My daughter pressed my ‘kitten button’, showing me a page of adorable kittens – posed in teacups, dressed in bow-ties and pixie hats, all floppity-moppetty from the bath, and all cutesy-wootsy perched on the shoulders of tall, hunky men. And – yes – I went all sentimental and generally silly about these little fluff muppets. I am not alone in allowing myself to be cutified by kitten pics. Admit it, tall hunky man – you have a kitten button too… We are programmed to react to neotony, linked to the desire to reproduce, to care for young things. That is a good thing. Not good that the internet is overrun by kittens, but that we tend to be protective towards the young. From the frequency of appearance of cuddly animals on social media, I could conclude that we have developed a need for a regular fix of cute – cuddly kittens, pretty puppies, tiny tigers, little lions and eensy elephants. There is a virtual machine surfing on the platform of the cute. Do psychologists link this apparent rise in the sentimental with some lack of emotional fulfilment in our lives? Or is it deeper than this? My platform needs qualifying – I am aware that the context for this observation is within the comfortable domain of the technologically developed world. In other places it would be unfathomable or utterly crass. I suspect that there are other things that provide comfort traps in different cultures. And many other ways to hook us, but I am restricting this piece as an illustration of the potential of the process.
We are dimly aware that our relationship with media is a partnership with the media bots. Our desire to be distracted by kittens has perturbed the machine. It has picked up a scent – a cyber pheromone – is alert to what can be supplied to us on the tiny backs of kittens. It is perhaps not the innocent pastime it seems.
Kittens and their cutesy kin are running social media, but kittenmania is not a new phenomenon. The Victorians were fond of sentimental pictures, but the context was quite different. The internet explosion of cute animal features astonishes me. I wonder if it is feeding/creating a real psychological trend, or provides a fluffy alternative to investing energy in serious thought. Kittens in teacups are easier on the eye and more soothing than what goes on in the real world. The pursuit of the cute is a powerful driver. We are motivated, as social beings, to interact and share. The media enterprises that provide this material are fuelled by advertising and motivated by hidden drivers. And there is a net of cross-promotion linked by sophisticated algorithms. We are being tracked, logged and analysed. They tease us by flashing a light on things that could induce us to buy into a product or idea. Those carefully worded headlines in sidebars that are designed to hook us stalk at the edge of our eye movement. All those weird diet and beauty secrets and numbered reasons for running out of money for retirement, and much, much more. We are creatures of the media. How much are we being manipulated, and how much is attributable to our own activities feeding back at us? It is complex.
Our engagement with the Big Machine will change us. Cause and effect are blended in feedback loops. We are always being manipulated at some level. And there will be those who use it cognitively to serve their own agenda. We are but kittens chasing a laser pointer.