Grumpy Cat move over: dogs snapping at feline heels in battle for internet supremacy
When internet historians look back at 2014, it may well be deemed the year of the cat – and all because of one grouchy feline.
With perhaps the exception of Frozen and Pharrell Williams' Happy, few things were as inescapable last year as Grumpy Cat. The two-year-old kitty, real name Tardar Sauce, endorsed everything from cappuccinos and pet food to soft toys and books. She even appeared in a made-for-TV-movie Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever. Altogether, the famous feline raked in so much that owner Tabatha Bundesen was able to quit her waitressing job – though she disputes the US$100 million earnings reported by British tabloid The Express.
However, the cranky kitten's position may be coming under threat.
"As it stands, Grumpy Cat is the most famous animal in the world, but dogs are definitely catching up," says Shirley Braha, owner of a 12-year-old Shih Tzu named Marnie.
Marnie, a rescue dog whose perpetually lolling tongue and tilted head combine to make her look like a canine version of the :P emoticon, has almost a million followers on Facebook and Instagram. She is one of several dogs slowly but surely climbing the rungs of internet fame. So will 2015 be the year of the dog?
"I think historically on the internet, dogs haven't been given their due," Braha says. "Now people are thinking 'we did cats, so let's do dogs'."
While she's a long way from Grumpy Cat's level of fame, Braha makes enough from sales of Marnie T-shirts and calendars to live in notoriously expensive New York city.
"When I started [running Marnie's social media accounts] full-time in September, I was hardly making any money, but I wanted to devote myself to the project," Braha says. "Things always come up, such as press opportunities. If I had an office job, there's no way I could do this."
Braha isn't the only dog owner who has turned running their pet's internet presence into a full-time job. David Fung and Yena Kim also make a good living in New York as publicists and stylists for their pet, four-year-old Bodhi, better known as the Menswear Dog.
"We were just bored one weekend and thought it would be fun to dress our handsome Shiba Inu in serious menswear clothes," Fung says.
After friends raved about their "inside joke" on Facebook, the couple launched the Menswear Dog Fashion Blog (tagline: "a dog's guide to being a man") in January 2013. The blog went viral, and within days they received an email from GQ magazine requesting an interview. Bodhi's fashion sense has since earned him coverage in a myriad of publications, including Time, and an appearance on Anderson Cooper 360.
Viral success, however, isn't as simple as just posting a couple of snaps of a cute pup. "In the first year there was a lot of hours spent on Instagram," says Olof Nilsson Heijer, owner of three-year-old Boss the French Bulldog.
Kim and Fung agree. "A lot of work and preparation goes into planning an image - we have to set up the studio, plan the outfit, play with lighting etc, but when it comes to the photoshoot, we shoot very quickly and it typically only lasts five to 10 minutes because we don't want Bodhi to get tired or bored," Fung says.
The work has paid off. According to a Fast Company report in October, the couple makes as much as US$15,000 a month from endorsements, sponsored posts and collaborations with brands including Ted Baker, and South Korean department store Comodo Square.
But popularity online doesn't always translate into money.
Leo Leung, whose five Shiba Inu (Yakult, Yobi, Toro, Mini and Mochi) known collectively as We5 have been a hit in Hong Kong and beyond, has struggled to support himself and his pets.
Still, Leung remains upbeat about his labour of love.
"There is really a lot of work behind raising [the dogs]," he says. "It isn't about money, though I'm very poor, but the consistency of love, care, and patience.
"I hope one day all the We5 followers and likers will understand our story rather than just focus on how cute they are."
He published a photo book last year – WE5's Story Photo Book – telling the story of his relationship with the dogs, which he now promotes fulltime.
(Leung isn't the only Hongkonger to see his pets achieve viral fame. Tsim Tung Brother Cream, a British Shorthair cat belonging to Tsim Sha Tsui convenience store owner Ko Chee-shing, has more than 175,000 likes on Facebook and has appeared in advertisements for Nikon and Wing On Travel.)
While Bodhi and Marnie are by no means the first dogs to achieve internet fame, canines have generally had a harder time of it than their feline counterparts. The most famous dog on Facebook, Boo the Pomeranian, has been hounded - sorry for the pun - by critics who accuse his owner of a kind of animal nepotism.
All Things D reported in August 2012 that Boo’s owner, who had up to that point strenuously kept her name out of the media despite her dog appearing on Good Morning America, among other places, was a “dyed-in-the-wool Facebook employee working in a leading position in the company’s finance department.”
“Curious isn’t it, that Mr Dog boasts close to five million fans on Facebook, where his owner’s boss is banking on just that kind of user engagement?” Betabeat wrote at the time. (Boo now has more than 16.8 million fans.)
While Boo may have got an initial helping hand in launching his career thanks to his owner’s Facebook connections, the rise and rise of social media – particularly Instagram and other photo sharing services – has made it easier than ever for an animal to achieve viral fame.
There are even platforms designed exclusively for this, for instance, Klooff, which describes itself as "a place where you can share your cats and dogs with the world".
Chief executive and co-founder Alejandro Russo says Klooff "allows pet owners to 'celebrify' their animals and vote for the cutest and funniest pets around".
"People post photos of their pets, they share photos of their dogs and cats with our community, and their photos get voted every day into a daily ranking."
Since launching in early 2014, Russo and his colleagues have noticed a surprising trend: dog photos are enjoying a big spike.
"Of our userbase, close to 80 per cent of photos uploaded are dog photos," he says.
Google Trends data on interest in cats and dogs over time shows a clear preference for canines, with almost double the number of searches for "dog" than "cat" every year from 2004 to 2014.
Still, this spike in searches doesn't necessarily indicate a preference for dogs. "It simply means we have more questions about them" than the far more easy to care for cat, according to an overview of dog and cat analytics in Digital Trends.
However, the report found that dogs also came out on top in terms of Facebook likes, Instagram followers, YouTube views and Twitter posts. In fact, dogs beat cats in every category but one: celebrity animals.
Even controlling for different potential queries, searches for "Grumpy Cat" outnumber those for "cutest dog in the world" Boo (by far the most famous internet canine) by almost two to one.
According to Digital Trends, while statistics “may have proven that dogs rule search, cats individually are able to capture that certain viral something” that is a prerequisite for online fame.
“Part of it is that the famous cats have very distinct personalities,” says Chelsea Marshall, animals editor and ‘Beastmaster’ at BuzzFeed.
“Grumpy Cat is us on our curmudgeon-y days, Maru [a Tokyo-based Scottish Fold who jumps into boxes] is smart and is a master of tricks, and Lil Bub was sent from outer space.”
“The more famous dogs are wonderful but they’re not that different than those you’d meet on the street. More than that, when a dog acts cute or is well-trained, a large part of the credit goes to the human, whereas with the famous cats, there’s this sense that the cat decided to do whatever he or she is doing," she said.
That individuality is particularly apparent when it comes to superstar cats. While many famous or aspiring dogs are pure bred and/or identified by their breed (Doug the Pug, Boss the French Bulldog, Pomeranian Boo), the feline superstars are mostly mongrels. Bodhi may be a very fine looking dog, but when he’s not wearing Ted Baker it can be difficult for anyone but his owners to tell him apart from another Shiba Inu.
As New York magazine wrote in a post-mortem of Cat Fancy, “modern feline icons like Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub are mutts with genetic deformities. They wouldn’t have made it past the front door at a Golden Age cat show.”
This aberration from pedigree rules gives the animals’ character and a brand: no other cat looks like Lil Bub. This can be the key to internet fame, particularly if the animal is perpetually funny looking.
"There are two factors that make a pet photo go viral. It's either cute or funny, and the funny photos are usually dominated by cats," says Klooff's Russo.
Dogs and puppies may win when it comes to overall cuteness, but off-the-charts viral success comes from humour.
"Cats are the perfect vehicle for internet humour because they are cute, but very self-possessed and rather arrogant and pompous," Matt Smith, director of strategy for the Viral Factory, told Mashable in 2010.
"Since there's nothing the web loves more than puncturing pomposity, they are a great target because they can easily be made to look foolish."
However, while we may be more likely to share something funny than something cute, Jack Shepherd, original BuzzFeed ‘Beastmaster’ and now its editorial director, thinks a significant degree of cats’ perceived or actual online popularity may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In an op-ed for the Guardian, Shepherd wrote: “Having looked at the data, which reveals that readers are just as likely to search for things about dogs as they are to search for things about cats, I’ve grown partial to another … theory, which is that those of us who write about animals on the internet have unquestioningly bought into the cat hype and are perpetuating it.”
“The cat propaganda machine is ruthlessly effective, and the online animal media is almost completely under the sway of the powerful cat lobby," he added.
This may begin to change as the content machines which drive the internet realise that dogs are as good for traffic as cats. A recent (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) study in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics analysed articles in the New York Times and found that "the presence of a dog can effectively propel a story from the back page of the National section to the front page."
BuzzFeed’s Marshall has also found that canine traffic is nothing to be sniffed at: “Dog content has done better than it has in previous years – ‘What Kind of Dog Are You?’ is still my top post above ‘What Kind of Cat’.”
If, as Russo suggests, the divide between cat and dog photos is about the difference between funny and cute, then the rise in the popularity of dogs (and cute content in general) may be down to a darker trend: we reach for cute content when the toxicity, anger and outrage of the wider internet becomes too much.
"I like to use the term 'eye bleach'," says Adam Henderson, a moderator of Reddit's "r/Aww" forum, one of the largest aggregators of cute animal photos on the web.
"We like to think of 'aww' as a place where you can go and get joy," says Henderson. "We're really all for providing that pure cuteness without the rest of the world coming crashing in."
With the war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, #BringBackOurGirls and #ICantBreathe, airline disasters and the Ebola outbreak, it's no surprise that, according to Google Trends, 2014 was a banner year for people searching for "cute" content.
Cats may make us laugh until we cry, but when we need an antidote for another type of tears, there’s nothing like a good dog.