Catsploitation! Popular online pets raise ethics concerns
What do we love to look at online? If you ask a room of avid Internet users, they'll probably tell you they want thoughtful long-form journalism and meticulously curated websites. Cutting-edge web design; a digital treasure trove of Snowfall-caliber multimedia articles that provoke dialogue and delight the senses. But when it comes to what people actually consume in bulk online, there are two decidedly lowbrow arenas of vast content and consistently astronomical traffic: porn and pets.
Although people remain more interested in sex than just about anything else, the Internet's love affair with cuddly animals is the only thing that even remotely comes close to the fascination with explicit content. As you can see, cats pique people's interest less frequently than "boobs," but substantially more frequently than both Barack Obama and "freedom."
The sprawling Internet hub Cheezburger Network used LOLcats (images of cats juxtaposed with humorously misspelled text) to launch a digital empire that only furthered our love of online felines. Starting small in 2007, by 2011 it acquired over $30 million in funding to perpetuate its brand of cat-based humor. According to Alexa, Cheezburger.com is among the 400 most popular websites in the United States, and the formerly two-person operation is now a genuine digital stalwart.
The Cheezburger Network definitely doesn't have a monopoly on cuteness, though. Cute Overload is another animal-themed website that gained immense popularity with videos and images of adorable animals canoodling. Users can submit material, so the site's creators get tons of free content from pet parents who want to give their buddies a chance to bask in Internet adoration. The site isn't as expansive as the Cheezburger Network, so it gives you a glimpse of how hobbyists can profit from cute animal videos without turning the enterprise into a full-fledged thing. And while the halcyon days for Cute Overload have passed (traffic is down), other outlets are stepping up to the plate. Buzzfeed regularly slays with animal-themed content, and it introduced a specific Animals vertical in 2012 to help quell the public's insatiable demand for sleeping sloth videos.
Not all online pets are created equal. Your sweet-tempered but homely schnauzer will never receive the same love as the curiously close-shaven Pomeranian, Boo, who has over 7 million Facebook fans and a line of books detailing his adventures (it helps that Boo's owner works for Facebook, of course).
There are superstars in the Internet pet world, and they can turn into a full-time job for their human companions – and despite Boo's borderline-uncanny cuteness, most of them are cats.
There's Maru, the bewhiskered Japanese YouTube superstar, a Scottish Fold with over 210 million views. Maru's owners, who stay well out of the limelight, have cashed in on the box-loving kitty's popularity, making money from commercials, DVDs, and books in addition to their YouTube revenue. And if your pet isn't particularly squee-inducingly kawaii, you'd better hope it looks hilariously weird: Grumpy Cat, the public persona of a cat named Tardar Sauce with a genetic defect that makes his face look like he quietly disapproves of your lifestyle, has a movie deal.
Another odd-looking cat, Lil Bub, will also be in a movie. It's produced by Vice Media, although Bub's owner Mike Bridavsky says he did it because it was a cool project and he isn't receiving royalties. Bridavsky's cat, whose distinctive mug is a result of several genetic mutations, is one of the most famous kitties on the Internet, but Bridavsky hasn't gone for the money with as much vigor as other pet owners.
"I made a rule at the very start of this over a year ago – to never seek out any opportunities for Bub. I only take things as they come, and even then will only proceed if I feel good about it. So everything that's happened has happened organically and with no outreach on my part," Bridavsky says.
Many famous Internet pets have "meme managers" to help build their brands, but Bridavsky turned down a similar offer. "It just didn't fall in line with what I wanted to do. We were getting enough opportunities as it was, and this felt too opportunistic, especially so early on. What is important to me is the way that Bub is represented, and the things she represents," he says. "I want to have full control over how her image is used, who is using it, and where the money is going. It has to be about Bub, and about how awesome she is, how awesome pets are, how important it is to adopt, spay and neuter, and just to have an overall message of positivity." This means Bridavsky has also turned down several lucrative commercial opportunities, choosing to showcase Bub in ads for non-profits like PETA and ASPCA instead, even though they don't pay.
Bridavsky is at a good point in his accidental career as a famous cat wrangler; he has the ability to turn down projects that don't appeal to him. But the fame that Lil Bub found isn't indicative of what happens with most people who put videos and images of their pets online. Although YouTube will net pet owners a profit if their videos take off, if the animals in the video don't make an impression, they're just flashes in pans (with tails). The real money in the pet game is for people controlling the websites – which is likely a major factor encouraging Lerer to launch The Dodo.
Traffic makes or breaks a website, and animals are a massive traffic draw. If The Dodo plans to eke out a secure spot as the premiere animal-focused website, it will need to offer more than just aggregates of jumping cat videos, since it's easy to find that kind of content online. The new site will have to make its mark by providing context and framing entertainment for animal videos and images that adds meaning. Co-founder and CEO Kerry Lauerman tells us the site is still in the early planning stages so talking about it is premature, but he hints that it will offer a more thoughtful take on the Internet's animal obsession. "I would say that we admire very much a lot of the animal content that's being produced, but very much hope to go beyond just the viral animal phenomena."
It's hard to say exactly what people want out of their animal websites because the Internet's fixation on cats and furry friends has never been a high point in human rationality. Cute Overload focused on all-adorable, all the time, but it's now overshadowed by the Cheezburger Network's more irreverent, meme-driven approach. Plenty of people like to cut out the middle man and just search YouTube for videos of frolicking felines. There's no recipe for success if you want to make your pet Internet famous or use animal content to launch a website, beyond the most obvious one: Everyone loves a cat in a box.
This article was originally posted on Digital Trends