WHILE it’s not true that 15 percent of all Internet traffic is cat-related, as the Friskies cat food company asserted in 2013, it does make a convincing urban legend.
“For some reason, cats took off, and then it’s this avalanche that just sort of keeps piling up,” said Jason Eppink, the curator of “How Cats Took Over the Internet,” an exhibition that opens on Friday at the Museum of the Moving Image. “People on the web are more likely to post a cat than another animal, because it sort of perpetuates itself. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
The exhibition — which may well be the first mainstream museum installation entirely dedicated to cats online — is made up mostly of images, videos and GIFs of cats and is meant to be a cultural deconstruction of their enduring popularity. The show takes a high-minded look at anthropomorphism and what it calls the “aesthetics of cuteness” as well as a low-brow wallow through cheesy trends — like the LOLcats who demand cheezburger — and bad puns, like Caturday, a fad that had people posting cat pictures on Saturdays.
The cornerstone of the exhibition is a 20-year timeline that traces the history of cats on the Internet to 1995, when a news group — a bulletin-board-type online community that was an early form of social media — coalesced around the members’ love of cats. From this began Meowchat, where people swapped role-playing messages posing as their cats, talking in a sort of baby talk. (Predictably, some members of the news group grew revolted and left to form a splinter message board.)
The part of the timeline dealing with the present serves as a nostalgia gallery for anyone who has squandered the workday on popular share-mails: There is Cliché Kitty, a frolicking kitten in a field of dandelions that is blithely unaware it is being menaced from behind; Grumpy Cat (of course); and Nyan cat, a cartoon image of a cat named for the Japanese term for “meow.” There are homages to cat shaming, in which people photograph their cats next to confessional signs (“I puked on my owner’s chair”); cat breading, where cat owners place actual slices of bread around their hapless pet’s face and take a picture; and — in a particularly up-to-the-moment cultural reference — Trump Your Cat, which involves brushing your cat and forming the loose fur into a Donald Trump-style toupee on the cat’s head.
“Even as far back as 1991, 1995, there was a whole community of cat lovers who found each other online and was doing creative things,” said Mr. Eppink, 31, who does not own a cat and whose title at the museum is associate curator of digital media. “They were being performative and creative.”
The exhibition reaches back even further, showing what cat video historians believe was the very first example of the genre: a Kinetoscope shot by Thomas Edison in 1894, of two cats in a boxing ring sparring with gloves.
Carl Goodman, the museum’s executive director, said that the Museum of the Moving Image — in an arts district next to Kaufman Astoria Studios, a film production hub — tends to be known for whatever exhibition it is currently showing, which right now is one about the TV show “Mad Men.” Every year the museum hosts an independent video game festival called IndieCade; it is now installing a permanent gallery dedicated to Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets.
Mr. Goodman, who said that he “happened to own” a Labradoodle, said he was enthusiastic about the Internet cat exhibition from the start, but acknowledged that there would be doubters. “Some people are going to sneer at this — they tend to trivialize cats,” he said. “By putting this in a museum, we’re not saying that it’s art, we’re not saying that it’s not art — we’re saying it’s culturally significant.”
The museum is not the first to present cat videos in this context. Since 2012, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has hosted an annual Internet Cat Video Festival, a sort of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” for cat lovers, a traveling reel of videos that is screened around the country and updated each year. The Walker has lent a hand here, too: One area of the Astoria exhibition, which occupies a pleasant, open space on the second floor of the white-walled and starkly modern museum, is a screening room with bench seating where a half-hour reel of cat videos will be shown in a continuous loop. The reel was compiled by Will Braden, curator of the cat video festival for the Walker. Hard-core cat people will recognize him as the creator of Henri, le Chat Noir, a world-weary house cat who thinks existential thoughts in French.
In the reel compiled for this exhibition, “I tried to showcase the differences in videos that all fall under the banner of cat videos,” Mr. Braden, who is based in Seattle, said in a telephone interview. “There are music videos, there are very produced videos, and there are accidental camera phone videos that people just happened to be pointing at their cat. I think that’s part of what makes cat videos successful, is that they cover a lot of ground.”
Henri — who in reality is a relative’s tuxedo cat, Henry — appears in a Halloween-themed clip Mr. Braden made called “L’Haunting,” in which the cat sneers at the holiday-related paraphernalia around him and observes in French (with English subtitles): “None of these costumes are truly scary. No one ever dresses as crippling self-doubt.”
In related events, the Museum of the Moving Image will hold a “Cat-vant Garde Film Show” on Oct. 10, showing avant-garde movies like “Nightcats” by Stan Brakhage and “How to Draw a Cat” by Pola Chapelle. People can adopt cats at the museum that day and on a second date to be announced.
Mr. Eppink, the curator, who once told an interviewer that he was fascinated with the history of the word “O.K.,” conducted extensive research on the intersection of cats and the Internet (well beyond Google). From the New Zealand researcher Radha O’Meara, he learned why cat videos are perceived as more appealing than dog videos: Because dogs are pack animals that look artlessly into the camera, whereas cats are hunters that don’t care if they are being filmed. “Cats are more mercurial and liminal,” Mr. Eppink said.
He also crunched numbers with editors from Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr, BuzzFeed and Instagram to suss out what percentage of their traffic was cat-related. Surprise: Other than on Tumblr — where cats are more popular than dogs — cats and dogs tend to be tagged, posted and electronically doted on in equal amounts, seldom exceeding .3 percent of a site’s traffic.
“I take a delight in finding depth in seemingly frivolous subjects,” Mr. Eppink said.
An article on Friday about the exhibition “How Cats Took Over the Internet,” at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, misstated the percentage of traffic about cats and dogs on some websites consulted by the curator, Jason Eppink. It seldom exceeds .3 percent, not 3 percent.