I Can Haz Likes: Cultural Intermediation to Facilitate “Petworking”

Jonathon Hutchinson

Abstract


Introduction

This paper highlights the efforts of cultural intermediaries operating social networks for pets, known as petworking. Petworking aligns with the ever-increasing use of social media platforms where “one in ten pet owners have a social media account especially for their pet” (Schroeder). Petworking represents the increased affect of connectivity between pets and their owners within the broader pet community. Although it is true that “no one knows you are a dog on the Internet” (Steiner), it is fair to say that petworking is not the work of the animals directly, but the cultural intermediaries who construct the environment for pets to interact with others.

Boo the Pomeranian is one example of a highly networked, cute and celebrity pet, whose antics are broadcast across a plethora of online networks including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. However, to contradict the rhetoric that cats rule the Internet, it is instead the strategic efforts of cultural intermediaries that take the banal activities of Boo and his “petworked individualism” to his global fan base. The research within this paper, through the lens of animal celebrity, extends recent work undertaken in the celebrity studies field that seeks to understand the connection between celebrities and ‘ordinary folk’, or rather ordinary folk as celebrities. In that regard, the connection between ordinary and celebrity animals is explored through the work of the cultural intermediary who capitalises on the authenticity and cute characteristics of animals. This paper also seeks to understand the role of the petworking cultural intermediary by exploring the cyclic process of disintermediation/remediation/intermediation of Internet communication.

Celebrity Studies, Cute Culture and Petworking

It is appropriate to first outline the connection of cute with celebrity, and how they relate to petworking. In the first instance, the notion of celebrity is primarily a phenomenon associated with humans. Historically, one of the earliest studies on celebrity focused on the “the person who is known for his well-knownness” (Boorstin 57). Further, celebrity has been noted as a construct by the media industries that has developed “entertainment figures as transmitted via the 20th century mass media” (Feeley 468). Celebrity has a history with the 19th and 20th century literature on the Hollywood star system and its transmission of fame to the mass audiences. As media and cultural studies adopted celebrity as a focus, celebrity studies became fascinated with “how the star image was produced and consumed and how it both shaped and reflected social and cultural identity” (Feeley 470). A more contemporary study into the exploration of celebrity is, as Turner suggests, a demotic turn that sees the media create ‘celebrities’ from ordinary folk. Dyer has argued that one of the core characteristics of celebrity is the ability for one to identify and imitate the star. In each of these examples of celebrity studies, it is assumed that the celebrity is indeed a human being. The humanistic value of celebrity then is problematic when considering how it relates to animals, specifically one’s pet.

One way of approaching the study of celebrity and pets is through the lens of animal celebrity. There have been numerous cases of famous animals, with one of the earliest records in Hanno, a famous elephant who was a gift for Pope Leo X on his coronation from King Manuel I of Portugal, 1514. More recent animal celebrity has been demonstrated in cases of Paul the octopus whose celebrity status was reached through his ability to predict the winning teams during the 2010 World Cup, or Dolly the sheep who is infamous as being not only the first cloned sheep but also the first cloned being. Other famous pets are struck by celebrity status for non-favourable acts, for example Tilikum, or Tilly as he is known. TIlly is a bull orca that has been responsible for the deaths of three people during his time in captivity. His story, which also represents his association with celebrity, is documented in the 2013 documentary, Blackfish.

Each of these cases of famous animals demonstrates that animal celebrity is not a new issue, but highlights the significance between ‘ordinary’ animals and ‘celebrity’ animals. It could be argued it is the impact of the mass media’s depiction of these animals that defines them as celebrity animals beyond their ordinary counterparts. Yet, in attempting to understand the appeal of animal celebrity, Blewitt notes that pets “wear the badge of authenticity that is held to be so important for credible image-management; there is never any question as to whether or not they are ‘being themselves’” (117). The appeal of animal celebrity for humans is represented through the animal’s authenticity because they are incapable of misrepresenting facts. Often the authentic animal characteristic is combined with ‘cute’ characteristics to increase their appeal, or their relational value with humans, and thereby their popularity. This is certainly the case with giant pandas where they “have the credibility of being an endangered species, look cuddly, have big moony eyes and so have automatic non-human conservation charisma” (Blewitt 326). In this scenario, the giant panda represents the popular qualities of animal cuteness which increases their relational value with humans.

McVeigh suggests cute is a symbol of daily aesthetic equaling a “standard attribute” (230) to facilitate high reading of cultural texts and goods. Kinsella argues that cute builds on cutie, which “takes cuteness as its starting point, but on top of the basic ingredient of childlikeness, Cutie style is also chic, eccentric, androgynous and humorous” (Fetishism 229). Cute can shift from pop culture signifiers, to high cultural symbols that represent young, amusing and helpless representations. When cute is in dialogue with celebrity, specifically animal celebrity, it is the cute appeal, or the “silent desperation of the lost puppy dog” (Harris 179) that propels humans to increasingly construct and consume celebrity through animals.

Distributing the appeal of cute animal celebrities across digital communication technologies provides the opportunity to explore and understand the petworking phenomenon. The authentic representation of cute animals outlined above has demonstrated the increased relational value of animal celebrity in a non-networked environment. However, when contextualised in a digitally connected environment that engages the affordances of social media platforms, the exploration of petworking can answer some animal celebrity questions raised by Giles. In his taxonomy of animal celebrity, Giles defines four categories that distinguish famous pets: “(a) public figures; (b) the meritocratically famous; (c) show business ‘stars’; and (d) the accidentally famous” (118). He suggests the first two categories are exemplified by the pets of politicians, or the biggest or smallest of a species. However he notes “it is impossible to distinguish between the remaining categories since ‘accidental fame’ presupposes that the other famous animals have engineered their own celebrity to some extent” (ibid.). This is precisely the space that petworking occupies. Pets do not engineer their own celebrity; rather, it is the strategic and coordinated efforts of their owners that create “accidentally famous” animals.

The example of petworking demonstrates the role of the intermediary who constructs the identity of the non-ordinary pet with high relational value. A pet with high relational value does not occur serendipitously nor is it the work of a famous animal engineering his or her own celebrity. Rather, it is the work of human intermediaries who strategically utilise authenticity and cute as animal characteristics that increase the animal’s appeal, and thereby its popularity. To successfully engage in petworking, intermediaries use social media platforms to disseminate or broadcast the celebrity animal’s characteristics. The following case study of Boo the Pomeranian demonstrates the connection of celebrity studies with cute culture that is disseminated through social media platforms – a petworking example.

The Case of Boo

The conceptual framework for this research draws from the media’s coverage of petworking. In that environment, petworking is referenced wherever journalists refer to the practice of “cute” animals engaging in social networking activities. Warr suggests petworking represents “people who want to set up personal social profiles on behalf of their pets”. Ortiz suggests petworking aims to “employ a network marketing strategy for social, political or commercial gain using animals, pets, and goods and services related to animals and pets”. Interestingly, much of the discussion of petworking relates to the act of networking through pets to break the ice with other pet owners to engage in more complex interactions. To move the existing work beyond pets to break the ice, Williams notes that “one in 10 of all UK pets have their own Facebook page, Twitter account or YouTube channel” and “14 per cent of dog owners maintain a Facebook page for their pet, whereas 6 per cent boast Twitter accounts”. Regardless of the motivation of pet owners to engage in petworking, there is an increasing presence of pets in an online environment.

Boo the Pomeranian, rose to fame as the world’s cutest dog during 2009. His Facebook page has 10,435,458 likes at the time of writing, making him the most popular dog on Facebook and aligning him with the Public Figure page category, a key celebrity indicator. His tagline reads, “My name is Boo. I am a dog. Life is good.” His connection to popularity came on 26 October 2010, when celebrity blogger Khloé Kardashian wrote “OMG, I just found this dog named Boo on facebook and I am seriously in LOVE […] If you are in facebook, go like this page because it’s beyond cute!” Boo’s popularity gained momentum across the Internet and since then he has featured on television shows, has produced a line of plush toys and has a book for sale on Amazon, “Boo: The life of the World’s Cutest Dog”. This example of Kardashian’s public call to action is a clear celebrity endorsement which trades on both cute and celebrity. Boo’s rise to fame also aligns with Giles’ fourth category of animal celebrity, accidentally famous. If it were not for Khloé Kardashian’s celebrity endorsement, the distinction between Boo as an ordinary pet and a celebrity pet would be very clear. Boo’s rise to a celebrity status is a clear example of how a human intermediary can create and develop a high relational value of a pet through the endorsement of cute. The connection between cute and popularity also suggests cute creates strong Internet connections between individuals with a compulsion to belong to the larger fan group.

Although Boo’s owner remains anonymous under the moniker of J.H. Lee, it would appear the motivation behind Boo, although started as a joke Facebook page (Lee), is to commodify the pet. The popularity of Boo’s cuteness has bolstered the dog as a cultural product with production of countless novelty items, indicative of the creative vernacular of the pet’s owner. In this example, the soft power that accompanies Boo is persuasive and invisible. Soft power in this context is a “concept of strategic narrative […] especially in regard to how influence works in a new media environment” (Roselle et al. 70). In the context of globalisation, Boo is the ideal transnational cultural icon that embodies an ideology, disseminated through the instrument of cute.

When cute is used as an ideological construct, it is rarely the object that generates soft power but rather the intermediary constructing the cultural artefact. The following section explores the cultural intermediary as the individual responsible for the mediation of ideology through cultural production and consumption. The cultural intermediary determines how cute shapes and redefines social and cultural identity.

Petworking as Cultural Intermediation

Much of the existing literature on cute culture has focussed on the impact of cute upon culture, negating the process of their cultural construction. Their construction is, like other creative discourses, the result of mediation by multiple roles between the production and consumption of cultural artefacts. The cultural intermediary plays a crucial role in aligning the construction of meaning that aligns the perspectives of both cultural artefact producers and consumers. For example, cute is constructed by designers and stylists, whereas celebrity is the work of the public relations agent.

Cultural intermediation was first used by Pierre Bourdieu as a way of describing the individual who mediates between and connects different cultural fields. Negus reappropriated the idea by contextualising the cultural intermediary within the creative industries as a means of bridging the gap between cultural production and consumption. Negus focuses on roles such as accountants, A&R agents and senior executives within the creative industries, and concluded that instead of bridging the gap, these roles increase the distance between production and consumption. Disintermediation – a process that involves a direct connection between producer and consumer, or artist and audience – would be more appropriate.

I have previously argued for a combined producer/consumer production model (Hutchinson) that is facilitated by cultural intermediation within the context of media institutions. The cultural intermediary plays a crucial role in aligning the perspective of the contributing authors with the regulatory frameworks of the hosting institutions. Cultural intermediaries may be community managers, program producers, legal teams, or archivists that interface between the contributors and the institutional regulatory framework. For example, an artist might contribute work to a participatory project with little understanding of the regulatory constraints of the project. It is the role of the cultural intermediary to ensure the work maintains its creative and thematic aspiration while aligning with the governing rules of the institution.

To turn cultural intermediation to the practice of petworking, there are two distinct stakeholders: the pets and pet fans. Within petworking, the cultural intermediary is responsible for understanding the interests of pet fans and an understanding of how to represent pets to align with those interests: a process Blewitt described as increasing high relational value. As described earlier, cute is a powerful instrument to promote the popularity of pets and increase their prominence across online spaces. It is therefore not the cuteness of the pets that determine their popularity and virality, but rather the strategic efforts of the cultural intermediary who engages in cute as a useful communication tool.

Boo is a clear example of how cultural intermediaries engage in cute as an apparatus to increase the high relational value of animals for their human counterparts. It is not necessarily the animal themselves as they are not, as Giles suggests, within the first two categories of public figures or the meritocratically famous. They are ordinary pets that have been aligned with the authentic and cute characteristics of animal celebrity by their cultural intermediaries which increases their relational value, thereby creating celebrity pets. In this example, Boo the Pomeranian demonstrates how a cultural icon has been created, or mediated, by his owner, the cultural intermediary, by embracing authentic and cute characteristics and distributing the cultural artefact across social media platforms. In these instances, the agency of the cultural intermediary becomes increasingly important.

Conclusion

If constructed correctly, cute can be used as a powerful instrument to create a cultural artefact. This paper has highlighted the similarities between animal celebrity and cute culture through authenticity and popularity, or “knownness”, of animals. The cute/celebrity framework aligns with petworking to highlight how cute pets are created, mediated and distributed across social media platforms. In this context, it is the role of the cultural intermediary to mediate these celebrity animals by identifying the stakeholder groups associated with petworking, understanding their interests and producing cultural artefacts that address those interests. In the case study of Boo the Pomeranian, it has been demonstrated that the authenticity and cute characteristics are directly connected to popularity. In this situation, the role of the cultural intermediary is to promote those characteristics for the stakeholder groups interested in the cultural artefact, to increase its popularity. The role of the cultural intermediary also demonstrates the significance of intermediation within the production and distribution of cultural goods.

Acknowledgements

Andrew Whelan, Grace O’Neil, Mikaela Griffith, Elizabeth Arnold, Greta Mayr.

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Keywords


cultural intermediary; petworking; social media; cultural intermediation



Copyright (c) 2014 Jonathon Hutchinson

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