You’ve had a long day. Your co-worker sniped at you in a meeting. Over lunch, you got into not one, but two arguments about the election on Facebook. And your favorite restaurant posted something online you found deeply offensive. If you’ve had a day like that, you probably only want one thing: to settle in with a glass of wine and watch some animal GIFs.
Cats amazed by toys; parrots tucking themselves in; a tiny dog in a watermelon—they’re equally potent. Pictures of animals are so pure that they’re oases—harbors from the storm of online life, where violence, prejudice, awful news, and heated disagreement are always around. So much so that it’s become common for people who are under stress (or are being harassed) to ask others to fill their feeds with cute pics—a testament to their therapeutic power. (And the universal feeling that life online is sometimes garbage.) On Reddit, a site home to cute pictures of puppies and videos of people dying in gruesome ways, there’s an entire subforum dedicated to cute images meant to restore people’s sanity. Its tagline: “After a long day of seeing what internet anonymity can do to people, you’re bound to need some eyebleach.”
Why we use animal GIFs to make ourselves feel better is obvious: much of the internet is a cesspool, pictures of animals are cute, and cute things make us happy. There’s some science behind it, too. Cute pictures can improve focus, and unlike news headlines or opinions that put us in a defensive mindset, they can activate our empathy. But while that’s true, perhaps it’s another very obvious thing that makes such images so appealing: Collectively, we’ve decided that animals are pure in a way that people aren’t. Anthropomorphizing a confused puppy or happy monkey lets us get at those emotions in an uncomplicated way. These days, it feels like, you can post pictures of a baby on Facebook and get comments about how Obama is ruining America. It’s not that people are too sensitive; it’s just that politics are everywhere, and online, people often feel a need to tell you exactly why they think you’re wrong.
By way of contrast, consider this image of an orangutan laughing at a simple magic trick. It feels like joy, and it is delightful. An orangutan acting human makes it a kind of blank canvas for feeling: here is happiness in an uncorrupted form (as we perceive it). Being one step removed from humanity makes the GIF more universal—perhaps because, lacking the specificity of other images, there is room for projection.
It’s not that pictures of animals are entirely immune to criticism, of course. Seemingly cute cat GIFs can actually be a product of disease or pain; picture of cows or pigs can certainly generate angry comments about meat eating. And of course, even our orangutan might prompt reactions about keeping animals in captivity. People will let you know.
Despite that, the animal pic remains ubiquitous and mostly uncontroversial. They seem to be a lingua franca of relief, an agreed-upon way to diffuse tension. A kitten GIF is a reprieve from the pace of your feed, but mostly it’s a relief from the need to have an opinion. (And, consequently, relief from the need to defend that opinion.) “Aww!” of course is an non-contentious reaction. Animal GIFs are the one thing we don’t fight about.
Perhaps it’s this need for an escape that allows these escapes to enter into the unironic. If you’re feeling low and post an inspirational quote—pretty script atop a picture of a beach—friends may raise an eyebrow at the unabashed genuineness. We may have left postmodernism behind, but we are still generally suspicious of sincerity: It seems to connote naiveté, or worse, credulousness—a belief in the fundamental simplicity of the world. And the language of the internet is cynicism. Animal GIFs are a proxy for feeling, an oblique way of pointing to our emotions without being too on the nose—they’re safe that way.
Maybe the nature of the web has changed what we need and how we relax. And if that means we might end a hard day by watching a baboon amazed by a magic trick or a cat ecstatic about being petted, then bring on the GIFs.