Ten years ago, if you had asked me where to find sickeningly cute pictures of animals, I would have directed you to either my great-aunt, whose decor consisted entirely of cat kitsch, or one of my classmates, whose dog-based notebook collection was unrivalled in my school.
Now, I would just tell you to get your pet fix on the internet. Obviously, there are a few different places that you might go, with Google, Reddit and Tumblr probably topping the list, but when it comes to animal pictures, Pet Instagram is perhaps the cutest place on the internet.
When viewing different Instagram accounts for pets, very little stands out. @chloekardoggian, a typical Instagram pet account, features a skittish-looking Chihuahua, with pictures that mostly feature her sitting on a blanket or pillow looking at the camera. Only her follower count, at 73.9k, seems remarkable.
The captions on her photos, however, rather than the small comment from the owner that I expected, are first-person accounts from Chloe the dog, always expressing some kind of vague TGIF-like sentiment. “Block me from any inch of this sunshine and pay the price, human. SUNday Funday starts NOW!” reads a caption from a picture of her squinting in the sunlight. A picture of her wearing a red wig is accompanied by the caption “I don’t always understand fashion trends but I’ve gotta keep up with what the kids are into to stay relevant!“
Chloe’s Instagram doesn’t even tell the whole story. She has official accounts on Facebook and Twitter, though they have less followers than her Instagram. A professional-looking website devoted to her has links to an online shop and various media outlets featuring her, including Buzzfeed, People and the Webby Awards. Next to every instance of her name is a small ™. Chloe is trademarked.
Chloe is by no means unique. @biddythehedgehog mostly posts pictures of the titular hedgehog, with captions like “Happy tongue out Tuesday!!”, along with links to different shops where you can buy Biddy the Hedgehog shirts and calendars. @norbertthedog sells Norbert stuffed animals and has a line of children’s books. Though @picathepom doesn’t appear to have any merchandising, some of its pictures feature a Pomeranian posing with products from the Yummy World toy line. Almost all of the large pet Instagrams are monetized in some way.
Though it’s difficult to tell how much money goes through Instagram in terms of sponsorships, it’s estimated that an Instagram account with 50k followers can expect around $1000 for appearing at a sponsor’s event. Sponsors of Instagram pets are primarily pet-focused companies, but different companies are increasingly getting in on the game. @toastmeetsworld features a King Charles with 349k followers, who is the face for Karen Walker brand sunglasses in addition to selling Toast Meets World shirts, hoodies and tote bags.
To be honest, this was a little bit terrifying to me at first. First of all, it seems a little strange that pet Instagrams communicate from the pet’s point of view. At the risk of using a buzzword, it feels a bit too curated. The managers of these accounts are likely trying to make the interaction between a human and a dog that live thousands of miles apart feel natural, by telling us what the dog wants to say, which is conveniently exactly what their large audiences want to hear.
Maybe that’s a good thing, though. Interactions between people over the internet will always have some tinge of falseness to them, making us question whether we’re actually experiencing a genuine connection. For obvious reasons, we can never experience a real connection to a dog over Instagram, so why pretend?
There’s no reason to believe that @mensweardog can ever be anything but a momentary distraction, or that it ever accurately depicts the ups and downs in the life of the Shiba Inu it features. Social media is inherently too curatable, as in we have too much control over how we present ourselves, to ever actually tell the entire truth. @mensweardog understands this by dressing a dog in an expensive sweater, having it pretend to watch the Super Bowl and having it encourage us to buy Subaru products. Why not?
There’s also a clear reason to obsess over pets, rather than people. Unfortunate things happen to people who get famous on the internet. Ghyslain Raza, the unwitting star of “Star Wars Kid,” at one point the most watched video on the internet, suffered severe harassment not only from the classmates that initially posted the video, but also from the public at large. “What I saw was mean. It was violent. People were telling me to commit suicide,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. While I’m sure that famous animals still get hate mail, by keeping the owners out of the picture, they likely won’t be targeted directly.
In addition, it’s also worth noting that pet Instagrams are run largely by one person. While there are social media firms that handle some of the PR for the accounts with many followers, most of the work is ultimately done by the owner. When many industries are moving away from a franchised or corporate model, I think it’s encouraging that the animal picture industry is following suit.
I’m tempted to question why these Instagrams even exist. Why don’t we all just get pets? Many of the commenters compare the Instagram pets to their own, so they’re not just vicariously owning pets. I can definitely understand following @mensweardog because dogs wearing people clothes is objectively amazing, but I just don’t get most of the rest of the Instagram pets.
Even though I don’t understand it, clearly following these animals and their fictitious exploits satisfies some urge in people. For what it’s worth, though, I’m glad that they have this, I’m glad that it’s on a relatively small scale, and I’m glad that there’s always a chance for me to make a living off of pictures of my dog.