In 2021, the internet belongs to pets. From Instagram-famous dogs in pajamas to mud-covered sheep getting shorn on farms, there’s an endless supply of animal content plastered across social media every day. And while these posts are undeniably adorable, there’s a deeper significance to our obsession with other people’s pets.
Jessica Maddox, Assistant Professor of Digital Media at the University of Alabama and author of the forthcoming book The Internet is for Cats: Attention, Affect, and Animals in Digital Sociality (Rutgers University Press, 2022), looks at pet and animal accounts within the larger context of our online activities.
“One of the central arguments of my book is that the internet, despite its desire to connect people and be social, is a pretty trash place,” she said, but it’s animal content that keeps her from feeling despair. “For all of the shortcomings of the internet, when we share pets and animals with each other online it actually gives me something to be optimistic about. [It shows] we’re willing to take care of each other. By sharing your joy and cuteness, this makes me happy, and then I want to share it with you because I think it will make you happy. That’s kind of nice to cling to and amidst all the other problems of the world and the internet.”
Maddox notes that our increased need for positive digital connections during the physical isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic “accelerated a lot of what we did with pets and animals online.”
Take Rebecca Shore in Jacksonville, Florida, who fell in love with The Golden Ratio’s gaggle of golden retrievers (and one labradoodle) in 2020. “I can’t tell you how much this account has meant to me during the course of the pandemic,” she said. “The dogs are sweet, and GR Mom and GR Dad are so sweet and funny with them. I watch the Daily Snaps every night as a wind-down because it’s such a positive, relaxing vibe.”
Like Rebecca, Lorie Kinler in Fort Worth, Texas relied on her favorite internet pet, Crouton the cow, to life her spirits when COVID-19 kept her isolated from family and friends. “During the pandemic when everyone was stuck at home, they would post a video every evening called the Nightly Crouton,” she said. “I would watch it every night before I went to sleep. It made me smile and brought me so much joy during a difficult and scary time. I think it did the same for so many people.”
Kinler even got to meet Crouton IRL at Squirrelwood Sanctuary when she visited New York this fall, an experience she found especially meaningful. “I was so happy to meet Crouton and all the animals that helped me through a dark period. It was one of the most memorable times in my life!” she said.
Professor Maddox says the right pet accounts have a way of bubbling up when we need them the most. In 2017, Fiona, the Cincinnati Zoo’s premature baby hippo, served as a source of hope and inspiration for many as she fought to survive after being born 6-weeks early at just 28-pounds. Alicia Mountain, a poet in Brooklyn, NY was one of those people. “In January 2017 I was in the first year of my Ph.D. and Trump had just been inaugurated— suffice it to say waking up each morning felt really hard,” she told me. “I tracked all her ups and downs on the zoo’s Instagram account. The metaphor was pretty obvious, but that didn’t change how much it sustained me: if this tiny fragile hippopotamus could survive in the world, so could I.”
Like Alicia, Nancy Allen in Sacramento, CA felt a special bond with the tiny hippopotamus in early-2017 as Trump took office and her father faced a terminal cancer diagnosis. “I remember sitting in the hospital room and seeing a video about this tiny hippo that had been born in Cincinnati,” she said. “I started following the Zoo on Facebook and Instagram and being able to celebrate her teeny tiny successes gave me something to be hopeful and joyful about.” Both Nancy and Alicia still follow Fiona’s adorable antics on social media nearly five years later.
If Fiona was the animal metaphor of 2017, Noodle the Pug is the animal metaphor of 2021. For those who don’t know, Noodle is an elderly pug who rose to TikTok fame thanks to his owner, Jonathan Granziano’s brilliant Bones or No Bones Day videos in which Noodle acts as an oracle for what sort of day we’re going to have. No Bones Days (aka when the 13-year-old pug does not stand up in his dog bed) have come to signify it's OK to take a mental health day.
Professor Maddox understands why Noodle’s videos have stood out in the crowded field of internet pets. “People are being summoned back to offices to work, so work life is going on but there’s this pandemic, there’s still all theses other stressors,” she said. “With Noodle it’s like, ‘Yes, this is exactly how I feel today.’ I feel like this is a no-bones day because life is really hard, and this pug understands me tapping into that stuff.”
Sharing a No Bones Day video with your friends is like saying “Phew, it’s not just me who is exhausted” at a time when many of us are struggling to adjust to a constantly in flux post-vaccinated life.
He also brings joy to his dad, Jonathan Granziano, who spoke with The Spruce Pets in an interview this month.
“Being home for almost two years now, he’s always been my buddy, but he’s really my companion right now," Granziano said. "He’s the one who keeps me focused on the day. He’s the one who keeps me from spiraling with existential dread. [Dogs are] blissfully unaware of what’s going on, and there’s something comforting about that."
Our love for other people’s pets makes the internet a better place. So go ahead, embrace your obsession.