Last night, while the world slept or watched Bachelor in Paradise, a tweet storm was happening. The impetus? Journalist Adrian Chen, currently a contributing editor at The New Inquiry and formerly a night shift editor and then staff writer at Gawker, learned that "cat breading," a 2012 meme which celebrated the placing of a slice of bread on a cat's face, was included in an exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image called "How Cats Took Over the Internet."
Chen took to Twitter to explain how he was responsible for artificially engineering the "trend" while employed at Gawker. Of course, Chen isn’t the first journalist to invent a trend. Bill Wasik, the inventor of the flash mob, wrote about his experiences in Harper’s in 2006. As soon as he named the thing, it moved beyond his control, plaguing mall food courts, high school graduations, and romantic comedies for years. Salon's Nathan Rabin was eventually compelled to publicly apologize for the terror and think-pieces he wrought by coining the term "manic pixie dream girl."
These stories are interesting anecdotal evidence of the suggestibility of humans and the inexplicable chemistry that gives a meme its legs. But what Chen's experience really does is paint a darkly funny picture of the internet — where talented journalists tote shoddy wares to drive site traffic and drown in self-hatred disguised as good-humored self-deprecation. Does investing in learning how to write intelligently become a waste of time, money, and — ultimately — one's life when it turns out that the only thing the internet will pay for is garbage?
This is how Cat Breading came to be: In 2012 AJ Daulerio (@ratter) became Gawker EIC. The first thing he did was institute a "Traffic Week"— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) August 18, 2015
Each staffer had one day to get as much 'web traffic' as possible by any means necessary. The winner got 2 (?) days off of work— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) August 18, 2015
It was my Traffic Day. @max_read had just gone. He did great bc he is a huge nerd. I needed something huge. i needed to set the web on fire.— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) August 18, 2015
BuzzFeed had done a series of posts where they made up memes and called them the new planking. Remember horsemanning? http://t.co/BZXirj802Z— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) August 18, 2015
Someone at Buzzfeed actually bought ads on FB for that post and targeted all of my coworkers at Gawker. People kept gchatting me about it.— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) August 18, 2015
I think that was technically cyberbullying? Anyway, Despite Buzzfeed's fake memes being very stupid, they got tons of traffic.— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) August 18, 2015
Within a few hours it was picked up by an Australian paper as a hot new internet trend. It was time to kill breading: http://t.co/qnW4e53Nxe— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) August 18, 2015
To this day, breading has been featured on t-shirts, iPhone cases, and art institutions. http://t.co/zunq3XIQW8— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) August 18, 2015
Breading will almost certainly the biggest impact that I will ever have on the culture. This used to haunt me. But I've come to terms w/ it.— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) August 18, 2015
We're all going to die. I believe that after death comes The Void. At least I will leave one pitiful smear on the bathroom stall of history.— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) August 18, 2015
What I'm really pissed about is that @max_read *still* won traffic week. THE END.— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) August 18, 2015
Chen appears to be telling the truth about his role in turning cat breading from a non-thing into a Thing, as Google Trends shows that virtually no one searched for the phrase until immediately after his post was published. The phrases "cat in bread," and "cat bread," have slightly more independent search histories, which goes to show that people are weird and gross (this is social science research at its most scientific).
You'll also notice that only Americans, Canadians, and a handful of Brits gave a shit about seeing a cat's face forced through a piece of bread. Science.
Here's a depiction of which states cared the most about cat breading. I have no idea what science is saying here. Probably nothing.
When researching this article I remembered that the cat bread's reaches had extended all the way into my hometown in upstate New York — my teenage sister definitely texted me several photos of our several cats being breaded while I was away at school. Obviously I had to have these photos.
An hour later I received an email from her:
(She attached three extremely funny photographs of herself and my youngest sister, which will not appear on the internet because my youngest sister is 12. Just know that I got a laugh out of it and that's all that matters.) Science: cat breading was really hard for some people and apparently not satisfying in some cases, and often messy, and we can do better.
If you are a journalist, or an otherwise valuable person with talents and a good personality, maybe you'd like to forget that for a second and invent a new meme? If so, we've got you covered: