Thursday, April 20, 2017

From LOLCats to Rated Dogs

We may need no further evidence of the progress we've made as a society than the fact that dogs, not cats, now power the Internet.

It's been close to a decade since LOL cats became a thing on the Internet. You know, those pictures of cats in various positions, superimposed with captions written in, presumably, kittyspeak, that drove the online world cat mad. In a good way.

Apparently it's time for the cats to move over though. Things have changed and there are millions of Twitter followers to prove it.The inaugural talk of the MIT Humor Series (not only is there one, but there's a research fund in support of it) featured academics Jonny Sun and Susan Benesch in conversation with the man behind the wildly popular Twitter account @dog_rates, exploring the phenomenon it has become and the role of humor in online discourse. Rating dogs online is pretty much what it sounds like, which is a dog-rating account. You send in a picture of your dog, and if you're lucky it receives a numerical rating, accompanied by a caption. But then again it's not. It's actually a person, who turns out to be Matt Nelson, impersonating a dog who rates other dogs, sometimes picking fights with picture submitters and viewers, and often ignoring the constraints of the 10-point rating scale. 

L to R: Jonny Sun, Matt Nelson aka The Dogfather,
and Susan Benesch at the MIT Media Lab, April 2017

Nelson started the account on a whim in his North Carolina college dorm room in November 2015, picking up 100,000 followers in his first month online. By January 2017 the number of dog rating enthusiasts on Twitter had swelled to 1 million, and as of April 2017 is approaching 1.8 million. Along the way he's direct messaged with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and Hamilton's Lin Manuel Miranda and received coverage in The Washington Post.

Yes there are lots of dog accounts on Twitter and Instagram but most of them are just cute canines doing cute things like wearing tiaras and ties. Things that make people go dawwww. Most people post pictures of their own dogs, while Nelson aggregates and then adds captions, often written in a kind of lingua franca of frequenters of the account. He explains: "The first time I used "af" people lost their minds. So then I tried to use it as often as possible. The life cycle of these things is short. I try to expand them beyond the usual few weeks so I can get the t-shirts made."

What does the workflow look like for a Twitter account rapidly approaching 2 million followers? "We're sent a stupid amount of pictures each day", Nelson told the standing room only crowd assembled on the 6th floor of the Media Lab. "1 guy condenses them to 20 to 30 pictures and then sends those to me. If inspiration hits immediately I can get the caption done in 5 seconds. If not, I put the pictures into a folder for later consideration, so it takes anywhere from 5 seconds to 30 minutes to come up with just the right caption."

While the account is primarily a combination of puppy love and inside jokes, @dog_rates does not shy away from taking a political stance, as was the case at the Women's March held in Toronto in January 2017.

...but not everyone was happy

Nelson ended up losing the most followers ever on the day of the march, when 800 dropped off. The good news is that 37,000 were added. And as the Internet is endlessly generative the rating trope has extended beyond rating dogs, to things such as rating dads.

@dog_rates founder Matt Nelson gets the pleasure of being the inspiration for such offshoot accounts  as We Rate Dads but doesn't benefit in any financial way. "Anyone can rate anything. Just like anyone can post pictures of dogs", he pointed out. But clearly there's room for it all in the world of rating things online. In addition to the Twitter account that he says often takes as much time as a full time job Nelson has an app and a book slated for publication this fall.

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