The Current

From singing dogs to fat cats: Why Instagram pets could boost your pandemic spirits

COVID-19 has turned this year into a bit of a dog’s breakfast. But if you’re looking for a pandemic pick-me-up, the pets of Instagram just may be your answer, according to a new research paper that examines why people run Instagram accounts on behalf of their fur babies.

New research explores why people create Instagram accounts dedicated to their animals

Diesel, from the Greater Toronto Area, is one of an army of animals with their own dedicated Instagram accounts. Jessica Maddox, from the University of Alabama, explores why people create social media accounts for their pets in a new research paper. (diesellikethefuel/Instagram)

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COVID-19 has turned this year into a bit of a dog's breakfast. 

But if you're looking for a pandemic pick-me-up, the pets of Instagram just may be your answer, according to a new research paper that examines why people run Instagram accounts on behalf of their fur babies.

You might have heard of them — from Buddy Mercury the beagle, who stands on his hind legs while howling and playing the piano, to fat cats that are embracing their curves, there's no shortage of animal accounts on the social media platform.

And while the reasons for why people dedicate Instagram accounts to their beloved critters can be complicated, Jessica Maddox found that many of them simply want to bring joy to others.

Maddox, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama's department of journalism and creative media, spoke with The Current's Matt Galloway about her findings. Here is part of their conversation.

Why did you want to do academic research on the Instagram accounts that people run on behalf of their pets?

It should probably come as no surprise that I have two dogs of my own. And one day I turned to my partner and jokingly said I was going to make them an Instagram, and he kind of rolled his eyes. 

At that point, I wanted to prove him wrong and learn why people do things for their pets, or why people make these Instagram accounts for their pets. And so I launched a whole academic study to win an argument with my partner.

Maddox is an assistant professor in the department of journalism and creative media at the University of Alabama. (University of Alabama)

How widespread are these sorts of accounts, for people who perhaps don't understand what we're talking about?

They are extremely widespread. If you search on Instagram #catsofinstagram or #dogsofinstagram, with cats and dogs obviously being the most prominent, you'll get millions and millions of hits. And of course, not all of these are coming from accounts of people that run Instagrams for their pets. 

But even when I set out to recruit people to interview for this study, the response was overwhelming and how quickly people would say, "Oh yeah, I have one of these," or, "I know somebody who does this," or, "I've always wanted to do it." 

So they are in high supply on Instagram, that is for sure.

What did you learn about why somebody would take the time to create an Instagram account for their pet?

My research into about the two dozen people I talked to found three main things. And the first is that we use our pets to communicate about ourselves, even if it's an account devoted entirely to the pet [where] you, the human owner, isn't even present. 

For instance, one of my research participants who I interviewed mentioned to me one day she was a college student and walking on campus and somebody said, "Oh, hey, good to see you. Good luck on your test. I saw it on your dog's Instagram." She brought her dog to the coffee shop and they were studying together, and [she] had posted something along the lines of "helping mom study for her test." 

So that was one thing that I found in the study, a second being kind of segmenting this content off to a specific Instagram account that's not the human owner's really challenges this idea that we have that the internet is for cats — because we all know the internet is for cats. It's for pictures of cute dogs and cats and pandas and horses and monkeys and penguins.

Waffles the fat cat also has his own Instagram account that focuses on his weight loss and embracing his curves. Maddox suggests people may create Instagram accounts dedicated to their pets because people prefer to keep their own personal accounts more 'holistic,' and representative of all facets of their life. (fatcat.waffles/Instagram)

But if the internet really was for cats, why would we feel the need to segment off of our pets into these particular Instagram accounts for them? And what the people I talked to told me was that when it comes to you, the human, your social media profile should be holistic and represent the many things that are happening in your life at a given time. You shouldn't just be posting about one thing.

The last finding was a rather optimistic one. And that's we're actually willing to take care of each other on the internet, which can kind of be surprising given the depressing news and the bad news and some of the more problematic things we know about online behaviour.

But I found that all of the people I talked to and interviewed just wanted to insert a little joy and a little happiness into social media. And they hoped that's what people got out of their pet's accounts.

Buddy Mercury, a singing dog with his own Instagram account, plays a tune on the piano.  

In this time that we're in right now ... is something like this even more valuable when it comes to that cute economy than in the before times?

Absolutely. I'm sure you [or] your listeners have probably seen on social media, people say things like, "Had a bad day. Send cute pictures of your pets." 

And this is very much related to what I found, is that we're willing to take care of each other and use these cute pictures to help ourselves feel better and break out of that doom scrolling, as we've started calling it, of just scrolling through all the bad news and negative news.

The cuteness and the cute pet pictures — asking for it or sending them out there can be a way to cheer each other up online.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Alison Masemann. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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