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For years, it was cats: we watched playing cats, surprised cats, cats at keyboards, cats in boxes, patty-cake cats, and cats with iPads. But now the cats have ceded their throne — or at least, they’ve got competition. Welcome to the age of the viral internet goat video.

Suddenly, videos of goats doing goaty things are all over the internet. They are the stars of viral video sites: in the past month alone, we met the baby goats of Sunflower Farm, who — in a series of separate videos — run, run more, run from a different angle, and jump over haystack hurdles. We watched Curly the baby goat have “a crisis” when he cannot find his way out of his own pen, and we saw a different (unnamed) goat have its “quietude [...] rudely interrupted by a wayward fly that goes up its nose.” There was Wimpy Goat, who got scolded for his (her?) half-hearted bleat (“c’mon, give it all you got!”), and Frostie, who got famous first for walking with a wheelcart, and, later, for walking without one. There was a video of a goat riding on a motorcycle. There was a video of a goat riding a bicycle. There was a video of a depressed goat, happily reunited with his donkey best friend. It is difficult to check Facebook without running into yet another goat video. (If you have told people you are researching goat videos, it becomes impossible.)

It’s been a long time coming. Viral success doesn’t happen over night, it turns out, not even for goats. Perhaps there is comfort in this: even if you are particularly photogenic, and with particularly meme-able traits, even then, fame takes time. Goats have long been ready for internet success — as food and agricultural policy writer Tove Danovich points out, their distinct appeal is old news to people on farms. “If you have a goat, you’ve seen them do funny things before,” she tells me. But I don’t have a goat. I hadn’t seen them do funny things before. Goats may have been ready for the internet, but until recently, the internet was not ready for goats.

The History

The first viral goat video — Fainting Goats — made the rounds in January of 2006, and featured a news report about fainting goats. If you’ve managed to miss the video, here’s a summary: there are a bunch of goats; they faint.  (The video explains that the goats actually have a genetic condition called myotonic dystrophy, but that’s beside the internet point.) It was, says Emily Huh, director of business development at ur-internet culture site, Cheezburger, the germinal viral goat video — to date, more than 20 million people have watched those goats fall down. But it was an isolated success — for more than a year afterward, the internet was largely silent about goats. Then, in July of 2007, YouTuber chrissy102 visited a ranch and met “The Talking Goat,” a goat that bleated in a particularly human way. It, too, went viral. But like the fainting goat, it went viral in isolation. It didn’t unleash a stampede of goat videos. The points had yet to become a goaty line.

A few months later, though, a different screaming goat became what would eventually be the first goat meme. “Man Goat” is a very (very) simple video, recorded, supposedly, by a hiker in Peru. The video features a goat yelling like a man. But it tapped into something. The goat yelling like a man spawned several reuploads and remixes between 2007-2010, KnowYourMeme’s Don Caldwell notes, directing me to the site’s designated Yelling Goat page. It inspired variations: goat yelling to Usher, goat yelling along with Oprah. The goat-wave had not yet crested, but the tide was coming in. In 2010, “Man Argues with Spitting Goats” was posted, also inspiring a sea of parodies — all it takes to refresh the video, we learned, is a set of subtitles. By 2012, goats had their first named superstar: a video of an adorable baby goat named Buttermilk turned her into an internet star. She wasn’t Grumpy Cat, but she was anthropomorphized enough to be identified individually. She had (and has) a Facebook page, with 12,000 fans to date. (For comparison, Grumpy Cat has almost six million — goats are new at this.)

And then, last year, the goats were everywhere. The blog The Roosevelts made a video called “Goats Yelling Like People,” which, as promised, aggregated footage of many different goats yelling like people (including the famous Spitting Goat, and, in part 2, the famous Talking Goat). Immediately, Caldwell says, the internet responded: less than a week later, YouTuber Goosik made a mashup of the yelling goats and Taylor Swift’s music video for “I Knew You Were Trouble.” That was the first of endless goat editions, goat editions of everything (just type in “goat edition”). The internet, Huh says, was “on fire” with goat mashups. That month, Wired UK declared 2013 “The Year of the Goat,” promising that we were on the verge of the goatpocalypse. We were. We are. Goat-enthusiasm has only grown since then. Call it herd mentality. Collectively, we are obsessed. Obsessed enough, even, to kickstart a goat simulator video game, in which we can pretend to be goats. The only thing better than watching a goat is pretending to be one.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Goats

If the internet is currently rolling with goats, with more goats appearing every day, the question is why — why goats, and why now? At least in part, the answer has to do the innately meme-able qualities of the animals. The appeal of goats — particularly of baby goats, and baby goats, historically, have been the stars here — are cute. “Crushingly, painfully cute” says Dan Sinker, head of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project and noted “goat ambassador.” But lots of animals, particularly baby animals, are cute. While everyone I talk to cites cuteness as a factor, everyone agrees that cuteness is not, in itself, an explanation. As Reyhan Harmanci, executive editor of Modern Farmer, points out, baby pandas are also cute, but “they don’t really DO much on camera.” Goats, meanwhile, are engaged. “They are so active,” she tells me. “They make noises, they jump on top of things, they sometimes play-fight.” Even more importantly, goats are easy to anthropomorphize. And that, Huh says, is key. Internet popular animals remind us of ourselves — “we’re generally amazed when other species act like us,” she tells me. I think back to the spitting goat, and the screaming goat, and the goat on wheels. That’s true. With their strong personalities and bizarre human-like bleating, goats fit the bill: we can read goats. Their behavior is familiar, because it echoes our own.

But while part of their popularity comes from their distinct scrutability, part of their appeal stems from their foreignness. Most of us do not interact with goats on a daily basis. Part of the joy of goat videos is the access. “My biggest hunch,”  says Dr. Lauren Berliner, assistant professor of media, communication, and cultural studies at the University of Washington-Bothall, “is that people are just enjoying the surprise of knowing goats for the first time.” YouTube, she notes, offers us closeups, and “how often do you get to see a goat close up unless you have a goat at home? You get to see its eyes, and the way its tongue sticks out.” Despite their increasing presence in urban spaces, I have never met a goat. Now, though, I have lots of goat opinions.

Goats, then, hit two complementary sweet spots: they’re simultaneously exotic and totally familiar, the unexpected emerging out of the everyday. But this has been the case for years. Nothing about goats themselves has changed. Goats have been ready for their moment for ages, since the beginning of the internet, at least, if not the beginning of goats. If goats are having their moment now, it’s because something has shifted. Finally, we are ready for the Goat Age. But why?

With their strong personalities and bizarre human-like bleating, goats fit the bill: we can read goats. Their behavior is familiar, because it echoes our own.

Prime Goating Conditions

I float my pet theory by Berliner: the goat videos, I posit, are a symptom of our collective urban fantasy of rural life. I cite artisanal cheese-making workshops. I cite vintage stores selling rusty hoes for hundreds of dollars, as home decor. I do not cite my own fantasy of living in a farm house and baking hearty ale breads full-time, though I might have. But Berliner, like everyone else I talk to, says there has to be more going on. Certainly, the desire to connect with the land is real — and as Harmanci observes, right now, we’re farther away from it “than any other time in human history” — but it’s not necessarily enough to account for the exploding popularity of the meme. Not everyone, Berliner points out, is “part of that hipster, artisanal world.”

Instead, she suggests an alternative thesis: goats tap into our collective angst. “At the risk of jumping the shark on myself, there’s something about these goats that are expressing something that we can’t express,” she says, “especially when we’re watching a video at work, and we have 10 windows open, and we’re stressed out and there’s a goat bleating and screaming and we just learned about another school shooting and we want to scream.” They “tap into a particular affective need at this moment.” We have goats now because we need goats now — the comedy of them, but also the tragedy. They’re “sort of a caricature of humanity,” Berliner says.

But our collective angst, probably, isn’t enough to explain the rise of goats, either. That’s the thing about memes — like hurricanes, they depend on a large number of conditions to make the climate right.

In some ways, Berliner reasons, goats are a natural extension of cat videos. Cats are the ultimate domestic animal. Goats are one step further removed. The videos are “expanding the domestic” — houses, apartments, cats — “into a little bit outside of that.” As farm animals go, goats might be the most familiar, straddling the line between domestic and domesticated. With goat videos, we’re moving out of the living room and into the pasture (but not too far in — cow videos, for example, have yet to make much impact). It’s a logical next step. We’re living in a moment where some aspects of farm life are being incorporated into more urban American life. The Obama administration is promoting gardening, Berliner points out. People are raising backyard chickens. Goats are trimming the hedges at Amazon’s offices in Japan, at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, in vacant lots in Detroit (briefly). They’re still just outside our domestic sphere, but our domestic sphere is widening.

And part of the reason for the widening, Danovich argues, is access: our access to goat videos depends — at least, in part — on farmers’ access to goat-video-making equipment. “Now that yelling goats have appeared in actual television commercials,” she says, farmers have realized there’s promotional potential. “Farmers are not generally known for getting out on the internet,” she tells me, “but in this new generation, a lot of small farms make their living by becoming a ‘brand.’” While many of the early videos were posted by outsiders who happened to stumble upon goats, at least some of the newer crop — Frostie and Buttercup and the 44 adorable stampeding baby goats — are identified by farm. You can visit their webpages. The farms are on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. For Caldwell, it’s a matter of numbers: the more people with goats who have access to the internet and recording technology, the more goat videos we’ll have.

buttermilkSource

Everything Changes

But nothing is forever, not even (probably) goat videos. Already, they’ve started to evolve, Sinker points out: the weird early videos, with screaming goats and fainting goats, goats doing weird bodily goat-things, have given way to an era of adorable goats. “I think it’s the adorableness” — and not the strangeness — “that you’re really seeing nowadays.” Does that mean goats have gone from foreign to familiar, from outside of our collective experience to inside of it? And if we are at, or nearing, peak goat, then what’s next?

Sloths, Huh says, are a possibility. But there is the access problem: how many sloths do you know? Kelly Williams Brown, a Portland-based writer and animal enthusiast at large, has her heart set on dik-diks, pangolins, and/or Tibetan sand foxes. The foxes, she says, “have the most creepily human faces” (the internet confirms), which ought to give them an advantage. But the problem, again, is access. Tibetan sand foxes make sloths seem quotidian.

If Berliner is right, and goats were — are — a logical next step from cats, then the next viral animal ought to be another step away from the domestic. From cat to goat, from goat to, perhaps, cow. But don’t bet on it. “I feel like whatever’s going to be the meme next is something we can’t anticipate at the moment,” she cautions. (Plus, Harmanci tells me, cows are “nowhere near as fun on camera.”)

In the middle of writing this, I learned that Frostie the Snow Goat had died (RIP Frostie). But the goat meme lives on — at least, for now. As well it should. Something, Sinker muses, has to “fill the gaping void at the center of our hearts.”