I've never once said "I could really use a photo of a dog right about now" in the middle of a truly bad day, or tweeted a request that said something like "please send cute pet pics."
But a certain subcategory of people who are Going Through It will tweet or post a Facebook update asking people to send them photos of cute pets (dogs, cats, birds, the species is mutable but the sentiment is the same) in order to make them feel better.
If you have somehow never seen this and have no idea what I'm talking about, here are a small handful of examples. And here's a classic:
Why do people do this? If seeing adorable puppies and kitties cures ills, Google exists. Go to Google, search for "cute dogs," and you'll be rewarded with an essentially infinite stream of dogs the algorithm deemed cute. Instagram is also full of them. There are entire Twitter accounts devoted to spelling words phonetically and pretending that a dog is managing the feed. Here's one, let me know if it makes you feel better:
Maybe I'm just an asshole, I always think when I roll my eyes at someone making a plea for bad-day-cute-whatevers. Maybe people actually are healed via internet puppy photos, and I am just severely cold-hearted and irony-poisoned.
As it turns out, I am those things, and more than one researcher told me so. But I have—or, had, before writing this blog—a few of my own theories on this. All of them are misguided, according to the experts.
One theory was that Googling cute pets isn't the same as asking people to send you images of cute pets because what people really seek is the dopamine rush of a notification. That ping of a like or reply is surely what we crave.
I was (a little bit) wrong.
"Social connection is one of our primary needs, so dopamine or not, these response have meaning in that they make people feel a bit more connected and not alone," Pamela Rutledge, director at the independent research nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, told me.
"Some of the pleas to send cute animals also refer to other things the requester appears to find comforting or humorous (i.e. fabulous outfits) but basically, they are asking for something that makes them happy," she said. "Cute animals, especially puppies, trigger a warm and fuzzy biological response in humans since large eyes and large heads are common baby traits. These traits trigger our caretaker response."
I'm already, at this point, a confirmed asshole for feeling disdain toward kittens and puppies. But I needed a second opinion. So I asked social psychologist Erin Vogel.
"Looking at cute things does make us feel good!" Vogel told me. Science backs this up: A study published in 2015 showed that people who watched internet cat videos reported feeling less anxiety, sadness, and annoyance after their binge sessions.
Vogel added that tacking on a cute pets request to your bad-day venting can be a way to spin a negative into a positive. "Needing attention and support is perfectly natural, but the norms of social media are sometimes biased against seeking support," she said.
This debunks another (again, misguided and embarrassing) theory I had about the asking for cute pets pictures phenomenon: that it's some sort of loyalty test, and no different than those chain-letters people post to Facebook that direct friends to repost and prove they read it. If I don't send a photo of my roommate's 40 pound cat, am I a bad friend?
Actually, it's a way to reach out to one's network in a low-commitment way. The requester gets to admit they're not doing so great, and those on the receiving end get an open door invitation to post photos of their animals. Something people really fucking love to do. It's a way to connect.
"Not only does the cuteness make you happy, you might also feel like that person is supporting you.... Sending cute pictures is one of the creative ways we can show other people support online," Vogel said. "Social support comes in many forms, from listening to someone's problems to giving someone money. Sending cute pictures can be a way to communicate sympathy and caring online."
I have to admit that I have asked friends privately to send photos of their pets when I'm feeling bad, or when I've just finished venting about some sorry situation in my life and I want to redirect the energy to something more positive. They always deliver, because they're good people, and we get to talk about how cats zoom at night or discuss the best litter boxes instead of my woes. That feels good.
There are many ways the internet has unveiled and sometimes worsened society's deep isolation, violence, and sadness—and a picture of a cat isn't a substitute for an actual conversation and support. But cute online animals are the least of our problems.
I asked Ken Klippenstein, who made the tweet above, why he felt compelled to ask the internet for some cute pics on a rough day. "I dunno, I guess I just really like dogs but also seeing how much their owners clearly love them is endearing too," he said. "Cheers me up."
I can't really argue with that.