The Future

One man, eight years, nearly 20,000 cat videos, and not a single viral hit

How an animal lover’s hobby of recording himself feeding stray cats exemplifies the glory of the anonymous web.

The Future

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The Future

One man, eight years, nearly 20,000 cat videos, and not a single viral hit

How an animal lover’s hobby of recording himself feeding stray cats exemplifies the glory of the anonymous web.

Eight years ago, a middle-aged Japanese man started a YouTube channel and began posting videos of himself feeding stray cats. A lot of videos. Usually one per day, every day. As of this year, he had posted over 19,000 times. If you put all his videos into one big playlist and turned on autoplay, it would take you roughly six and a half days to reach the end. It’s possibly the most prolific non-automated channel on YouTube.

It’s also one of the loneliest. Over the long existence of his channel, most of his videos only ever got five or so views, and had only 100 subscribers. Yet he kept posting. When the channel was linked to on Reddit’s r/DeepIntoYouTube board in March of 2019, he suddenly gained a whopping 2,000. Despite this influx, it didn’t really make him a celebrity. Most of the videos still typically receive less than 50 views.

The lack of popularity is perhaps because the videos aren’t that interesting, at least not technically. They seem almost antiviral by design. For one, the videos are all untitled. Each just uses the default filename provided by his camera, a code and a string of numbers. The current filenames (DSCNXXXX) suggest that at least one of his cameras is a Nikon Coolpix. And indeed, these are some cool pix.

Also, the footage itself is somewhat uneventful. These are vérité-style scenes, almost as if the Maysles brothers decided to follow stray cats around for a decade. They’re usually about 30 seconds long, sometimes a minute, without any kind of drama.

With regards to content, a large number of the vids contain closeups of cats eating:

Or drinking water out of a bottle:

Or feature jangling toys in front of their indifferent faces:

Sometimes Cat Man calls to them from a distance, like one would call to an old friend, and their faces appear to light up with excitement, before they run over to him:

Sometimes there are no cats at all, and instead we get interesting cloud formations, or falling rain, dotting the pavement with gentle ripples:

Despite their apparent mundanity, the videos remain enthralling. Because they involve cute animals, sure, but there’s more to it than that. Acts of care and maintenance are rare to witness, online and off. It’s heartwarming to see such acts carried out on a daily basis, with such intensity, without any apparent ulterior motive. It’s just a guy helping cats.

Cat Man’s videos exist in a large ocean of unwatched online content (what I’ve previously referred to as “the lonely web”), a lot of it untitled, with default filenames. Though they range in substance and style, the pervading mood is similar to those of the cat videos. They’re amateurish, charming, and oddly sad.

Given that they don’t have titles, they’re in no way SEO-friendly, meaning they can only really be found by accident, usually through going to the YouTube search bar and typing a filename like IMG or DSC with four random numbers (e.g., IMG1234). If that’s too much work, there are sites that mine for them for you such as Astronaut  (2017) and Default Filename TV  (2019), as well as a whole subreddit devoted to digging up interesting finds. It’s pretty addictive.

The big appeal here with these kinds of videos is that they exist for themselves, outside of time, to be savored and pondered. They are often at odds with the fundamental logic of massive social media platforms and their ever-churning river of bile.

To get a better sense of the distinction between the lonely web and the allegedly social one, consider the dark counter-narrative of Grumpy Cat. Formerly called “Tard” — allegedly short for “Tartar Sauce,” though that’s a highly sus nickname no matter where it comes from — she first gained attention from a popular post on Reddit in 2012. Her owners leveraged that initial viral fame into an empire of shoddy merchandise and a Lifetime movie. Grumpy spent the rest of her life touring around various fan conventions and tech conferences, doomed to be gawked at by crowds of social media managers who all claim to be “fluent in sarcasm.” (Ironically, seeing as most cats like staying in the same environment, such a public life would make any cat grumpy.) Grumpy Cat ultimately, or perhaps mercifully, died of complications from a urinary tract infection in 2019. But her memory will live on forever, as all her plastic merchandise can’t decompose.

What’s surprising to me is that Cat Man’s channel has continued on, without any positive feedback or viewership to speak of, for nearly an entire decade. Why does he keep at it, when most people would’ve swiftly given up and then tried to start a doomed podcast? What’s his deal?

Although his YouTube account’s “about” page is blank, searching for that same username on Google dug up all of his other social media accounts, which provided a little more information, but mainly even more cat content.

A translation of his Twitter bio reads, “I live in harmony with the cats who have arrived in the tetra pot of Kashiwahama, Chiba Prefecture. It's not a great conservation activity, but I am happy to meet Nyankos every day.” His feed consists of more cat photos, plus links to his two (count ‘em, two) blogs, which feature  morecat photos, along with occasional updates about the weather.

The Twitter account also links to his Instagram account (@kazutakaniiyama), which, yep, includes even more photos and videos of cats.

On his blog, the Cat Man links to his email address, so I reached out to him. A few days later, he responded. We exchanged emails with the help of Google translate, and he told me more about his project.

Cat Man is actually named Mr. Niiyama. He’s 52 years old, and he’s based in the Chiba Prefecture, about an hour east of Tokyo. Niiyama feeds the cats on the quay near his home, almost every day. “I will distribute breakfast at seven a.m. every morning,” he said. “We distribute over 360 days a year.” He started filming the videos because, as he explains, “I wanted to see the life of a cat.”

Currently, he tends to seven cats, but he estimates over the years he has taken care of 50. Why does he do it? “Because taking care of cats leads to your own happiness.” Hard to argue with that.