For Owen Mundy, the internet’s love of cats is a gateway to recognizing the huge amounts of personal data we share publicly on social media. In 2014, the associate professor of digital media at Florida State University launched I Know Where Your Cat Lives (IKWYCL), an online visualization of felines geotagged around the world. The project is currently part of Big Bang Data at Somerset House in London, an exhibition exploring how artists and designers are experimenting with data.
“Often in artworks, it is common to see tools like beauty, shock, or strangeness employed to arrest attention of individual or mass viewers, which in turn can bring social issues into public dialogue,” Mundy told Hyperallergic. “So cats make it possible for an artwork to enter into a media landscape.”
IKWYCL is simple but addictive. Click on the “Random Cat” button and you’re presented with a photograph from among the six million Mundy and his team have scraped, all tagged with #cat, all pinpointed on Google Maps thanks to geolocation data on smartphones. Many come from Instagram, others from querying the APIs offered publicly by Flickr and Twitpic. Additional charts break down stats like the density of the cat photographs by country: 23.3% in the United States, and Russia next with 8.7%.
Click for long enough and you’re bound to see a grey box with just a silhouette. Mundy included a script to detect when users increase their privacy settings, and said that of the first million they sampled, more than 600,000 have now been modified, suggesting a greater awareness of privacy.
“Making the project fun and usable is intentional and subversive,” he added, citing the MTAA Reference Resource (MTAA-RR)’s “Simple Net Art Diagram” as a model. It “allows the ‘Art’ to happen in contemporary public spaces, on networks and airwaves, as a phenomenon.” And what bigger phenomenon to sync up with than cats?
“The entertainment aspect of the work allows it to evolve as a series of conversations about the role that corporations have in protecting — or not — our data, and critiques the way the web economy has unfortunately grown to depend on surveillance,” Mundy said.
So, after clicking through a multitude of Persian curmudgeons and scruffy calico kittens, maybe you’ll consider more closely what personal information might be revealed through your own social media sharing.