Reflection on Ethan Zuckerman “The Cute Cat Theory” by Willi Ibbeken

Ethan Zuckerman says that Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats. In this context, the term cute cats, stands for low-value content with popular online activity. He claims, that most of the people are not interested in activism. What they want is enjoyment such as cute pictures, pornography or funny stuff. Tools such as Facebook, Twitter or Flickr are platforms, which support this enjoyment. Therefore they are perfect tools for activists to spread their messages. The government would not shut down these popular enjoyment pages because it would provoke a larger public outcry than shutting down an activism website, which only affects a minority. This phenomenon is very similar to “the conservative dilemma“, a term described by Clay Shirky in the text “Political Power of Social Media”:

“The state will censor critics or produce propaganda as it needs to, but both of those actions have higher costs than simply not having any critics to silence or reply to in the first place. But if a government were to shut down Internet access or ban cell phones, it would risk radicalizing otherwise pro-regime citizens or harming the economy.”

It is like the myth of the Trojan horse, the huge, hollow wooden horse constructed by the Greeks to gain entrance into Troy during the Trojan War. In this case it would be a cute cat, smuggling no soldiers but activists inside Web 2.0.

I think this idea makes sense. Indeed, the majority of the Internet users are Slacktivists, a term which describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it take satisfaction from the feeling they have contributed. For instance, joining Facebook groups or signing Internet petitions. But there is a chance, that these Slacktivists or cat lovers can turn into real activists. But how can that be achieved? The activists should increase their activity in Web 2.0 in order to make, for instance, repressive regimes interfere to an extent where their only option is to block popular platforms and activism messages amongst popular cat content. People will complain and get involved. They want their cats. An even more. They will deal or even be forced to deal with the issue and maybe become activists. Zuckerman writes :

” Blocking banal content on the internet is a self-defeating proposition. It teaches people how to become dissidents – they learn to find and use anonymous proxies, which happens to be a key first step in learning how to blog anonymously. Every time you force a government to block a web 2.0 site – cutting off people’s access to cute cats – you spend political capital. Our job as online advocates is to raise that cost of censorship as high as possible.”

At this point it is important that this new born activism bears fruit in real life measures. It should only be the beginning. So my advice would be, keep on blogging.


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