Before the Internet, "cute" and "viral" rarely shared the same sentence. Now, adorable is an epidemic. Babies jamming to Beyonce and sneezing panda cubs fill the generational gulf created by digital culture, while the jellybean hues and bubble fonts of Google, Skype and Twitter coat our icy interfaces with a comforting, saccharine glaze.
At May's MIT-sponsored ROFLcon, a gathering of the greatest meme-makers or our time, Toscanini's created a new ice cream flavor called, "The Internet." The vanilla ice cream and Nerds concoction not only described the demographic of the conference--white and nerdy, in the words of Meghan Nelson of The Tech; it also captured the gleeful, infantile spirit of Internet culture.
That's ignoring, of course, all the violence and pornography.
It's no wonder that a new language has emerged to articulate the pure euphoria of seeing a cat flush a toilet or a cat play piano or a cat use an iPad. That language goes something like, "awwwww!" and "omigod that is sooooooooo cute!!!!!!!!!!"
Last week, the New York Times ran a story on the über-exuberant vernacular of Facebook--the capitalizing, word-stretching and ecstatic punctuating that transforms every expression into a "high pitch of pleasure or a high pitch of crisis or sometimes just a high pitch of high pitch." Nowhere is this squealing louder than Japan, where digital culture has evolved into an elaborate fantasy universe of pupil-less girl-children, lithe pubescent boys, anthropomorphised mammals, and, in fact, any object on which you can glue saucer-like, heavily-lashed eyes.
It's the physical distance of the Internet, and not just the cute things that inhabit it, which naturally lends itself to linguistic excess. When someone makes a mildly amusing comment in real life, you can get the joke with a knowing glance or subtly upturned lip. Without access to these nonverbal social cues, we have to overcompensate with "HAHAHAHAAAA LOL!!"
But there's something about cuteness that triggers a particularly strong outpouring of emotion on the web. The Japanese even have a word for it: moe. You can't have moe towards another person; it's a feeling reserved for fantasy characters, a pure and overwhelming platonic passion for the unreal that consumes some Japanese men so totally that they abandon any interest in the human world--finding virtual fulfillment with the polymorphic promises of manga, anime and videogames.
Today more than a quarter of unmarried Japanese men and women between the ages of 30 and 34 are virgins.
This phenomenon is precisely the specter that has haunted Internet commentators for years: young people whose social skills are so stunted by digital life that they retreat permanently into a mediated world. But otaku (nerds obsessed with manga, anime and gaming) culture in Japan is more of an adaptation to certain trends in Japanese society than a cause of them. In an already grim dating market, otaku usually have the most limited capital--money and looks--so attach their affections to t+he non-human instead.
While Japan may take the love of cute to a pathological extreme by Western standards, aw-ing is a universal online pastime. Although the appreciation of the adorable is a basic human nurturing impulse, the Grand Masters of yore never painted kittens and babies (except Jesus) anywhere near the extent that they proliferate online.
Cute, along with the sexual and the violent, is an integral part of the swirling Id of the Internet, partly because cute can be implicitly sexual and/or violent. Purity, a common characteristic of cute, offers the possibility of corruption. Vulnerability, another popular ingredient, invites domination. Both of these are excellently embodied in the schoolgirl; the term moe may in fact originate from the anime middle school heroine Sailor Moon (Hotaru Tomoe).
Our online behaviours, fetishes and viral obsessions reflect the human condition more accurately than the high culture of pre-Internet days. Cute, as a global mania, is more than a trivial chuckle. It tickles that liminal zone of child/adult (David totally stoned after the dentist) and human/non-human (Keyboard Cat). Cute speaks to something deep in our subconscious, even if our response can only be represented as vanilla ice cream and Nerds or articulated as, "omigod awwwwww."
Follow Claire Gordon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/clairedon