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From CuteOverload to ‘social petworks,’ adorable animals own the Web

Here’s an exercise for you: Log into your favorite social site (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine …we know you use one of all of these, don’t lie) and check out the feed. My gut instinct tells me it won’t take you that long before you hit a photo, status, tweet, video clip, or reblog that contains a cute animal in some way, shape, or form. In fact, you probably “liked” some of them, if not personally posted one (or all) yourself. Let’s face it – the Internet is pet crazy, and hey, it has every right to be. On the Web, animals are superstars … and that’s not really an expression anymore (allow me to reference the Grumpy Cat movie).

Is this Internet devotion to the cute fuzzy things among us just a natural extension of how much we love them in real life, or has the Web elevated our love of pets and taken it to a whole other (borderline weird) place?

The four-legged popular crowd

famous keyboard catEdgemere Ltd., an equestrian supplies shop based in England, published an infographic that adequately visualizes the extent of the Internet’s fondness for pets and animals. YouTube alone has an extensive supply of cutesy, funny, and amazing cat and dog and horse and whatever-animal-you-have that have gone viral. You’ve got a dog chasing a bunch of deer (8.9 million views), a Golden Eagle almost snatching a baby (42.5 million views), a kitty battling a toaster (3.4 million views), and nine minutes worth of goat awesomeness (11.5 million), among a bunch of other animal videos that have piqued the interest of millions and have made it to countless Favorites lists.

The Web is also home to a few celebrity pets – like the previously mentioned Grumpy Cat, who’s so freaking popular that her Twitter handle warrants the inclusion of the word “Real.” There’s also the cute Pomeranian furball named Boo (who reportedly has more Facebook likes than Will.i.am and who was victim to a death hoax that took the Web by storm) and Sockington, a regular house cat that has more Twitter followers than Sir Paul McCartney. They all have Facebook pages like famous people do. “They” post tweets just like the rest of us – except their followers are much more interested in their goings-on than they are in ours. Do you have millions of people waiting to hear a tweet or post come from your adorable paws? I didn’t think so.

And there’s no indication whatsoever that any of this petsanity will slow down.

Animal social networks and the evolution of I Can Has Cheezburger?

Anybody who has been around the virtual block before knows what a lolcat is and has probably spent a solid hour or two perusing the wealth of funny animal pictures on I Can Has Cheezburger, one of the largest humor sites existing on the Internet. The site’s massive popularity has given birth to a slew of creature-centric sites that aim to alleviate bad moods and diminish stress levels, and if there’s one thing that our animal love has done to social media, it’s open the gates wide for them to come in and sit in our comfy laps while we spend hour upon hour sucking in all the information we can from other people’s lives (because really, that’s all that you’re doing on Facebook and Twitter and the like, amirite?)

There is an abundance of pet lovers on the World Wide Web, and for fear of over-saturating the usual social media haunts with posts that prove this undying affection, a number of them have turned to specialized social networks that specifically cater to pet owners and their beloved non-human companions. Some platforms have even gone as far as tailoring their services as if the animals themselves are signing up for online profiles.

“According to The Telegraph in the U.K., one in 10 pets has a social media profile,” says Gabriel Mederos, Manager for Public Relations and Corporate Affairs at Nestle Purina Pet Care Company. “People seem to want to share information on their pets and social media is a great avenue to share this information. Mark Zuckerberg’s dog, Beast, has his own Facebook Page with over 1.5 million likes. It speaks to the engagement that people feel with pets.”

PawsWay is Nestle Purina’s very own pet-centered social network that provides many resources for dog and cat lovers at all stages of pet ownership. Whether you’re considering adopting a pet, have a new pet or have recently lost a pet, the site provides a platform for members to ask questions, share stories, post pictures, and ask experts for their input. “We designed PawsWay to be a hub for all things pet related and, more importantly, for the network to be interactive,” Mederos adds.

Another animal social network that recently launched in the U.K. is Yummypets, the number one social “petwork” in France, where it originally launched over a year ago. Pet “parents” can put up profiles for their animals, browse classified ads, manage vet appointments, put up “missing pet” notices, and join discussion forums based around animal breeds. “The majority of the activity on the site is members commenting and be-friending other pets,” says Charlie Léon, International Brand Manager at Yummypets. “We will also be launching a locator function so that pet owners can easily find pet businesses near them. This service will also be free, like all the others on the site.”

CuteOverload paved the way for these networks. It was the place to get your adorable fix, a trend that has quickly spread Web-wide. Of course, now we’re finding we’re not just content with looking at photos of cute animals – we have to make profiles for them too.

Why are animal social networks becoming so popular these days? How are they any different from posting pet-centered content on social media sites like Facebook? “We noticed some time ago that many Facebook users started to create profiles for their pets,” Léon explains. “At first, many people found it ‘cool’ and funny but after a while it was clear that Facebook wasn’t the ideal place for passionate pet owners to dote on their animal companions.” For an avid animal lover, sharing the passion will be hard to contain, and even with an all-encompassing platform such as Facebook, an overload of cat photos and puppy videos can contribute to social media fatigue for the average onlooker.

“We feel that niche animal social networks provide people with a platform where they can share, interact, ask questions and post their opinions about all things pets. Most members of animal social networks use these platforms as an area to communicate exclusively about pets, in an environment that encourages pet conversations,” adds Mederos.

An educated guess of why animal social networks exist and are becoming a more accepted sub-genre of social networking is pretty simple: As long as social media thrives, there will always be a demand for an outlet to talk about a certain topic (any topic, really) excessively, without annoying others who aren’t as zealous. That absolutely includes animals and the joys of pet ownership.

And as for the reasons people create Facebook or Twitter and other social media profiles for their pets? According to Mederos, people are inclined to create profiles for their pets so that they are able to introduce their furry friends to the community, giving them a voice and virtually involve them in the conversation. “Pets are great topics of conversation – pet lovers may want to create profiles for their pets as a means of ‘breaking the ice.'”

“Pets have an important place in their owners’ lives, that’s for certain. Sharing a photo of your pet is much like sharing a photo of your child – there is a similar sense of pride and love,” Léon says.

Animals online: Keep ‘em comin’!

Perhaps the best attempt at explaining why the Internet loves animals so much (enough to dedicate pages to them and set up petworks) is done in visual form.

Especially when they are having a hard time with life, being to cute and stuff.

Or when they act like humans – we already dress them up in people clothes, anyway. It’s just extra fun to imagine what they’d be like as one of us.

Don’t you just feel better already? Of course if you want some more concrete reasons (seriously, after all that, you’re not just in a cute coma?) there are plenty. Studies say that looking at pictures of animals at work can make you more productive. In fact, the human brain has a very distinct way of reacting to pictures of animals, unique to how it responds to people, places, or objects (which might be why a photo of an anaconda scares the hell out of you, too). Combine these instincts with the amount of time we spend online, at our desks, or staring at a screen in some way shape or form, and our affinity for mixing the Internet and animals makes complete sense.

Of course it’s not all neurons and stimuli; really it’s very simple. Social networking and Web trends come and go. Your MySpaces, your Xangas, your Bloggers, your Friendsters – there’s no guarantee that they or any other social-Web product is forever. But one thing will always remain: Puppies and kittens are just seriously so, so, so cute.

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