This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we’ve written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.
If animals could read our dumb memes, they'd probably wonder why we have such a high opinion of their cuteness and a low one of their intelligence. I am no exception to the habit of denigrating creatures of lesser stature; so far, I've used The Verge's animal review series to write several hit pieces on easy targets like giant water bugs and centipedes. But even charismatic megafauna aren't safe from casual (if accidental) insults — and yes, that includes cats, dogs, and... snakes.
This week, I joyfully stumbled upon the snek meme thanks to a comprehensive survey by The Daily Dot. Snek is sort of a derivative of doge and other animal image macros: pictures of animals overlaid with captions of the subject's inner monologue. Doge, the now ten-year-old Shiba Inu from Japan, is gentle and calm in real life, but on the internet she's often a befuddled goof — or something else absurd and entirely unrelated to dogness. Doge is so fun and good natured that it won the approval of even the sharpest internet critics. It was a Trojan horse to the human heart. "I do not understand why doge has captivated me while other memes premised on animals and misspelled words... make me want to quit the internet forever," Adrian Chen wrote in 2013. "It is a testament to the pure gut-level power of doge that I don't even care."
But discovering snek reminded me that a lot of our animal memes perform a common function: they portray animals like harmless infants.
Snek is dumb and delightful like doge because it's just as absurd, and somehow even a little unique. Snek loves privacy and acting tough. Despite being the original harbinger of evil, snek is too polite to say "hell," and instead loves saying "heck off" when it's bothered. As The Daily Dot points out, "snek turns snakes into ferocious little guys pathetically trying to assert themselves. Sneks aren't scary." That might be unfortunate news for snakes, who appear to fundamentally crave scariness when being bothered by idiot human beings who want to trap, poke, and otherwise mess with them. But it also might be possible that turning snakes into sneks might make us feel more positive about snakes.
Before snek and doge, there were lolcats, and several other animal memes that have risen and fallen over the years. (Many, like lolcats, originated in 4chan — do what you will with that information.) They all have their own unique features: doge has Comic Sans, fluorescent text, and a specific phraseology; snek has a bunch of common keywords; and lolcats have a distinctive type of broken English. But they are united by the way they effectively infantilize other species for human enjoyment. Most memes are crappy imitations of a genuine format, but even the good, authentic ones all basically harness animal cuteness to emphasize the characteristics we find most sympathetic.
Animal memes, then, might just be an extension of the enterprise of domestication. Scientists have hypothesized that youthful features in animals could underpin our attraction to and fondness of them — so when we disarm snakes and turn them into sneks, we're effectively bonding with them!
When we turn snakes into sneks, we're bonding with them
My own hypothesis is that cutesy, infantilizing animal memes are basically a parallel activity to baby talking to our pets IRL — a widespread habit that even I perform, until I realize I'm doing it. There may be several explanations for why the internet is so saturated with cute animals, and at least one of those answers is totally obvious: duh, because they're friggin' cute! But there's also an evolutionary answer: cute animals make us feel good.
In his review of the dog, my colleague James Temple mentioned a salient "alternative Darwinian interpretation" of our connection to pets that posits the infant-like characteristics of pets cause human beings to treat them like their own babies. Other research seems to at least validate the idea that those infant bonds can, and often do, extend to our pets. A 2014 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that a preference for "baby schema" in animal faces could be detected by children as young as three years old; baby-like animal faces held their attention longer and prompted affectionate responses.
As far as I can tell there's no study comparing human responses to animal meme content, but if that's not a great use of research money, I don't know what is. Get on it, science. In the meantime, I'll be exploiting my cute cats for favs on the internet.