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The “Funny” Dogs of Unsplash

Thoughts on Man’s Best Friend on Medium’s Best Friend

Top (L to R): Charles Deluvio, Braydon Anderson, Matthew Henry; Bottom (L to R): Alan King, Marion Michele, Charles Deluvio. (Unsplash)

When you spend a few minutes with Felipe Michele, the first thing that strikes you is his utter lack of pretension: He is almost always naked and his preferred method of greeting others is to get an erection (one utterly monumental in proportion to his so-cute-you-want-to-eat-him miniature-Staffordshire-bull-terrier body); and within minutes of our first meeting, on the sidewalk outside of the equally unpretentious but erection-free (besides Felipe’s) Alfred Coffee on Melrose in West Hollywood, he peed on my shoe like it was the most natural thing in the world. The second thing that strikes you about Felipe is this: he’s funny. And he ought to be. He is the dog that illustrates the gateway button to the “Humor” topic on the internet’s medium-length blogging medium de rigeur, Medium. (To get there, click on “More” at the top of the front page — Medium doesn’t care to feature to much humor on its front page in these blockchainy and human-futurey times.) He also would do this super cute, hilarious sneeze-thing when he would try to drink too fast where he would just sneeze so hard it was like he didn’t even know what was going on and then look at you like, What the what?! So in more ways than one, Felipe is a funny dog. And when it comes to Medium, there’s more where he came from.

Felipe Michele. (No, seriously, that’s his name.) Marion Michele, Unsplash.

To understand why Felipe is a funny dog, why he is Medium’s funny dog, and why there are “funny dogs” on Medium, you first have to understand Unsplash. Unsplash is an internet repository of pictures by photographers so unknown, desperate for exposure, and resigned to their amateurism that they make their work available for free to anyone, anywhere, any time. It is a definitional example of how lowered barriers to entry are ultimately detrimental to creative artists. But it’s pretty cool, I guess. Medium is a corporation owned by a Twitter-founding billionaire that relies completely on third-parties for the written content that drives its business model, and also explicitly encourages them to illustrate their writings with pictures and provides them a digital tool to do so. So when, for nebulous “liability reasons,” Medium sought to provide its content-providers with easy access to royalty-free pictures to illustrate their rants and too-personal stories, Unsplash was a match made in heaven. Medium got to say, were it to ever find itself in court for some unimaginable reason, that it took “reasonable measures” to avoid becoming a hub for digital-image copyright violations, and the photographers of Unsplash got to say that someone looked at their stock photography. Chacun voit midi à sa porte!

For many of Medium’s writers, there is no easier way than Unsplash to illustrate their banal bloviations on personal-brand building…and understanding Bitcoin.

For many of Medium’s writers, there is no easier way than Unsplash to illustrate their banal bloviations on personal-brand building, why Trump is dangerous, ambiguous self-improvement, blockchain, how to overcome writer’s block, and understanding Bitcoin: When in need of an illustration for some point or concept in an essay, say, “being the best you as a writer on Medium that you can be,” a Medium writer seeking to be the best simply clicks on a plus sign in the left margin, and clicks on a magnifying glass (the universal “search” symbol that is itself probably the subject of a decades-long patent lawsuit between Alan Emtage, Alta Vista, Ask Jeeves, and Google). Then the writer then types in a key word or two (e.g., “writer’s block”) and a bevy of images arrive, courtesy of Unsplash, ostensibly related to those selfsame key words, to wit:

One out of nine ain’t bad. (Top to bottom, L to R: Bogovil Mihaylov, Ryan Fields, Christian Fregnan, Iker Urteaga, chuttersnap, Sebastian Lengauer, John Salvino, Steve Johnson, Steve Johnson. Unsplash.)

The best part of this arrangement, for Medium and the writer, is that the good-quality images are able to be used royalty free — all the writer is asked to do is provide attribution, which is done automatically by the same digital tool in a caption below the picture. The “best” part for the photographers is, well, they get “exposure,” which, for most articles on Medium, is to the author’s mom and three other Facebook friends.

(To help with my own search results on Medium, I’d like to add that “exposure,” is a type of future-human, blockchain, crypto-currency that is accumulated by hard work, but which cannot ever be spent because no one else wants it, like equity in a house in Buffalo, New York, or “claps” on Medium.)

For most concrete concepts, Unsplash works well enough, at least if you like certain types of overexposed, saccharine, Ultra HDR+ images that usually carry with them an ineffable, dehumidified, apocalyptic, Nameless-Dread-That Knows-No-Name feel, like an android smiling at gunpoint — can he die? is he scared?

For example, “tree:”

Top to Bottom, L to R: Studio Dekorasyon, Rob Mullally, Casey Horner, Jeremy Bishop, Deglee Degi, Matthew Smith, Meric Dagli, Johann Siemens, Johannes Plenio (Unsplash)

Or, more unsettlingly, “person:”

Top to bottom, L to R: Elijah M. Henderson, Hanny Naibaho, Steve Halama, Brennan Burling, Isaac Castillejos, Mubariz Mehdizadeh, Priscilla Du Preez, frankie cordoba, Samuel Dixon (Unsplash)

As might be expected, Unsplash has a little tougher of a time with more esoteric idioms, such as, ironically in the case of most of the imagery of “humans” on Unsplash, “uncanny valley:”

Top to bottom, L to R: Tommy Lisbin, Toby Wong, Hugo Kimmel, Nathan Anderson, Robert Magnusson, Elle Zhu, Roland Larsson, Rob Bye, Meric Dagli (Unsplash)

Unsplash also as trouble grokking abstract concepts like “dread:”

Top to bottom, L to R: Brooke Cagle (x5), Astro Nick, Paul Garaizar, Vadim Fomenok, Toa Heftiba.

But, if you go back and look at the attributional captions of the above examples from Unsplash, you will appreciate perhaps its unintentional, unappreciated, and highest use: A name generator for characters in the novel about ideas(!) that you’ve been working on since grad school. Go back and look: Vadim Fomenok, Hugo Kimmel, Johann Siemens, Brennan Burling, Priscilla Du Preez, Sebastian Lengauer, Christian Fregnan? Those names are up there with Brock Landers and Chest Rockwell.

Unsplash’s unintentional, unappreciated, and highest use: A name generator for characters in the novel about ideas(!) that you’ve been working on since grad school.

“Those are great names.” (Boogie Nights © 1997)

There is one abstract concept, however, that Unsplash does have at least a literal elementary understanding of: Humor.

Top (L to R): Charles Deluvio, Braydon Anderson, Matthew Henry; Bottom (L to R): Alan King, Marion Michele, Charles Deluvio. (Unsplash)

Those images are, in one sense of the word, humorous. Just barely. But still, a dog in sunglasses! A Groucho mask?! Whaaaat?!

“Humor” on Unsplash is not solely represented by dogs — I’ve been selective in the examples chosen above — but a quick scroll through Unsplash after typing in the word “humor” reveals that a disproportionate representation of the concept of mirth comes in the form of animals, many in costume, with dogs forming a solid majority of the exemplars.

“Funny” reveals much the same, with one fruit added to the mix:

Top to bottom, L to R: Mikael Kristenson, Elena Cordery, Charles Deluvio, Braydon Anderson, Charles Deluvio (x2), Matthew Henry, Dan Cook, Alex Guillaume (Unsplash)

(And these photographers’ names again! Seriously if you ever are having trouble naming the characters in your never-to-be-released Big Important Novel, you know where to look: Mikael Kristenson, Alex Guillaume, Bogovil Mihaylov, Iker Urteaga... Just outstanding.)

Which brings us back to Felipe Michele, the Medium “Humor Dog.” At Alfred I picked Felipe’s brain on humor; the concept of canine irony; and Ken Jennings’ lament in his latest book Planet Funny that we, as a culture, have become humor-saturated, unable to take anything seriously — especially the stuff that we should be taking seriously, like the fate of our democracy and our planet.

Unfortunately, it turns out Felipe had nothing to say on any of those subjects. He panted a lot, peed on every chair in the roped-off, comfortably cramped, très Parisien sidewalk-cafe area in front of Alfred.

However, Felipe did catch the shadow of my napkin on the sidewalk as I absent-mindedly waved it while I was trying to think of something to write for this article given that my main subject could not speak — a problem I had inexplicably not foreseen (I had thought I’d just go full on absurd and make the dog talk, but I decided against it at the last minute) — and chased the napkin’s shadow around the sidewalk for several moments. Hilariously cute. As I said, Felipe is a funny dog. But he is nothing if not reclusive. If I wanted to learn more about the funny dogs of Unsplash, I was going to have to keep looking.

Next it was off to Chuckle Mutts on Sunset, the center of dog-comedy in Los Angeles. There, I met Charles Deluvio, Montreal-based graphic designer and guardian (owner is decidedly not the term any more) of Toshi, Medium’s and Unsplash’s second most famous “funny” dog.

Charles took me backstage, where Toshi had just finished a standup set and was drinking a SmartWater and flipping through a notebook as he prepared for another ten minutes later that evening. Charles introduced me to Toshi, who agreed to spend a few minutes on the record. An excerpt of that interview follows, edited for time and clarity:

J.P. Melkus: What do you make of your fame as probably the most visible “funny dog” on Unsplash?

Toshi Deluvio: It’s been a strange trip. Charles loves to dress me up and take pictures of me. I have my own Instagram page. So I’m used to the exposure. I don’t love the costumes, but I humor Charles, so to speak.

JP: In what way are dogs funny that people aren’t?

TD: I think dogs and people can be funny in many of the same ways. People are more verbal, obviously. It’s always, “Come here,” and “No,” and “Wanna go for a ride?” Blah, blah, blah. Dogs are more physical. Costumes are the main thing, but you also have the whole drinking-out-of-a-sprinkler thing, chasing our tails, and all that stuff. I think that’s mostly played out, but it’s still big. But we can be verbal too, dogs. Like you know your dog can bark at you sarcastically. Like, “Where’s the tennis ball now, asshole? Let me guess, in your other hand?” So there’s that. Be we can be more highbrow. I have five minutes in my set about climate change.

JP: Do you mind being known mostly for being in small clothes though?

TD: Not really. I embrace it. I mean, I’m cute. I get it. So, I do what I do. Plus, it’s good exposure for Charles, and he feeds me, so…

JP: But at the end of the day, is a dog in a costume, without more, funny?

TD: I mean to some people, I suppose so. I can’t pretend to understand them. I am still a dog.

JP: Have you made any money from your exposure on Unsplash?

TD: [peals of laughter] No. I don’t know about Charles.

(The rest of my interview with Toshi will run in an upcoming issue of GQ.)

As long as people are writing humor on Medium, they will need pictures to go with their writing. As long as they are lazy, they will grab free images off Unsplash. As long as they just search “humor” or “funny,” they will find images of dogs, mostly in clothes. And as long as they don’t know about Flickr and don’t know any photographers or graphic artists themselves, they will use those images as ersatz illustrations of their cachinnatory disquisitions. So the “funny” dogs of Unsplash will always have exposure, for whatever that’s worth.

But it’s not worth much. Working to get exposure is an unpaid internship that never ends. And for dogs, like people, that is unsustainable. For socially and economically disadvantaged and otherwise stigmatized dogs in particular, the unpaid “exposure” provided by Unsplash is not a viable option long term. Those dogs don’t have wealthy parent-dogs who can subsidize their apartment in Brooklyn or San Francisco while they try to get their modeling or standup careers off the ground. They don’t have inheritances to look forward too. They don’t have law school to fall back on. They need to eat now. And Unsplash simply does not put food in the bowl. So one wonders how long we’ll be seeing some dogs on Unsplash’s eerie soulless pages. One even wonders how long we’ll see Unsplash, as the “free but a lot of it” business model continues to be called into question.

One even wonders how long we’ll see Unsplash, as the “free but a lot of it” business model continues to be called into question.

But until those days of reckoning come, the humor writers of Medium will continue to see the “funny” dogs of Unsplash, begging to be used. Because free or not, funny or not, they’re all good boys!

Photo by Brianna Santellan on Unsplash

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J.P. Melkus

J.P. Melkus

It's been a real leisure. [That picture is not me.--ed.]