‘On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’, one canine advises another as they sit at a desk in a cartoon created by Peter Steiner in 1993 for The New Yorker magazine (Cavna, 2013). The cartoon’s iconic, eight-word line is frequently touted as a warning about the deceptive powers of the Internet: someone can be anyone in the online world. But when I look at my social media feeds, I’m struck by how many of the accounts I’m connected with are actually of dogs…. by dogs. It seems that nowadays, on the Internet, everybody likes a dog, and in a world where ordinary people are finding fame as Social Media Influencers (SMIs), being a dog online is becoming a lucrative and viable career.
Evie, my nine-year-old Labrador, is damn cute. She’s photogenic and has a distinct personality that has made her popular with friends and colleagues. In response to requests for ‘Evie stories’, I’ve started to build her an online persona through our shared Instagram account: The_Lacey.
As an avid follower of a number of ‘Instafamous’ pets, such as Tuna the Chiweenie and Jinkee the Red Toy Poodle, I’m now imagining a bigger future for Evie. However, in order to elevate her from average suburban Labrador to superstar pet Influencer, I needed to understand exactly what a Social Media Influencer is. Listen to the following podcast to discover what I learned:
Currently, Evie is best described as a ‘micro-celebrity’ (Marwick 2016, p 337) but on more of a micro-micro-micro scale. Her follower count of 102 is a long way from that of ultra-famous Internet dogs, such as Boo the Pomeranian. Boo, believed to be the first dog to hit the social media big time, is followed by around 17 million people (Moreau 2017). But Evie’s followers are steadily climbing and include a couple international dogs of modest celebrity status and some local pet supplies companies. While it may be easy to cast me aside as some crazy stage-mum, I’m not alone. It is claimed that 10% of pet owners have a social media account especially for their pet (Hutchinson 2014). Instagram is the favoured platform for four (or two) legged wannabe stars. Its photo-focused format is perfect for communication the lifestyle and endearments of ‘those who can’t actually talk for themselves’ (Purtill 2016, para 12).
It’s not just pushy fur-parents who are responsible for the rise of the pet Influencers. Brands are also seeking out these cute and engaging superstars. Compared to human Influencers, animals offer greater consistency and reliability, and are authentic and incapable of misrepresenting facts (Hutchinson 2014). As Purtill (2016, para 22) succinctly summarises, ‘they are adorable, silent, and perfect’. For their owners, these qualities are translating into serious income. In America, ‘dogs can fetch anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 per sponsored post’ (Birkner 2016, para 2). Pets are faces of luxury car companies, designer clothing labels, animal welfare causes and are even establishing their own lines of products (Purtill 2016). Such is the demand, management agencies specifically for pets of social media fame are springing up, and in Australia too.
However, just like their human counterparts, being a Social Media Influencer is hard work for pets (and their owners). An online persona or personal brand needs to be established and carefully maintained. Dogs might be considered authentic because they can’t help but be themselves, but performativity is still prioritised over the true self (Marwick 206, p 347). The pet Influencer is just as stylised and edited as the human one (Purtill 2016). Pikelet Butterwiggle Stoll, for example may be a bandy-legged rescue staffy but he’s one with a photographer ‘Ma’ and an extensive and fashionable wardrobe. Unfortunately Evie has neither of these. But she does have a owner (me) who is gaining an understanding that to achieve her (my) dreams of Instafame there is some serious work to be done. I need to continue to cultivate her online persona in a consistent and regular manner. I need to identify brands that reflect her values and interests. Most importantly I need to make sure she engages with a loyal base of followers, rather than just building numbers and seeking likes. Will you help us? Join the #LabradorEvie club at The_Lacey.
Feature image: Labrador Evie, photograph by Linda Lacey, 26 May 2016.
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