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'Animals are amazing': How happy content finds its way to you

The Dodo and We Rate Dogs are some of the friendliest spaces online, but videos and tweets about dogs, cats, cows and piglets aren't just about spreading good cheer.

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If an animal exists, The Dodo likely has a video about it.

Screenshots by Kent German/CNET

It's easy to get sucked into videos from The Dodo, even when you're not doom-scrolling about local COVID-19 case numbers. Maybe it starts with a clip about an emaciated stray dog who's been rescued and is lovingly nursed back to health. Or maybe it's the story of a dog and cat who defy convention and become cuddling best friends.

In the end, though, it doesn't matter which video sends you down the rabbit hole, even if it's one about actual rabbits. What's important is that you're romping in one of the most comforting and least cynical places on the internet, a place where charming tales of animals divert your attention from sobering headlines. Sure, it'll get schmaltzy after a while, and you may even feel emotionally manipulated, but you're not here to feel bad.

Joanna Zelman, The Dodo channel's executive producer, says giving viewers a sense of hope and optimism about the world is a pillar of the brand's philosophy. "There's not a ton of trust in the world right now," she says. "But animals are as pure and honest and believable as you can get."

A popular meme suggests that cat videos rule the internet, but our feline friends aren't alone in occupying a prominent space online. Creatures of all types, from cows to parrots to turtles, star in The Dodo's videos, which are viewed 5 billion times each month. But animal-related content is about more than just spreading warm fuzzies. It's also a business that's boomed in a pandemic year. Crowded with ad-supported videos, The Dodo's YouTube channel is worth an estimated $18 million, according to Wired (the site's reps wouldn't comment on revenue figures), and it's expanded with an online store and partnerships with companies like Airbnb and Netflix (for a series). Making you say "awww" is a goal, but sites like The Dodo are combining the feel-good with advocacy, commerce and much more. 

"A major focus this year [is] trying to get people who are already Dodo fans to trust that we know pet products, and we can recommend things that their animals will love," says Executive Editor Katy Brink. "It's about always taking an animal-first approach to it, as we do with our content ... we have a ton of room to grow and turn our viewers into consumers."

The Dodo isn't alone in its mission to become an authority in the pet space either. Animal shelter and rescue organizations like Hope for Paws (5 million YouTube subscribers), Howl of a Dog (1.28 million subscribers) and Takis Shelter (5000,000 subscribers) have strong online presences. Dogs also get plenty of love from social media accounts like We Rate Dogs. Run by Matt Nelson, it has almost 9 million followers on Twitter and uses its reach to raise money for pups in need. 

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Being animal-first

Started in January 2014, The Dodo began as a platform for written content ranging from lighthearted listicles to more serious advocacy columns (the site is named after the extinct bird to be a reminder of what can happen to unprotected animals). As Brink says, such content was doing well on Facebook at the time, but a dip into video began a year later with a mashup of cats playing with bananas. When the minute-long clip called Cats vs Bananas (Hint: The bananas often win) quickly earned a million views, and as Facebook began to let publishers monetize video, it was clear that easily shareable video was the site's future. 

"People were really responding to it," Brink says. "Video was really the strongest way to reach people in terms of animal content, because it's just so visual, and it's emotional when you can see animals in action."

Today The Dodo posts not just on Facebook and YouTube, but also on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and TikTok. Videos (each with advertising preroll) also populate its own site, along with articles about animals; advice and support for pet owners; and occasional pushes for donations to rescue and adoption groups. It's a wide mix, enough to reach more than 110 million people each month. It can even get topical -- in September 2016, a video titled Pets Who Hate Donald Trump showed dogs and cats barking or hissing at Trump's image.

Brink says the goal is to fill the gap between guilt-inducing content and pure fluff. "It's not enough for a dog to just recover from a medical condition and get adopted," she says. "That's a passive thing. We want an active thing that shows a ton of personality and a ton of animal agency."

Though the site does make its own videos for its regular shows like Foster Diaries and Cat Crazy, most of the clips that appear in your social media feed are produced by the site's team of editors from submitted footage or from content they find online. It's a collaborative production process, Brink says, with the editors encouraging the contributors from around the world to shoot at the animal's level and construct an emotional story arc with a happy ending (three minutes is the typical length).

"[Our videos] really feel animal-first, from the shooting method to the script to the social packaging," she says. "We're telling the animal's story rather than a story about someone's pet."

Besides boosting the site's popularity -- video views in August were up 175% over the same period in 2020, Zelman says -- the coronavirus pandemic also has changed the kinds of stories viewers are responding to. In a stressful time, stories with stressful animal rescues are out, and "over the top joy" stories are in.

"We really double down on happy content, where there's a clear takeaway ... that people are good and animals are amazing, that there's order to the world," Brink says. "That kind of thing makes people feel really comforted."

A browse through The Dodo shows that even videos about animals that you may not think of as comforting will bring a smile to your face. It's a bizarre journey at times, but it's also lovely, activist and educational. I saw people caring for the bees and skunks they rescued, a diver who befriended a shark, women who keep bats and snakes as pets, a turkey that's enamoured with a dog. And there's the tiny piglet struggling to survive who befriended a baby cow.

Zelman says with any animals that aren't dogs, The Dodo's editors need to go an extra step to make people feel connected to them (she cites a video about a camel called Bubba as her favorite). "That's really a challenge," she says. "We want to make those animals kind of feel like puppies, like you care about them."

He's always a good boy

If puppies are more your thing, there's plenty on social media to vie for your attention. Twitter accounts like Humor and Animals, Cute Emergency and The Puppies Club feature adorable litters of pooches, but none reach the popularity of We Rate Dogs. Started as a Twitter account in November 2015 by then-university student Matt Nelson, We Rate Dogs has since expanded to 11.5 million followers on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok. An online store with branded merchandise helps bring in the cash.

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Nelson with his German shepherd, Doug.

Matt Nelson

Now 24, Nelson says he created the account after opening his own Twitter account and quickly falling for the platform's reach and potential. "I got addicted to the immediate gratification of a joke landing on social media, because the audience tells you pretty quickly [if it's funny]," he says. "I knew that the topic that I wanted to write about was dogs, because I've always loved dogs." 

We Rate Dogs has a simple, but addictive, premise. Using content largely sent by followers (he gets about 1,000 submissions a day), twice a day he posts a photo of a dog with a short caption describing the pup's story and personality, with a rating that's meant to be on a 10-point scale. Part of the joke, though, is that all dogs get a rating of 12 to 14, with just a few winning the coveted score of 15. 

At first he simply wanted to make people laugh, but in 2016 after noticing that Twitter had "become a very dark place," he felt a change was in order. "It felt a little bit misplaced to have every post be an attempt at humor," he says. "A wholesome direction was born out of that need. Everyone just wanted light, and my account was positioned to provide that light because it's about dog photos."

Nelson writes all content himself. He says the rating criteria is largely arbitrary, but he saves the top score for specific dogs (he's awarded only 16 scores of 15 since in the account's history). "Our audience knows that it's an important rating," he says. "This is usually a dog that has saved human lives -- they have an incredible story that I'm able to communicate effectively."

But audiences also respond to dogs with a low score of 12, something that amuses Nelson. "They get offended on behalf of the dog when it's a 12. I just think, 'Guys, take a step back and think about what you're saying,'" he says  Puppies or younger dogs typically get a 12 and dogs with more of a story typically get a 14.

Some posts are laugh-out-loud funny, some are simply sweet, and others take a more serious tone by featuring a dog with a medical condition. Posts in the latter category appear with a link to a GoFundMe campaign for the pet's medical care, which typically raises more than what's needed. A Feb. 12 tweet about Shanel, a Sheltie with lymphoma cancer, exceeded its $10,500 goal by $3,000 just three days later.

Since 2017, Nelson says, he's helped dog owners raise $1.4 million. "For the family of the dog we choose, it's immediate relief," he says. "But when you're working with an audience the size of mine that is so passionate, we've pivoted to trying to mobilize that audience for good."

Finding a balance 

As cute and heartwarming as it all can be, though, Nelson hasn't avoided controversy. In 2017, he was criticized both for selling a hat mocking President's Trump's "covfefe" tweet in his online store and for donating half of the profits to Planned Parenthood. And in 2018, he was accused of whitewashing by deliberately changing a dog's name from Kanan, a name with Arabic origins, to George.

At the time, Nelson told CNET he changed the name because a more common monosyllabic name would drive higher engagement to the tweet. He also cleared the name change with the dog's owner in advance. "You're more likely to engage and interact with a post when a dog shares a name with your own or you've encountered a dog with that name," he says. "Sometimes I change the name because it's too common."

Posts about current events and political topics can be controversial, as well. The account has featured dogs at the 2017 Women's March, the protests against Trump's 2017 Muslim ban and the 2020 Black Lives Matters protests. When we spoke over Zoom earlier this month, Nelson said that choosing when to go topical has been a difficult line to walk -- he never wants to force it. But the Planned Parenthood flap taught him that it's something he has to do, and he says he's not afraid to lose a follower who disagrees with his views.

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The photo for the Thoughts of Dog account was one Nelson selected from We Rate Dogs.

Thoughts of Dog

"It's very hard for me to take myself out of those accounts, because of how much of myself goes into the origin and the writing of them," he says. "For the people that I want to cater to, it's very comforting for them to know that."

It's an even harder decision for Nelson's other social media account, Thoughts of Dog, which he started in March 2017. All posts are written from a fictional dog's point of view, with musings about the unnamed human who cares for it, the importance of sniffing the neighborhood while on walks, and its love for its stuffed "fren" Sebastian (you can buy a Sebastian for $26 in Nelson's online store). Misspellings, invented words ("snoozle" means sleeping) and random punctuation (periods always stand in for commas) are part of the wholesome fun.

Nelson says it took him a year to find his groove. On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram he now has 4.5 million followers. "People that really didn't even have dogs see the joy in those posts" he says. "The mission of that account has always been just to provide a smile."

Providing a smile and perhaps even a tear is something the account definitely does. A tweet from 2018 that's pinned to the account is not just one of its best, it's a message every dog owner wants to believe. "Sometimes. the human presses their noggin against mine. to figure out what i'm thinking. so i just think really hard. about how much i love them. and hope they figure it out."

Other tweets have referenced Zoom calls during the pandemic, the 2020 protests and a trip to the voting booth. He posted a vague, but hopeful 2019 tweet after two shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio killed 30 people in one weekend. Once a topic is discussed, Nelson doesn't visit it again. But no matter the tweet, he purposely doesn't have his own German shepherd called Doug in mind when writing it. "We want that dog to be as every dog is," he says. "We want that dog to be your dog. I want you to be that human."

Not an escape 

The pandemic has changed Nelson's audience, as well. As the world went into lockdown, readers wanted more from his accounts than just escapism -- they expected some social good to help dogs. "It's not directly like an activist account, so people don't treat it like it," he says. "But they don't think anybody should be escaping. They think we should be dealing with these problems."

Nelson also is expanding beyond writing content online. He recently signed a partnership with Trupanion, a pet insurance company, and both We Rate Dogs and Thoughts of Dog have branded books and calendars.

The Dodo launched an adoption matchmaking tool called Pick of the Litter this month. The company wasn't announcing any new ventures when we spoke, but Zelman says reaching new audiences while telling its animal stories is part of a long term strategy. "We're constantly asking, 'What's the next platform?," she says. "How can we really own this space in a way that we really believe in?"

For now, though, it's just a warm and comfortable space where horses are rescued from ferocious wildfires, a wombat and a kangaroo become playmates in an Australian zoo, and a lovable make-believe dog reminds us that while we may be depressed about another lockdown, working from home is our best friend's dream come true. Even in a nonpandemic year, I'll gladly take some of that.