I DID HAS CHEEZBURGER--and has jumped species to include a white bunny, its mouth open wide, saying INVISIBLE CHEEZBURGER. Further interspecies hybridization has produced loldogs, lolbirds, lolhamsters, lolmice and--a little masterpiece of verbal economy--the tusked, amphibious lolrus. (The I HAS A BUCKET lolrus, starring a tragic walrus deprived of its only possession, is threatening to spin off into a freestanding meme in its own right.) Humans are also fair game: there are lolgeeks, lolgays and lolbrarians. A popular image of Nancy Pelosi being sworn in as Speaker of the House has been given the caption I'M IN UR HOUSE IMPEACHING UR DOODZ.
The striking thing about lolcats--besides its amazing fecundity and variety and the fact that, unlike a lot of Internet cat humor, it's actually pretty funny--is how little else like it there is online right now. The great, weird Internet meme, which once thundered across the Net in vast herds, is becoming surprisingly scarce, which may be why lolcats has a distinctly old-school, early 1990s, Usenet feel to it. It's not based on a Saturday Night Live sketch, and nobody's using it to get famous or sell anything. Yet.
We may be witnessing a revolution in user-generated content, but the more mainstream the Web gets, the more it looks like the mainstream: homogenous, opportunistic and commercial. It's no longer a subculture; it's just the culture. And don't we have enough of that already? Are we facing a future without a weird, vital, creative phenomenon like lolcats? Say it with me: "Do not want!"