Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism


The cute cat theory of digital activism is a theory concerning Internet activism, Web censorship, and ‘cute cats’ (a term used for any low-value, but popular online activity) developed in 2008 by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. It posits that most people are not interested in activism; instead, they want to use the web for mundane activities, including surfing for pornography and lolcats (‘cute cats’).

The tools that they develop for that, however, are very useful to social movement activists, who often lack resources to develop dedicated tools themselves, but instead, use the tools developed by others (such as Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, Twitter, and similar platforms), even though such tools were not originally intended for activism.

This, in turn, makes the activists more immune to reprisals by governments than if they were using a dedicated activism platform, because shutting down a popular public platform provokes a much larger public outcry than shutting down an obscure one used only by a small group of activists. Zuckerman states that the usefulness of the tool can be analyzed by checking whether it contains porn and activists. ‘Sufficiently usable read/write platforms will attract porn and activists. If there’s no porn, the tool doesn’t work. If there are no activists, it doesn’t work well.’

Zuckerman states that ‘Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers. Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats.’ In other words, Zuckerman notes, if a tool passes ‘cute cat’ purposes—if it is widely used for low-value purposes—it can be and likely is used for online activism, too. Tools designed for a broad audience are also less likely to disappear, or be shut down by the authorities, than tools specifically used by the activists.

If the government chooses to shut down such generic tools, it will hurt people’s ability to ‘look at cute cats online,’ spreading dissent and encouraging the activists’ cause. According to Zuckerman, internet censorship in China, which relies on its own, self-censored, Web 2.0 sites, is able to circumvent the cute-cat problem, as the government is able to provide people with access to cute-cat content on domestic, already self-censored sites, while blocking access to Western sites, which are less popular in China than in many other places worldwide.

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