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Why we love cute animals online

Websites with cuddly animal pictures, such as Cute Overload, are increasingly popular.
Websites with cuddly animal pictures, such as Cute Overload, are increasingly popular.
  • Sites with cute animals, such as I Can Has Cheeseburger, are hugely popular
  • However, our obsession with cute animal media is hardly anything new
  • Cute-animal sites offer a sunny, soothing respite from the rest of the internet
  • Internet
  • Cats
  • YouTube Inc.

Editor's note: Damon Brown is a northern California-based freelance writer and author of books including "Damon Brown's Simple Guide to the iPad" and "Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture."

(CNN) -- Had your fix of LOLCats today? If you did, you're one of 16 million unique visitors hitting I Can Has Cheezburger, which features cat photos with cutesy baby-talk captions, and its affiliated sites every month.

The New York Times recently profiled web entrepreneur Ben Huh, whose $10,000 purchase of the little cute-picture website has evolved into a multimillion dollar empire of 53 sites and several best-selling books.

However, the obsession with cute animal media is hardly anything new. Back in the '70s, we had the quickly clichéd "Hang In There!" posters with an animal, usually an adorable tabby or a gray kitty, clinging to a tree branch for dear life.

In 1982, David Letterman began his "Stupid Pet Tricks" segment, which featured amateur animals doing, well, stupid tricks. The popular series later shifted to "Stupid Human Tricks," which weren't as interesting as, say, a dog tossing out its owner's beer can while he lounged in a La-Z-Boy.

The late '80s brought about "America's Funniest Home Videos." The two-decade old ABC show -- yes, it's still on -- has a high ratio of ridiculous animal antics.

Cute overload really started to take hold with YouTube. Unlike "AFHV," posters or other limited media, YouTube allowed us to overdose at the click of a mouse on bears who practice martial arts (100,000 views), keyboard-playing cats (8 million views) or dramatic chipmunks (21 million views).

When I interviewed I Can Has Cheezburger co-founder Erik Nakagawa for my upcoming book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Memes," he summed up the enduring appeal of these images pretty simply: "Who doesn't like puppies and kittens?"

Beyond love for the "kittehz," our obsession with cute animals is a welcome respite from chaotic modern life. Back in the day, cat posters and Stupid Pet Tricks took our minds off Vietnam, the arms race and gas shortages. Today, sites such as Cute Overload or I Can Has Cheezburger offer a sunny break from terrorism, Afghanistan and the Gulf oil spill.

Times and tastes change, but a cat curled up on the sofa will always be ridiculously cute.

But there's an equally important secondary function, too: Animal sites give us refuge from the internet. As ironic and "meta" as it sounds, web pictures and videos of sneezing pandas and peek-a-boo kittens feel virtually soothing compared with a constant stream of Twitter updates, news headlines and over-caffeinated Flash ads vying for our attention.

Every generation needs adorable animals to make the day go by a little easier. It's a panacea for our heavy minds, as well as for the overstimulating internet itself.


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