Was one of the last DMs you received on Instagram a video of ducklings wearing flowers for hats, or floating in a sink full of water? An overzealous cockapoo dancing on the couch with his human? A husky throwing a tantrum because he can’t get in?

If sharing cute animal content is your love language, you’re not alone — you’re part of a larger cultural phenomenon called the cute economy.

The cute economy is not just a network of cute content that people participate in creating, sharing, and circulating, but also a multi-billion dollar business due to the ability of creators to monetize their content.

Media researcher James Meese defines the cute economy as the creation and circulation of user-generated content depicting entities (animals, babies, plants, objects, etc.) perceived as cute.

While researchers and journalists have shed some light on this social media phenomenon, sharing photos of cute animals is nothing new. Over 100 years ago, photographer Harry Whittier Frees created new postcards of anthropomorphic animals.

Our research focuses on the specific but important segment of the cute economy that drives pet content. We find that cuteness in pet content is represented through the following archetypes: clumsy or silly pets, small (aka “smol”) or young animals, cross-species content, child-pet pairs, extreme sizes and ratios ( very small or very large). ), unusual appearances and animal behaviors that we interpret as humans.

While some pet accounts have more followers than politicians and celebrities to generate their own virality – like Jiff Pom at 9.9m, Nala at 4.3m, Doug the Pug at 3.9m and Juniper at three million — another catalyst for circulation of cute pet content is meme or feature accounts that post repurposed and curated content, like Matt Nelson’s cross-platform company WeRateDogs.

Just like influential moms who create social media accounts for their human babies, pet parents have also created social media accounts to show off their domesticated companions.

Since people have been humanizing their pets since before the dawn of the internet, a pet’s presence on social media is a form of pretend play.

Pet account managers visually humanize their fur babies by using clothing, accessories, or accessories. They also humanize their pets textually, giving them a human voice.

The content creator will even add species-specific lexicon like catspeak, also known as meowlogisms, or infantilized speech like lolspeak – internet slang from lolcat memes.

Yet kindness has a threshold. Several participants we interviewed for our research explained that while anthropomorphism can be cute, if it appears forced or inauthentic, it becomes perceived as the opposite of cute.

And many content creators have caught on to this curation of cuteness and are making sure their content doesn’t deteriorate into cringe.

One of our interlocutors (who manages an account for her turtle) expressed her discomfort and uncertainty regarding the creation of subtitles. She says it’s hard to find “the balance between being grumpy and entertaining”.

Nurture Relationships: Cute content is shared because it describes a relatable experience to its appreciators. It also serves as a gift of attention and a sign of closeness in a relationship.

One of our interviewees knows that her daughter-in-law is a fan of horses and specifically sends her content about horses. We find that this gesture signals that the sender truly knows what warms the recipient’s heart.

Yearning for a future: Consuming cute content can also be yearning. For example, one of our interviewees hopes to adopt a dog when she moves into a pet-friendly building. She is dedicated to following accounts that portray her ambitious lifestyle like The Golden Ratio.

Proxy Interspecies Connection: Cute content satisfies its consumers because it allows them to interact with animals remotely, without the need to allocate resources to care for them.

One of our interviewees, an otter lover, insatiably consumes online content about otters but does not want or have the skills to domesticate one.

For a cause: Cute content can also serve as a medium for change. A creator or an appreciator may share content to increase awareness of a cause or to change the opinion of others.

For example, one of our interviewees runs the account of her pet duck which depicts it as friendly, loving and having a unique personality, much like any traditional pet. Through his duck account, this pet parent aims to teach his followers about the harms of speciesism and advocates for humane coexistence with all animals.

Research has shown that watching cute animal videos is good for our own mental health.

Whether you’re a creator, an appreciator, or both, cute content is a conversation starter and relationship builder: it breaks the ice when people run out of things to talk about or when they want to let others know they’re care about them.

Given people’s inability to come together as frequently and intimately due to the pandemic, we were able to share our love from a distance using these small gestures of caring.

Society is fortunate that technology allows people to strengthen ties. But, because we can’t have pretty things, there’s a dark side to the cute economy, so don’t forget to share content from animals that might have been exploited.

Ghalia Shamayleh is a doctoral candidate in marketing at Concordia University. His research interests focus on the effect of technology and the Internet, particularly social media, on the expression of consumer identity, their relationships with other consumers and the brands they consume.