When I’m sad or feeling defeated or simply tired from the business of living extremely online, I make a beeline for my favorite boys. Scooping into that lipid layer of animal videos that provides all the comfort of a favorite book or record while allowing you to stay logged on. I used to adore the twitter account @round_boys, the progenitor of a new viral ecology in which every charmingly rotund creature is a superstar. Roundboy likenesses would be reposted — and significantly, rarely modified — so many times that it could be impossible to identify the original. Moreover, to do so would be entirely beside the point. Since that account has been suspended for copyright infringements, I’ve been checking in on my best longboys instead, particularly an oriental shorthair cat named Teddy featured with three of his siblings on the Instagram @hobbikats. Teddy is strikingly green-eyed with oversize, batlike ears. He is exquisitely long of limb and even longer of face and tail, resembling nothing so much as a piebald Adam Driver. He stretches so languorously that just looking can loosen your spine. He cascades over sofas as if arranged by a master draper, and most of all, he honks, in mellifluous bell tones so beautiful that you question whether he is really a cat. Or in the language of the day: he stretch, he drape, he honcc.
The less we know about the animals in question, the richer their potential for virality
Roundboys and longboys both fall under the umbrella of the very, very good boy: They’re the thicc cat who greedily inhales the watermelon, the pudgy bird who melts in the palm of the hand, the surpassingly fat tiger, the Falstaffian, jolly seal. Even the adjectives we deploy to connote their roundness are so pleasing: chubby, plump, roly-poly. Contrary to all the other kinds of boy we’ve collectively come to side-eye — the fuckboi, the softboy, and the cuckboy are the most egregious, but boys’ clubs in general seem to be in crisis at the time of this writing — these are boys that nearly everyone can get behind. We might wonder just why are they called longboys and roundboys, but not longgirls and roundgirls? Is it an attempt to bypass the sexualized connotations of fetishizing pubescence and describing larger women are as curvaceous or voluptuous or Rubinesque, unlike the silky golden retriever-like dignity and capability implied in words like portly, corpulent, or stout? A #notallroundboys attempt to rehabilitate boyhood as the once unassailable logic of boys will be boys crumbles? An extension of the maxim that all dogs regardless of gender — and by extension, perhaps, all animals — are exceedingly good? Online, everyone knows you’re a good boy.
“Looking at cats” was once a common catch-all for things people do online, especially at peak in the age of “I Can Haz Cheezburger” memes. Cats’ market share of the online gif economy has since waned, with the explosion of popular accounts dedicated to the appreciation of nature’s strangest, weirdest, and heretofore least known species. Maybe we’ve become inured to the black-bordered impact of mass-generated memes, tired of the “lolcats” brand of pranky humor. They can hardly compare, anyway, to the sheer delight of the pygmy jerboa, essentially a fuzzy M&M with a tail, or to the endearingly gloopy defeat of the blobfish, beloved for its status as the world’s ugliest animal, or the grabby, spiralized scooching of a pangolin climbing a tree, its scales rippling so winningly like a particularly snouty mermaid.
The most exciting thing about longboy Teddy, however, is that his honking is consistently tuned at a single note, F#, the dissonance of most modern American car horns. That adult cats only meow to communicate with humans — not other cats — suggests the delicious possibility that Teddy might have learned to vocalize in concert with car horns on the streets outside. Perhaps it is his method of communicating with all non-cats — the potted plant as well as the refrigerator in a kind of sonic internet of honks. Most likely, I’m projecting, but isn’t that what animals on the internet have always been for? There’s something remarkable in the way that animals, even one as singular as Teddy, lose their particular, unique auras when scrubbed of their context, attribution, and even exif data, and uploaded online. We see them as generic: an animal, a longboy or a roundboy; a furry canvas upon which to superimpose the most human of behaviors or motives. The less we know about the animals in question, the richer their potential for virality: They become timelessly applicable in a wild variety of situations. Virality, in turn, becomes a summing up, creating the velocity for these peculiar new forms, as we now know them, to make an affective print on the official taxonomic encyclopedia of life.
About a decade ago, a study found that the television you watched as a child affected the color of your dreams. Essentially, if you are over 55 and grew up watching black-and-white TV, chances are your dreams are monochrome. Otherwise, you likely dream in color, which makes me wonder whether there are groups of people who dream in the color palettes of their earliest interfacing with computers? In the 8-bit of the earliest arcade shooters, or the dithered 16-color palette of ’90s Sierra adventure games? More recent studies suggest video games indeed have an analogous effect. Gamers, who are used to manipulating their environments, report far higher levels of lucid dreaming, disembodied observer dreams, and dream control and are less prone to motion sickness. Apps like Vine or Snapchat or Instagram stories work in the same way. Just like the those old black-and-white televisions, their technological parameters restructure how we perceive the things that these apps depict — animals included.
You’ve probably heard that Inuit and Sami peoples have dozens of words for snow: Animal videos work similarly, but as a kind of glossary of wonderful feelings
The Himba provide a particularly interesting case study in that they have only five color categories to encompass the spectrum of visible light: borou for blue–green, for example, or serandu for red, orange, and pink, and intriguingly, zoozu for black and dark shades of other colors. As a result, even as they might find it difficult to separate what an English speaker would understand as red or brown (dumbu), they are much more adept at distinguishing between shades of one color. Put another way, the grammar that underwrites their language means they are much more attuned to other color qualities besides shade, like saturation, luminosity, or brightness, which we might arrive at only after interfacing with a different kind of technological language: Photoshop or another editing software. Just as we gain tactile knowledge through time and exposure — handling a fruit to gauge ripeness, fingering fabrics to assess production quality, knowing just how much pressure to apply with a chisel — the technological restructuring of platforms like Vine or Instagram accord us a new range of affective motion, revealing new layers to pleasure.
In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis posits that language heavily influences the structure of thought and experience. The Pirahã people of Brazil, whose language does not feature numbers but instead has concepts of “small,” “‘somewhat larger,” and “many,” have difficulty counting to 10. Similarly, many languages do not distinguish between the colors green and blue; speakers instead see something like “grue.” Old English speakers had only the very literal geoluread, or yellow-red, to describe the spectrum of shades between those two primary poles, now known broadly as “orange.” Does this mean that they, like those without separate words for blue and green, were supposedly unable to perceive specificities of orange, or to pick out individual shades such as carrot, papaya, apricot or tangerine? (I similarly wonder whether this lack was why European racial classifications assigned colors like red and yellow to large swathes of the world.)
Under the aegis of this theory, though, language has the power to expand perception as well as limit it. Perhaps our cultural perception is likewise widened by new types of affective media in vast circulation — animals, though disappearing, are leaving mimetic traces behind, and memes become language. You’ve probably heard that Inuit and Sami peoples have dozens if not more words for snow: Animal videos work similarly, but as a kind of glossary of wonderful feelings, a solitaire endgame in which the suits are 🙊, 😀, 😊, and 🤗.
This new economy of animal images and videos has come to replace the once frequent animal interactions we might have once had before urbanization and mechanization. They create a nostalgia for animals we would have never seen without them, capturing the impossible and the impossibly rare. But the new techniques also encourage a kind of emotional projection. Infinite looping gifs, Instagram stories, and features like Boomerang, which repeats a short motion back and forth, work as a kind of synecdochal butchery, reducing an animal to an isolated constituent part or motion: That sudden wobbliness and narcoleptic bellyflop that reminds you you’re so very tired too. The destructive dog that’s too ashamed to meet its owner’s eye, the rat taking a shower for a few seconds, soaping itself up with surprisingly humanlike motions.
This new economy of animal images and videos creates a nostalgia for animals we would have never seen without them
The thing is, Grumpy Cat isn’t actually grumpy, Tuna the Dog (probably) isn’t a competitive worrier, and Lil Bub in’t constantly thirsty or sticking her tongue out at the world; the rat wasn’t merrily soaping itself so much as frantically trying to get the untasty and potentially toxic substance off its fur. Yet like Teddy, they exist within the looped clip as a non-linguistic description of a particular, or peculiar experience of interspecies interaction. We see none of the aspects of animal care that make them pets rather than spectacles. Experiencing these animals only in six-to-60 second increments, we see them only at their snuggliest, their cutest, their weirdest, their funniest, their least animal-like and most bizarrely human, their most likely to be named viral.
I need to take a minute here to tell you about my favorite Good Boy, @dog_feelings, or “Thoughts of Dog.” This Twitter account is run by the same person — or quite possibly management firm, given its wild popularity — as the rating account @dog_rates. The exuberance of its littermate is eschewed here for a rather more sober look into the thoughts of one nameless dog, his love of peanut butter, sticks, snoozles, stretchems and snuggles, his important job featuring long shifts of monitoring the lone skittle under the fridge, and philosophical chats with his beloved stuffed fren Sebastian. Unless you happened to catch his introduction Sebastian is never physically described, and becomes an abstracted distillation of all our internet animal frens. I imagine him as a little lion or mini-me Dog, of the please do talk to me and my son again and again variety; others might conjure up a teddy bear or or bunny or penguin. It was only when the account began promoting Valentine’s day cards at the Dog Rates store that I learnt that Sebastian was, most jarringly and incongruously, a small belly-seamed elephant. (Has Dog’s gender ever been established? I read him as male.) On the occasions where Dog reminds his fans that he loves them, he opines wisely on affection and fidelity with a matter of fact gravitas that feels all the more heartwarming:
i had a long talk. with my fren. about how to spot. a fake ball throw. the optimal strategy. is to follow the ball. with your eyes. instead of your heart
In the logic of Dog, of course everyone is good and the world is wonderful and in it for the hugs if true. Dog knows this to be fact and can’t even begin to fathom that you might not, but regardless Dog is patient and loving, and if you took the time to realize the same, and learn to talk like Dog, then you could be frens with the world too. Have you ever noticed how all dogs get at least 12/10, while lizards are rated a little more conservatively with a starting rating of 9?
Tonally, Dog’s positivity is a little more measured and tempered than their buyer testimonials (A+++ QUALITY PRODUCT! WOULD BUY AGAIN!!!) in a way that almost suggests this ecology of animal memes has matured from both the mass-produced manufacturing of meme generation and the relentless bombast of the Upworthy model. It has moved to a more tertiary economy of service memification that increasingly looks to weaponize not just attention but affect. Consider the way that publications like Salon have very recently begun offering the option to let them leverage your computing power using in-browser cryptocurrency mining as an alternative to disabling adblock, a consensual version of the technology’s revival in the seedier, scammier side of the internet at the close of 2017. The animal meme industry is doing the same thing, but what it’s mining and monetizing is the viewer’s emotional response itself. Animals, being singular yet not individualistic, model a way in which viral amplification (replication) can, contra Walter Benjamin’s “aura,” work to actually enhance the aura of a piece of content.
This is aura as Coachella flower crown, whose power lies in its utterly banal genericness despite its specificity — the awkwardly swole sentient night brace infomercial that is the Chinese water deer, perhaps — and in this it is more akin to Benjamin’s “traces” — debris, remnants — which he describes in The Arcades Project as having “the appearance of a nearness, however removed the thing that left it behind may be.” Benjamin links the trace to the discontinuous experience of the hunt, as well as literary study, “the fundamentally unfinishable collection of things worth knowing, whose utility depend on chance,” and what could possibly be more worth knowing than roundboys?
Maybe all this positivity, constructed as it is, means we’re beginning to take self-care seriously, whether it’s learning about pH levels and acid mantles or checking in with friends and learning how to take care of each other. In embracing the aura of the general, perhaps we are beginning to lose our selfish particularities to become multiple, one or several frens. In recent years the way we talk about self-care has moved away from the language of individualist indulgence and “me time” to consider it as nothing less than the acts of love necessary for everyday survival: not accessories to the struggle so much as an integral facet of it. When Assata Shakur said, “we must love each other and support each other,” she almost certainly did not mean looking at animals on the internet, yet today they function as the same thing. Pictures of puppies aren’t going to end police brutality or dismantle the prison-industrial complex, but maybe they can keep us going so that we can do the work that will.
This essay is part of a collection on the theme of AURA. Also from this week, Apoorva Tadepalli on when to-do lists become decorative, and Rob Arcand on using blockchains to try to protect art.