My friend Julie and I trade youtube videos. I send her videos of cats doing weird things and she responds with videos of babies doing cute things. Although I really only knew of about 4 cat videos so I’m pretty much tapped out.
Anyway, it got me to thinking about the societal effects of the ubiquity of cute baby/cat/puppy videos on the web. When I see or hear about young people (mainly twenty-something city dwellers with busy/irregular schedules and constantly changing living and financial situations) getting pets and then being unable to properly take care of them, it makes me wonder what they’re thinking when they get the pets.
First consider the classic situation where a child wants a puppy. They’re motivated by how cute puppies are, they think about how much fun it’ll be to play with, all the cool tricks they’ll teach it to do, etc, but as their pre-frontal cortexes are far from fully developed, and they’ve probably had very little experience with responsibility, they think little about the big picture. Also their dog exposure has likely been with other people’s pets. They’ve never actually had to take care of them. They don’t really realize how much hard work and sacrifice that goes into training and taking care of a dog. Parents may try to tell, them, and they claim to get it and that they’ll take care of it. Then of course all too often if they get the puppy, the parents are left taking care of it.
But I’m talking about adults (although many would argue that people of my age and generation are still closer to children in many ways). Still though, there is this same dynamic at work. People see other people’s pets, they see the cute things they do, and don’t see much of the work that goes into caring for them. This leads to a disconnect which causes people to have an inaccurate idea of what it means to be a pet owner. That’s nothing new, but now with the millions of videos on the internet of cats/dogs doing cute and funny things, that disconnect is even greater. Instead of someone’s exposure to pets being comprised almost entirely of real-world experience, wherein they might actually witness some of the downsides of pet ownership (misbehavior, the steaming dumps left on the carpet, biting, shredding of valuables, etc), it’s increasingly made up of media exposure, where they’re very unlikely to witness any of that stuff, and even if they do, they don’t smell the shit or feel the bite (granted, some of the positives are being lost in translation as well).
The videos that are posted on the web, especially the ones that are widely circulated and viewed, tend to be of animals doing cute/funny things. Nobody posts a video of them spending a half hour trying to get a shit stain out of their favorite rug only to have to throw it out, or lying awake in bed fuming with hate because their neighbor’s dog won’t stop barking. But the instant Rufus jumps onto a moving skateboard, it’s uploaded for the world to see. Then we see it, and that positive feeling will be processed by our brains, and added to our unconscious opinion about dogs. Then, when we’re deciding whether or not we should get a puppy, our unconscious, which has been affected by thousands of similar experiences tell us, “Yes, dogs are cute, they do funny things that make you happy,” while the voice saying “Dogs a lot of work and sacrifice” isn’t nearly as strong because there’s not as much past experience of that to draw from.
This, of course, is all just speculation on my part, but I’d be interested to see data on views of cat/dog video views and pet ownership/adoption. Of course this type of effect could be also be happening with babies. How are people’s decisions on whether to have/adopt children being affected by “Charlie Bit My Finger” or THIS? Or with car ownership, or basically any product/service. These types of effects, coupled with humanity’s tendency to be overly optimistic, could account for large scale shifts in our behavior/decision-making.
And to be clear, I’m not trying to say I hate dogs/cats/babies or that when people decide to adopt/have one they’re making a poor, uninformed decision. I just think that it’s important to think about how our ever-growing exposure to media (and to certain types of content) is affecting how we think, feel and make decisions.