Monday, December 22, 2014

What does the rise of cats online mean for real-life cats?

Michael's avatar has joined SAT, thanks to the very talented Lili Chin.

If you’ve got internet access – even if you avoid social media like the plague – there’s one thing you’re almost guaranteed to have seen a lot of. Cats. Cat videos. Cat memes. Cats withpoorly understood congenital abnormalities that are shopped around asclick-bait.

Look at any mainstream news site and in amongst the devastating news of the day there will be a link to a cat-related story. With photos.

Big news: tortoise "relentlessly headbutts cat", supposedly "proving" that "animals can be jerks".
The attraction of cats online has been credited with everything from selling products to, according to at least one article, bringing down totalitarian regimes (see here).

According to Radha O’Meara, quoted in the same article, clicking on cute cats is irresistible, yet has sinister implications – we “facilitate our own surveillance”. Willingly, it appears, if we get our kitty-fix.

Like selfie-studies, studying the rise of the cat online is now the domain of serious academics. And it seems like the fruits of their labour will benefit all of us. Virtual cats (and other animals) influence us in ways we are only beginning to understand.

RMIT Economics Professor Jason Potts claims that the reason "you consume so much internet animal hilarity and so little Shakespearean seriousness" online is a matter of economics (read his argument here).

The worry, of course, is that the appeal of virtual animals will win over the living, breathing kind. Professor Potts notes there has been a consumer drift to “more, different and lower quality: toward five minutes of internet animals, rather than a full day at the zoo.”

Aside from the political and economic implications of our online engagement with animals, the question is how this impacts the time we spend with them, the way we view them, and ultimately the welfare of animals.

Do you find yourself spending more time clicking virtual animals than engaging with animals in real-life?