Saturday, November 7, 2009

Lolcats, Ritual, and Social Identity

This is part of an ongoing ethnographic project with the icanhascheezburger (ICHC) community. I have been conducting a textual analysis as well as interviews with the website's members. I have been particularly interested in the following question: How does ritual reinforce social identity in an online community of lolcat fans?

According to Cohen (1985) and other proponents of symbolic interactionism, rituals are a symbolic affirmation of community boundaries that strengthens social identity with that community. Rituals provide the opportunity to reinforce community identity and belongingness. Rituals can also serve as symbolic markers that have a more explicit function, such as to mark occasions. This is apparent in the lolcat fan community, where members gather to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and invented holidays. Participation in these online rituals within the structure of the site reinforces identification with the community and draws a symbolic boundary between the cheezfriends and others. The rituals associated with the lolcat community seem to divide into three broad categories: The rituals of the site, the rituals of language, and the rituals of events planned by the community.

  • Rituals of the site: these deal with the everyday acts of the members, including viewing, commenting, and posting. Within these daily acts are unique rituals, such as the "nawt-sekund" ritual, where the first person to post is offered a dance, a drink, and sometimes a snack to be shared by all community members. This reinforces their "play nice" rules by transforming a competitive desire to be first into a community celebration.

  • Language as Ritual: lolspeak is a unique dialect of English that is primarily text-based. While lolspeak began with the unusual grammar of the lolcat captions, it has evolved and grown as all languages do. While English speakers can understand lolspeak if they read it phonetically (and community members are not required to use it), the language provides a symbolic boundary of the community that reinforces social identity by encouraging adherence to linguistic norms.

  • Ritual of Events: The community began with birthday parties for their members, but it has expanded into slumber parties, garden parties, virtual zoo openings, and collaborative storytelling events (among others). These rituals are symbolic markers of temporality, and participation in these rituals helps to maintain cohesion and create new memories shared among the members. Formal rituals such as these serve an explicit function by allowing for all members to participate in an understood experience of community. According to social identity theory, this helps to solidify group norms and increase internalization of these norms.
As my work and play continue with the cheezfriends, I hope to explore other questions about social support, norm creation, socialization, and deviance. What I have discovered, and hope that others will as well, is that what seems silly or frivolous on the surface has actually yielded deep relationships and a sense of mutal respect and play that is difficult to find in a web-based community.


  1. I really enjoyed your presentations today! I never really knew there was anything more to this site than the cute pictures. My mom's friend used to visit that site all of the time to make herself laugh when she was struggling with cancer. =)

    By the way, have you ever heard of ROLcats?!

  2. One thing that I am confused about is your third bullet point. So do they have those parties for real? Or I don't understand how it works?

  3. Dumitru, the "parties" take place on an asynchronous message board - so they all meet up at the designated time on the boards and create the party through imagination and text.The closest thing I can approximate it to is old MUDs online: a sort of text-based role playing, where players would type the actions they were performing.
    Elyse - the rolcats are amazing. I had no idea.

  4. I think online parties are a great idea! Especially in groups like on the Lolcats site. Obviously the members have a strong group identity, enjoy each other for the most part, like cute things, and have a good sense of humor. In an era where a lot of isolation occurs because of the internet, it's also good to see some sort of coming together and a group being able to appreciate each other. Plus, the laughter generated from parties is genuine and the feelings of togetherness are real. Therefore, I think it can be completely legitimate.

    And, it allows for imagination and co-creation, so it's a lot more creative than, say, watching television. It's like a choose your own adventure book, but you don't have to pick from lame choices. Like, "Dodge arrows, turn to p. 78" or "Die, turn to p. 4" My brothers used to have those books, haha.