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My friends complain that their Facebook is full of endless baby pictures. I nod, pretending to agree. My Facebook is also filled with babies. But they are not quite the same. Mine are spider babies. And there are thousands of them.
Bug Facebook is a loose confederation of Facebook groups devoted to various types of bugs. The first group I found was Jumping Spiders (Salticidae). I’d always been into bugs — you know, in a casual, weirdo way. But I’d just taken a photo of a pretty great jumping spider and wanted to share it with people who cared. So I went to Facebook’s search bar and typed in “jumping spiders.”
The thing about Bug Facebook is that once you find one group, you’re likely to find others. Facebook recommends them eagerly. I soon found myself clicking the “join” button for Insects and Spiders of Illinois, Moths of the Eastern United States, Winging It! (spider and insect meme group), Spider and Insect Enthusiast, and Useless, Unsuccessful, and Unpopular Bees.
I used to read a lot of news on Facebook, but since the “fake news” fiasco, Facebook has removed most news pages from my timeline. Now, by some quirk of the algorithm, almost all of my timeline is Bug Facebook. I’ll log on and see pictures of “BB8,” an adorable (okay, to me) orange-and-white jumping spider with eyes like a Beanie Baby. Or Garrus, a dapper praying mantis perched merrily on his owner’s shoulder. I’ll see a fellow user post a photo with the caption, “Please tell my daughter to behave.” Her “daughter” is a very large black tarantula named Frieda, and in the picture she looks alarmingly close to pushing the lid off her own terrarium.
Most people do not think spiders are cute. They do not want them in their house, let alone their Facebook feed. We bug lovers are a tiny crowd, percentage-wise, but the internet has allowed us to connect with each other. If there is a bug, there is probably a Facebook group for it. If there isn’t, and you create a new group for it, you’ll soon find it filled with other bug lovers.
The jumping spider group I first joined was created by Canadian Abe Belhassen, who started it in 2011 to connect with other enthusiasts. He discovered his first jumping spider years ago as a teenager: a black-and-white creature with a red abdomen, glittering on the wall of his junior high school like a “rare and precious jewel.” He took it home in a jar and still fondly recalls how it “snatched a fly twice its size out of the air as it flew by, from the lip of the jar where it was perched.” Today, the jumping spider group has more than 13,000 members, including some of the world’s foremost experts on the critters.
When I asked people in the jumping spider group why they ended up there, a lot of them said they find jumping spiders cute. (They do have rather large eyes, and they’re fuzzy.) Many described spotting them in nature documentaries and becoming obsessed, especially with the “peacock spiders,” which have become an internet phenomenon because of their colorful mating dances. Some are macro photographers and find jumping spiders compelling subjects. Others are scientists who study spiders professionally.
Then there are the people who wander in who don’t love bugs. These are naive people who spotted a spider on their kitchen floor and worried it was poisonous. One of the most feared spiders is the brown recluse, but it’s commonly misidentified since there are thousands of species of brown spiders. Usually these newcomers post frantic captions like “IS IT POISONOUS” alongside a picture of a perfectly innocent grass spider.
The people of Bug Facebook have turned this into a bit of a joke. There is now a group called Is this a brown recluse, where people post absurd things and everyone has to reply that it is a brown recluse. The top posts there right now are a gecko, a plastic roach, and a pipe-cleaner spider. Occasionally someone who isn’t in on the joke will wander in, and hilarity will ensue.
But there is also a fairly large group of people who are into keeping bugs as pets. I soon found myself among them when a man named Don wanted to get rid of 100 baby spiders. Don was, at the time, the foremost expert in the world at keeping jumping spiders as pets. But his wife wanted him to spend more time with her and their kids and less time tending to thousands of spiders. So he mailed tubs of spider babies to anyone who wanted them. Mine are Phiddipus audax, known as the “bold jumping spider.” They are furry and black and white, much like the cats my family had when I was growing up. And they behave a little bit like cats: They don’t build webs, and they pounce on their prey with adorable little hops.
But they are not cats; they are spiders. You cannot cuddle with them. Owning them requires keeping flies, which is not the kind of bug I really wanted to keep. Occasionally the flies escape and pester me. But now I am Don. I am the person people come to for pet jumping-spider advice. I run a Bug Facebook group called Jumping Spider (Salticidae) Keepers/Husbandry and field dozens of inquiries a day. I dispense medical advice and feeding tips. We’re up to more than 3,000 members.
Running a group on Bug Facebook gives me access to an admin panel filled with stats on the group’s members. They are split roughly evenly along gender lines. Most members are from the United States, but a significant number are from the UK and East Asia. While delving into East Asia’s obsession with bugs, I discovered that long before Americans had thought to keep jumping spiders as pets, people in Singapore kept them and “fought” them in battles where the males grapple with their hilariously large front legs until one runs away.
Unfortunately there are people on Facebook who run “bug fights” that involve the gruesome death of one or more of the bug participants. I’ve had to ban a few of these people. There are also people who engage in illegal intercountry trade of exotic species, and as with all illegal trades, there are lots of scammers.
Even without the bug fights and scammers, not all of Bug Facebook is composed of people gawking at neat bugs. Conflicts are rare compared to other internet subcultures I participate in, but they exist. The biggest divide is between those interested in science and those interested in seeing pictures of “cute” spiders and making memes of them. I witnessed one argument between a man who posted a picture of a spider saying it had “great personality” and another man who commented that spiders don’t have personality. The original man then posted a link to a scientific study about spider personality. They proceeded to argue about what it all meant until the anti-spider-personality man flounced away to join a “science-based group.”
There are other things that irritate the moderators of Bug Facebook. The poor souls of Mothing and Moth-Watching struggle with people posting pictures of butterflies. “This is a group on Moths and Mothing so please try to stay on topic whenever possible,” their rules read. “Photos of moths at all stages of their life cycle are OK to share here. Do not knowingly post photos of butterflies. Even though it’s been recently proven that butterflies are really day-flying moths, please do not post photos of anything from Papilionoidea in this group.”
Now that Facebook has been in the news recently with the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, a lot of people I know have said they are deleting their accounts. But I won’t delete mine. There really isn’t a good substitute out there for Bug Facebook. Bug Twitter exists, but it largely consists of professional photographers and scientists. Bug Reddit is very fun, but mostly young men. Facebook is still the most accessible platform out there, and the members are people you just don’t find on Reddit or Twitter. Homemakers, auto mechanics, retirees, Latino goths, students from Qatar.
Facebook was created to rate hot classmates, but I bet Mark Zuckerberg never imagined that it would one day be used to host a parallel universe of people who greet pictures of spiders with cries of “aww, how cute.” As I’m writing this, I have Facebook open in another tab, where I’m helping someone care for an injured jumping spider they found. I have an adorable spider sculpture peering at me as I type, made by an online friend, and it’s sitting next to a spider candle that another online friend sent me. When I was moving apartments recently, I was able to mail my spiders to Jan, a helpful retired teacher in Oregon, who cared for them expertly.
So while Facebook has ceased to notify me of my high school classmate’s babies, I’m connected with all kinds of much cooler bug people on the platform. I no longer feel like I’m one weird bug person. I’m one of thousands.
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