In honor of Jorts the Cat, unlikely union leader

Since the dawn of internet culture, there has always been a cat worth talking about.

In the late 1990s we had Giko and Monā. The 2000s gave us cats like Ceiling Cat, Tubcat, Limecat, and Happy Cat (the latter of which spawned the meme “I Can Has Cheezburger?”). In 2006 we designated Saturday as Caturday. As the 2010s rolled in, we started seeing famous cats by the dozen: Maru, Keyboard Cat, Lil Bub, Grumpy Cat. † † the list continues.

A decade later, internet culture has changed and evolved. We’ve moved from websites to apps, from forums to private social media networks, from serendipity to algorithmically determined content. As monoculture gave way to dozens of niche communities in recent years, there have been fewer moments of pure joy — things detached from the realities of politics and everyday life.

When the internet got the story of Jorts the Cat via an anonymous Reddit AMA in mid-December 2021, there was an echo of early internet magic. Jorts, we learned in the Reddit post, is an office cat prone to charmingly idiotic behavior (having his head stuck in cups, and so on). An office worker, “Pam,” reportedly made unconventional efforts to teach Jorts certain tasks — most absurdly, Pam smeared margarine on Jorts to teach him to groom himself, according to the AMA.

It didn’t take long before an official Jorts Twitter account gathered tens of thousands of followers. But here Jorts deviates from the usual viral story: Jorts came into the consciousness of the internet with a smile, but he sticks around as a vehicle for social change.

The first thing that struck me, as someone who has seen this happen countless times in my decades-long career, was the way the (still anonymous) user approached merchandise. Instead of using virality to hack into T-shirts and mugs, the man behind Jorts’ Twitter account urged fans to write “I LIKE JORTS THE CAT on something you already own”, donate $28 to a strike fundor adopt a cat from a animal shelter† I’ve seen people use their platforms for charities before, but never without trying to make personal profit. To be fair, there is a certain amount of privilege to be able to not make money from anything, but in a busy world it’s pretty unheard of not to use virality to make money.

Since that first wave of enthusiasm, the Jorts account has certainly been busy.

As part of my day job, I follow the macro trends of Gen Z. In that role, I’ve seen interest in fair labor movements skyrocket over the past year. In mid-February, I realized that most of my information about the Starbucks 7 — seven employees who were laid off in Memphis after talking about their union actions on the local news — from Jorts the Cat’s account. Last week Jorts tweeted support for a miners’ strike fund and the union of farm workersoffered a cat theme guide to starting a trade union

I have seen many wild internet moments in my career, helped many good people get paid for their work and many others turn the things that bring them joy into something they can earn a living from. Jorts’ commitment to fair labor and anti-capitalist principles, while supporting animal shelters and self-care at the same time, feels unique and special in our current internet culture.

In a world where we expect people going viral to use the fame to jump-start a career — or, worst-case scenario, become a Milkshake Duck — this kitty feels like a breath of fresh air. Seeing Jorts (and the person behind him) focus on community organizing and empathy gives me hope for the future of the internet. Maybe it’s not all about profits (and crazy cat videos after all).

Amanda Brennan is a meme librarian and the senior director of trends at XX Artists, a digital marketing agency.

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