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In praise of Jorts the Cat, unlikely labor leader

Rather than using Internet fame to make a quick buck, the iconic feline has emerged as an outspoken ally of the labor movement.

In praise of Jorts the Cat, unlikely labor leader
[Source photo: Andrew Gardner/Getty Images]

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

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

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

When the internet was gifted with the story of Jorts the Cat, via an anonymous Reddit AITA in mid-December 2021, there was an echo of early internet magic. Jorts, we learned in the Reddit post, is an office cat who’s prone to some charmingly idiotic behavior (getting his head stuck in cups, and so forth). One office worker, “Pam,” allegedly went to some unconventional lengths to teach Jorts certain tasks—most absurdly, Pam smeared margarine on Jorts in order to get him to learn to groom himself, according to the AITA. 

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It wasn’t long before an official Jorts Twitter account was amassing tens of thousands of followers. But here’s where Jorts diverges from the usual viral story: Jorts came into the internet’s consciousness with a laugh, but he’s stuck around as a vehicle for social change.

The first thing I noticed, as someone who’s seen this happen a myriad of times in my decade-long career, was the way the (still anonymous) user approached merchandise. Rather than using virality to hawk T-shirts and mugs, the human behind Jorts’s Twitter account urged fans to “write I LIKE JORTS THE CAT on something you already have,” donate $28 to a strike fund, or adopt a cat from an animal shelter. I’ve seen people use their platforms for causes before, but never without trying to make a personal profit. In fairness, there’s a degree of privilege to being able to not monetize something, but in a side hustle world, it’s pretty unheard of to not use virality to make money.

Since that initial flutter of enthusiasm, the Jorts account has certainly been keeping busy.

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As part of my day job, I track Gen Z macro trends. In that role, I’ve seen an interest in fair labor movements skyrocket over the last year. In mid-February, I realized I was getting most of my information about the Starbucks 7—seven employees fired in Memphis after talking about their unionizing effort on the local news—from Jorts the Cat’s account. Just this past week, Jorts tweeted support for a mine workers’ strike fund and the farm workers union, proffered a cat-themed guide to starting a union.

I’ve seen a lot of wild internet moments in my career, helped a lot of good people get paid for their work, and watched many others turn the things that bring them joy into something from which they can make a living. Jorts’ dedication to fair labor and anti-capitalism principles, all while supporting animal shelters and self-care, feels uniquely special in our current internet culture.

In a world where we’ve come to expect people who go viral to use the fame to jumpstart a career—or, at worst, become a Milkshake Duck—this cat feels like a breath of fresh air. Watching Jorts (and the person behind him) focus on community organizing and empathy gives me hope for the future of the internet. Perhaps it’s not all about profits (and silly cat videos), after all.

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

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