Xafi and Auri are just a few years old. As is to be expected at this young age, their hobbies mostly include eating, sleeping, and making themselves heard. They like to play, both with each other and their younger brother Errol.
Despite their youth, Xafi and Auri also have an Instagram account where they keep more than 100,000 followers posted about their day-to-day life.
But Xafi and Auri are not your ordinary influencers.
They are cats.
Micro-Celebrities… Just with More Fur
Xafi and Auri certainly do not belong in the top tier of Instagram cat accounts. That status is occupied by the likes of nala_cat (3.7 million followers) and, of course, the one and only realgrumpycat (2.4 million followers). In comparison, the two Russian Blues (and their “furrfriends”) are more akin to what we suggest is Instagram’s “middle class” of cat-fluencers: accounts that are decently popular, but not enough to convey celebrity status outside the platform.
In her research on social media and self-presentation, communication scholar Alice Marwick has termed the human equivalent to these accounts “micro-celebrities.” In a nutshell, micro-celebrities are celebrities whose fame is relatively narrow in scope and likely to be transient. They are enabled by and enact their fame primarily through social media and use the affordances of platforms. “Affordance” here means the functionality of a technology, essentially what the user is able to do with it. In the case of Instagram, this encompasses the ability to post videos and images, to comment on them, and to create stories.
In our quest to understand the relative fame of Xafi, Auri, and company, it helps to treat “micro-celebrity” not as a descriptive label, but as a specific technique.
As Marwick writes:
social media enables micro-celebrity, a self-presentation technique in which people view themselves as a public persona to be consumed by others, use strategic intimacy to appeal to followers, and regard their audience as fans.
But what exactly does she mean by this? Let’s have a closer look…
People or Cats?
First of all, Marwick speaks of people, and we are dealing with the Instagram accounts of cats. We suggest, however, that the term is appropriate anyway. While some accounts (for instance, Mikita, aka chicagoblackcat) present themselves online as if the cats were indeed running the account and speaking for themselves, this is not the case for the majority.
“On the internet, nobody knows that you are a dog” makes for funny cartoons, but here we are clearly dealing with accounts run by humans—who have their own vested interests in doing so.
Another cornerstone of micro-celebrity is strategic intimacy. What Marwick means here is a specific mode of communication. Micro-celebrities often interact with their audiences as if they were friends. They answer questions, reply to comments, and react to user feedback. The social media presence of micro-celebrities is both shaping (it presents a particular view of the world and has its own agenda) and being shaped by the audience (which demands certain types of content and follows accounts for specific reasons).
In the case of Instagram’s cat accounts, we see the same dynamics play out. Fans of the cat-fluencers often ask about the kind of toys the cats like to play with. They sometimes share their own stories in reaction to posts. At the same time, their demands and interests shape how cat-fluencers present themselves. For instance, it’s not uncommon that users request more images and videos of the cats playing or express a desire to learn more about their daily habits in the next Instagram story.
It’s this apparent normality that sets them apart and gives them a semblance of authenticity.
Many users also would like to learn how they, too, can shoot professional-looking pictures of their own pets. Consequently, the cat-fluencers often get quizzed on the best camera and post-production techniques. In a way, it adds a meta level to the interaction: the self-presentation and how to do it “the right way” is part of what the audience finds appealing.
All this interaction between the cat accounts and their fans creates intimacy, and this intimacy is strategic insofar as it helps to bind fans to the micro-celebrity (be that human or cat). The intimacy is also vital for the micro-celebrity’s survival, especially after Instagram changed from a reverse chronological feed to an algorithm-curated feed two years ago. If the cat-fluencers don’t engage with followers and fans, they risk being down-ranked in other users’ social feeds—and their fame will go with it.
Ordinary, Not Extraordinary
There is another key difference that sets the likes of Xafi and Auri apart from their more famous fellows, such as Grumpy Cat, and makes them genuine micro-celebrities: They do not possess any special skills or features.
Grumpy Cat has a few million followers due to her unique face, which makes her look… well, grumpy. The late Colonel Meow not only held the 2014 Guinness world record for the longest fur on a cat, but he also had a distinctive scowling face. The cat micro-celebrity, however, usually lacks these distinctive markers. Among the accounts we looked at, none of the cats had any outstanding skills or features. Instead, their appeal lies in their ordinariness. It’s this apparent normality that sets them apart and gives them a semblance of authenticity.
This is not to say that ordinariness means an absence of certain unifying characteristics. Many successful cat accounts feature not your standard house cat, but more rare and expensive breeds, such as Russian Blues, tuxedo cats, or Abyssinians. One will also rarely find “ugly” animals. Instead of merely being cute, most cat-fluencers are lean and aesthetically pleasing.
Instagram’s Network of Cat-Fluencers
Another element that makes these cat-fluencer accounts so intriguing is the community that has developed around them. A central node in this network of cat fans is cats_of_instagram with its 9.7 million followers.
The account acts as a central collection and distribution point for all cat-related content. Users can send their cat accounts or images via hashtag or link to be featured on the channel. This makes cats_of_instagram an influential power broker in the platform’s attention economy. Being featured can instantly lead to many more followers and a rise in status.
Yet, Instagram’s cat-fluencers are not only linked to each other through cats_of_instagram. They also form a tight-knit network. Nearly all of the 50-plus accounts we checked for this article follow around 200–300 other accounts, with roughly 90 percent being other cat-fluencers (or at least cat-themed). The strong interconnection of Instagram’s cat-fluencer community also becomes apparent on the accounts themselves. Just as with influencers on YouTube (or other micro-celebrities on Instagram), cat-fluencers make frequent use of the “tagging” function to link their friends’ accounts. It is also the norm that they feature each other in individual posts or stories. Cross-promotion is alive and well in these networks.
The strong interconnectedness has an effect: Instagram’s cat-fluencers have effectively developed their own lingo, which is often picked up and appropriated by their followers. Some of the most frequent terms in comments or descriptions are “meowmy” (cat-speak for mommy), “sisfur” (sister), or “furrfriends.” Usually, they are used to talk about a cat’s owners or other cat-fluencers. It’s also common to find terms that merge existing words with onomatopoeic transcriptions of cat sounds; the omnipresent “purrfect” being just one example (although in all fairness this probably derives from this 1966 Batman episode).
Why the Internet Loves Cats
To understand why cats do so well on Instagram, or anywhere on the internet, it helps to take a closer look at humanity’s general fascination with the furry species. It’s a story that dates back millennia.
One reason we find cats so intriguing could lie in the way they became part of our lives in the first place. Instead of being domesticated, some researchers suggest that cats domesticated themselves, giving them an air of independence. No wonder then that cats are often treated as personalities, making them more intriguing than many other species.
Cuteness is essential for the survival of our species.
Over the centuries, this trope has been picked up time and time again in cultural depictions. Literature, to give just one example, has seen many famous cats. “Puss in Boots” first appeared in a collection of fairy tales by the Italian author Giovanni Francesco Straparola around 1550. Lewis Carroll’s “Cheshire Cat” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is still one of the most famous feline characters.
On Cats’ Cuteness
The story of cats’ self-domestication is not the only theory put forward to explain why we just cannot seem to get enough of them.
The American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, once suggested degrees of similarity to human infants as central to our affection for animals. “When we see a living creature with babyish features,” Gould wrote, “we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness. The adaptive value of this response can scarcely be questioned, for we must nurture our babies.” It doesn’t take much effort to see how cats would fare in this context (in comparison to, say, sharks).
In essence, Gould is talking about a concept that most of us know: cuteness. Mirroring Gould’s thoughts, U.S. philosopher John T. Sanders has written that cuteness is essential for the survival of our species. Sanders submits that cuteness “is just the attribute of looking like an infant… just any set of features that is typical of babies.”
Crucially, Sanders also points out: “It is our antecedent predisposition to attend to and care for infants that rubs off on anything that looks like them.” In this context, the babyish features of cats (e.g., their size and large eyes) are so strongly developed that we cannot help but find them especially appealing.
Anthropomorphizing the Cat
We’re almost done with the theory, but let’s throw in one final concept: anthropomorphism. In a nutshell, it is our tendency to ascribe human attributes to animals.
Cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz has suggested that anthropomorphism began as a perceptual framework our ancestors used to interact with other animals and make sense of a complex world.
With themselves as models, our human forebears could ascribe motivation, desire, and understanding to animals to determine with whom they may want to cooperate, from whom they should flee, or who they want to eat.
By making animals human-like, be it in stories or depictions, researcher Eileen Crist says that we seek to address “a most-engrossing mystery—the contentious topic of animal mind or animal consciousness.”
As Horowitz explains, the more an animal resembles a human in appearance, the greater the likelihood that its behavior is anthropomorphized. Also, “expressive facial and bodily reactions to others, and attention to gaze” seem to trigger anthropomorphizing. Again, bingo! Cats score high on this scale.
Lastly, according to Horowitz:
…discernable and flexuous facial features, the ability to form a mouth into a smile, and the ability to move the head expressively and reactively are reliable prompts to certain kinds of anthropomorphisms.
Cats fit each of these descriptions.
To wrap all this dry theory up in one neat sentence: It seems as if evolution really wanted us to find cats appealing.
The Appeal of Cat Content
Understanding why we take to cats so much, however, only partly explains why they have taken the internet by storm. Cat content also has some characteristics that make it particularly conducive to being shared online.
For one, cat content often falls under what media scholar Henry Jenkins has termed “producerly content”—content that is open for interpretation and has various levels of meaning. Building upon a definition coined by John Fiske in Understanding Popular Culture, Jenkins defines producerly content as texts that “leave open processes of analysis, meaning making, or collective activity for the audience to fill in.”
Humor on Instagram’s cat-fluencers accounts… involves a great deal of anthropomorphizing.
Looking at how cat fans intensely interact with the Instagram profiles of cat-fluencers, it’s not hard to see how this plays out in real life. It’s analysis, meaning making, and collective activity happening all at once—and it’s in full swing just minutes after new content goes online.
Also essential to understanding cats’ success on social media is humor. Cat content on YouTube, for instance, is often rooted in a slapstick tradition. The typical cat video has a very physical dimension, a spatial geometry, to it: It’s the cat trying to jump off a balcony or desperately clinging to a ceiling fan while it’s being hurled through the air (though this one is an ad, not a “real” video). The entertainment value of this content often stems from physical actions that fail—think Buster Keaton, just with cats.
Humor on Instagram’s cat-fluencers accounts, however, is slightly different. It involves a great deal of anthropomorphizing. Typical examples are (story) posts on a Monday with images of the cats looking grumpy and tired. In the caption (or in text superimposed on the image or video), the cat seems to speak to the viewer saying things like, “What, is it Monday already?” or, “Can’t I go back to Friday?” Other examples are cats being naughty, playing hide and seek, or talking about how they steal food—humor that is more subdued.
While humor is certainly integral to cats’ success on the web, it’s also essential to understanding another macro-trend at play here: the internet’s transformation of notions of modern cat ownership. Formerly a largely solitary affair (hence the concept of the “cat lady”), social media has turned cat ownership into a digitally mediated social relationship with other cat owners (or fans). As Steve Dale, a “cat behavior consultant and pet journalist” explained to the New Republic in 2012: “In the world of cats, there is no dog park. For cat owners, the dog park is the internet.”
This is not to say that in the past cat owners were devoid of opportunities to interact with each other. Social media platforms have, however, significantly fostered their ability to meet, interact, and indulge in a common interest or simply become more aware of one another. Consuming cat content and participating in creation, distribution, and discussion on a platform such as Instagram has allowed cat owners to come up their own version of “walking the dog.” Cat-fluencers immensely benefit from this.
This new economy of animal images and videos has come to replace the once frequent animal interactions we might have once had before urbanization and mechanization. They create a nostalgia for animals we would have never seen without them, capturing the impossible and the impossibly rare.
While Aima is mainly referring to the imagery of rare species, we can adapt her observation to fit Instagram’s cat-fluencers. They, too, create a nostalgia, perhaps for animals we have seen before but no longer have around us. It’s possible that some followers of Instagram cat accounts do not actually have a cat themselves and indulge in these profiles because they offer a glimpse into what it would be like to have one.
Insta-Cats in the Age of Neoliberal Individualism
The success of Instagram cat accounts is also part of a wider neoliberal shift toward the individual and individual entrepreneurship. In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, anthropologist David Harvey defines neoliberalism as:
a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade… it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market.
Against this backdrop, cat-fluencers are, in essence, just another byproduct of the neoliberal turn to the entrepreneurial individual. In Harvey’s neoliberal framework, even previously noncommodifiable aspects of domestic life—such as the day-to-day activities of one’s cats—can be brought into the marketplace and turned into a good. This good can then be sold; one’s labor is turned into rewards.
There is no single “point” to be made about Instagram’s cat-fluencers.
On Instagram these rewards can take many forms. Often they come in the form of attention, but material rewards are also possible, as some accounts have told us on the condition of anonymity. In most cases, these are “freebies” sent to the account owners by brands and marketers. In some instances, as is the case elsewhere on the platform, account owners also receive money if they feature products in their postings.
While the income of animal influencers such as Grumpy Cat likely goes into the millions, precise figures for the middle-class cats of Instagram are hard to come by. Cursory evidence, such as a recent article by the Guardian’s Olivia Solon, suggests that animal influencers with more than 100,000 followers can make anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000 per sponsored post. If this is the case for Instagram’s cat-fluencers we cannot say. The accounts contacted for this piece declined to comment on this aspect.
While cat content has always been sought after, the internet and social media platforms have both increased demand and democratized access. In the past, it was cat calendars and other merchandise that satisfied consumers’ demand for “cute.” Thanks to social media, cute cat content can be consumed anytime, anywhere, for free, as long as one has access to the internet. Instagram’s cat-fluencers are a result of this development and they benefit from it as only few other groups of content creators do.
Ultimately, Instagram’s cat-fluencers can be understood through completely different approaches and invite many different vantage points—and to be fair we’ve barely scratched the surface. They combine and act as a focal point for many trends reflected in the current internet environment: (micro-)celebrity and fan culture, the attention economy, technological affordances, and the power of platforms, to name just a few.
Some may ask: What’s the point of these accounts, the bigger message? We think this approach is misguided. Instead, we’d like to suggest that there is no single “point” to be made about Instagram’s cat-fluencers. As Virginia Heffernan has argued in Magic and Loss, the internet is akin to (among many others things) a giant performance project. Instagram’s cat accounts are but one of many projects in this vein… although they are probably the cutest.
This piece was co-written with the economist Michelle Disser.