Talking pets are a staple of internet culture. They are not always friends

Whether you love or hate people who talk like pets, use cute phrases like “pupperinos” and “heckin’ good bois,” or share grammatically incorrect cat talk memes, the concept of “pet voice” has become just as much a part of it. the social media landscape as pictures of furry and scaly fellows. Indeed, speaking with and through animals to convey our human emotions and thoughts is one of the defining experiences of internet culture.

But the pet voice phenomenon is not unique to the social media era. Media and pets have always been intertwined, and owners and animal lovers have been playing with communication through them for hundreds of years.

As historian Katherine Grier details in “Pets in America: A History,” as far back as the 19th century, people were exchanging letters with their furry companions. Taking advantage of the rise of photography technology, they began printing photo plates of their animals to distribute to friends. Such interpersonal experiences can be thought of as the Victorian equivalent of sending cute pet pictures via messaging apps like Snapchat or WhatsApp.

But not all early pet experiences were so harmless. Fashion scholar Julia Long challenges the way people use pets as props. He points to the 1886 Washington Post interview with a woman who “gives her precious love” to her pet bugs, which she wears as a fashion statement. The reporter notes that when asked whether the insect knew its owner, this lady expressed her great anguish and surprise at the idea that her beloved pet did not return her love.

The thought of wearing a bug as a brooch, or even keeping it as a pet, might give readers pause today. But as a communication tactic, experience speaks volumes. The act of anthropomorphizing, or attributing human characteristics to non-human beings, is an alienating concept. The woman who gives the bugs a “voice” is speaking as someone else, especially someone who can’t actually speak for herself, distancing herself from their words. Although this distance is small, it has a big impact in today’s age of mediation. One of the most famous New Yorker cartoons depicts two dogs on a computer saying, “No one on the Internet knows you’re a dog.” The cartoon demonstrates how to speak through pets the ambivalence of the Internet or difficulty in determining definitive meanings in online communication.

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