In case you’ve been living under a rock, Joe Biden is the President-elect of the United States, and people on the Internet ~have feelings~ about pets (specifically, dogs) being back in the White House come January 20. President-elect and incoming First Lady Dr. Jill Biden have two German Shepherd dogs, Champ and Major, and while Champ has spent time in DC before, Major was adopted by the Bidens from the Delaware Humane Society in 2018, which will make him the first rescued and adopted dog to live in the White House.
The Internet immediately took to Champ and Major, as it is want to do when it comes to adorable pets and animals. The hashtag and label DOTUS (Dogs of the United States) took off, and fan accounts popped up on Instagram and Twitter to document the incoming First Dogs’ shenanigans.
I’ve spent the last several years deep in the communities and cultures of the Internet’s pets and animals (and am currently writing a book on this for Rutgers University Press), so I knew the love for the President-elect’s dogs wasn’t just they were an added bonus for those feeling victorious about Donald Trump’s electoral college and popular vote defeats (though, it was probably a little of that). The love for the First Dogs-elect is emblematic of the larger relationship between pets, animals, and digital cultures, and it comes at a time when pets and cuteness have become intertwined with finding joy online.
A common refrain on social media, be it Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, goes something like this: “Bad day. Send pet pics.” “Feeling crummy and could really use some adorable animals as pick-me-ups.” Buzzfeed, specifically Buzzfeed Pets and BuzzFeed Animals, has adopted a similar listicle strategy of compiling cute pictures of animals in the name of “boosting your serotonin.” Obviously, cute pictures of animals and pets can make people smile and feel better. But this social media maneuver underscores something rather optimistic I’ve found in my research into the internet’s pets and animals: We’re actually willing to take care of each other online.
Similar common sayings found on the internet include things like “Hell is other internet people,” or “the Internet is a dumpster fire.” Given the partisan politics, misinformation, abuse, harassment, doxing, filter bubbles, trolling, and hate speech populating the modern web, it is no surprise these sentiments persist. But why do we do stay? Why do we stay online? To be sure, a lot of people don’t, and they’re often driven offline by this abuse. But we also find joy in our digital practices, and we work together with people we know — and sometimes those we don’t — to make our digital spaces habitable.
Cute pictures of pets and animals aren’t the reason we stay online, but they certainly help make the experience better. In asking for these types of pictures after a bad day, we outsource our care and trust our friends and followers (who are sometimes complete strangers) to help us out — and most of the time, a large amount of people answer this call. This is also something I found in my interviews with people who run Instagram accounts for their pets — there’s so much toxicity online that being able to break that up with the occasional cute post to brighten someone’s day is one of the driving motivations for continuing pet Instagram accounts. There’s not a lot to be optimistic about online these days, but our willingness to try to cheer up our fellow humans through posting cute pet and animal pictures is just a little glimmer of positivity.
In our broader social media landscapes, social media featuring Champ and Major, or #DOTUS, is a similar reprieve when considering the type of content we became accustomed to during the Donald Trump’s presidency. Whether it was erratic tweetstorms at all hours of the night, or the dozens of tweets marked as misinformation in the wake of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, the joy and cuteness of First Dogs social media is a radical departure from the governing by tweet social media style of the Trump Administration. The First Dogs are cute. They’re wholesome. They’re hopeful. And they give us hope.
PS: I guess I can get rid of my subtly resistant “He doesn’t even have a dog” tank top now.