Cat Twitter

This piece was written for YouTube, and the full transcript is below.

This piece contains discussion on mental health, trauma, and pet death.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune to log on to Twitter dot com, you’ll probably have seen that sometimes it can be a pretty rough place. Although social media provides unprecedented opportunities for communication and connection with each other, with the rise of Twitter’s popularity has come increased exposure to some the worst of humanity to its users. Many of those users have since left for kinder spaces. However, there are pockets of beauty that persist wit hin Twitter’s many bad tweets, and one of those is the cat zone. I’ve been a fan of this boy zone for years, and since May 2017, my own cat Bilbo has grown from a dozen friends to nearly seventy-five thousand.  Let’s talk about Cat Twitter.

Cats Across the Internet

Cats have long been popular on the internet. From feline ASCII art to LOLcats to viral videos on YouTube to Nyan Cat, these animals and characters have provided for incredible creativity and joy online, and have given rise to increasingly complicated and meaningful ways of communicating across languages and cultures on the internet. Whether as a text macro image from 2006 that your Auntie shares like clockwork on the family WhatsApp, or in the complicated and nuanced lore and style of modern cat accounts on Twitter, feline friends provide voices and language to people for online communication. This can be as simple as using cat pictures as the equivalent to emoji or emoticons, to as complicated as providing safe ways for processing grief, trauma and abuse.

Let’s start with the basics. “Cat Twitter” is a loose collection of accounts on the platform which portend to be written by cats, usually a singular animal, and operated usually by a singular person or couple, usually their owner. They mostly Tweet in “English”, though this is far from universal, and they mostly employ various ways of augmenting or modifying the languages they use to paint their cat’s personality, the limitations of feline paws using human keyboards, or to demarcate in-character and out-of-character content:

Some of the larger Cat Twitter accounts have been in operation for many years, and indeed accounts featuring individual cats have been around as long as the platform. Pepito, a beautiful black cat from France, has had a Twitter account since 2011, and most of his tweets feature webcam photos of him leaving or returning to his home through his cat flap. His fans appropriately wish him safety on his voyages or warm welcomes home, en masse, every time a tweet is triggered. The connection people have to Pepito is through the real-time nature of his photos – when you can see his head, he’s coming home. When you can see his tail, he’s on his way out to explore.

Other cat accounts have portrayed a cat’s entire feline fable, telling their story from the moment they’re born or adopted till the moment they go over the rainbow. This introduces the first of the emotions I’ll discuss today – grief. Much like people’s own pets, or the pets of friends, when a cat you’ve known online for some time dies, there can be a sharing of that collective grief across all their online friends. This brings us to the first uncomfortable reality of Cat Twitter – the friends and followers they amass, being human, are much more likely to outlive them than the other way around.

An example of this was seen in April 2019, when large Cat Twitter personality Peepee of Peepee’s Playhouse passed away, and Cat Twitter and its massive audience fell into collective mourning, with many people expressing genuine, sincere and significant grief. When Peepee passed away, a small part of tens of thousands of people’s lives passed away too.

My own cat, Bilbo, is a five-year-old orange boy, well known for being round and kind, and very articulate in communicating what he wants. Due to his participation in online gamer Hbomberguy’s charity fundraising stream in January of this year, he has been recognised in the Scottish Parliament as a Northern Irish trans rights icon and campaigner, he has a podcast with a listenership of thousands, and he is most cherished by me personally as an affectionate and charismatic cat, who shows his love and communicates his boundaries. He’s improved my life enormously over his 5 years of being here, and in many ways I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without him. It felt natural to share him with the world. From initially posting photos of him on my personal twitter account, it quickly made sense to move to his own account once the people’s wishes for this became clear. Since May 2017, he’s been finding his own style and niche, and has amassed nearly 75,000 followers at time of recording, over 60,000 of those in 2019. His followers range from people who occasionally check in to like some photos, to people who interact with him daily, send him long direct messages, or even cross into the offline space to send him physical post and packages.

To help write this video, I contacted many cat twitter accounts to get some answers from them to questions I had – why they started their accounts, why they kept going, and what sort of people were they? I also published an open online survey aimed at followers of Cat Twitter accounts and have received hundreds upon hundreds of responses from folks saying what cat accounts they love, why they love them, and how Cat Twitter affects their wellbeing and lives. This piece is written to document the importance and weight of Cat Twitter, and also the silliness, joy and love inherent within. What follows is a tale of mostly marginalised people finding outlets online through the pets they love, and a tale of countless hundreds of thousands more people finding everything from cute snoots they happen to see occasionally, to pathways for real and lasting emotional healing and recovery. I’ve anonymised a lot of what I’m talking about tonight for the privacy of the people involved – many cat twitter account operators are people who would be extremely vulnerable if doxxed or outed, and I don’t want to end Cat Twitter accounts by telling their stories.

Although I had an inkling prior to reaching out, what surprised me most about talking with other Cat Twitter accounts was the sheer diversity of who was running them. Although there was a clustering around people aged 18 – 24, there were younger and indeed much older people tweeting as their cats – the oldest person who responded to me was 77 years old. It was also notable the enormous representation – indeed a significant majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender people of all ages who were involved, and particularly the high number of disabled people involved. Of the 34 cat accounts who responded to me, the majority said they had a disability or chronic illness, and most of those specifically mentioned it as relevant to why they found Cat Twitter useful – it provided an accessible route to creativity and communication.

What many account operators said matched with my own reasons for sharing Bilbo with the world – that they loved their cat and their charisma so much that they wanted others to feel similar joy. Others found the pre-existing cacophony of cat content as something they’d love to be involved in, and joined in with their own cats. For many pet owners generally, they talk with their animals regularly anyway, and so cat accounts can be as if the cat could respond verbally themselves. Others, like me, have day jobs that can be extremely heavy and draining emotionally, and find Cat Twitter to be a low-energy creative outlet or hobby for when they’re exhausted or ill. I’m a trans rights professional, and with the state of anti-trans activists at the moment, it’s nice, and indeed important, to have something that allows detachment from that and for joy.

I asked these account operators how being involved in Cat Twitter affected them emotionally, and ¾ of people said it helped them a lot, with one saying their emotions weren’t affected and nobody saying it hurted them. When asked to explain, it was incredible to see the level of meaning that many account operators placed on their participation. Some people described how, like me, it provided relief from stressful work, but others used it as a way to deal with abuse going on in their lives, or with terminal illness, and indeed with the death of loved ones. Some found that Cat Twitter restored their faith in humanity because the interactions with other people they had through their cat accounts were the kindest and most positive they’d ever had online. Several said how they’d made deep and meaningful friendships offline through Cat Twitter, and how their presence online had enabled them to be more social and outgoing when offline too.

When you’re struggling with something in life, it helps to have an outlet for that, to be able to talk to someone about your problems, or to have a friendly face to turn to when things get bad.  I have a PO Box where people can send me physical mail, and in the 18 months I’ve had it, I’ve received hundreds of letters, cards and packages addressed to my cat. Some of them have been simple cards saying hello, and some of them have been multiple page handwritten letters, spilling the heart of the writer out and asking the cat for comfort. Despite being sent to a human being’s PO Box, they were addressed to the cat, written for the cat, and worded as if whispered to that cat lying on their chest while they cried at night. I’ve been astounded by the beauty and emotion that goes into a lot of the letters I receive, and they’ve been an important thing to consider when presenting Bilbo online. Many other cat account operators said how the messages that they get are the most intense part of the process, both positively and negatively. Many said that they are inundated with pictures of other people’s cats, celebratory news and messages of love, and many more said they also receive messages of grief about the loss of their own cat, about homesickness, and indeed about how their cat account has helped people deal with mourning, abuse, and suffering. Again, the theme of using Cat Twitter accounts as a vector for emotional outpouring was common, and the depth of the messages received was astounding.

Community

So, let’s hear from the people who follow Cat Twitter accounts. I received 450 responses to an open survey I held before writing this video, which will inform what I’m about to talk about.

First of all, the vast majority of the respondents were from either the US and Canada region, or from the UK and Ireland, which perhaps isn’t that surprising given my own online reach. Other countries of note include a sizeable cluster of people from the Philippines, a bunch from Brazil and Argentina, and a group in Qatar! The vast majority of people were in their late teens and in their twenties, but the age range of respondents covered every age between 13 and 70. I didn’t ask specifically about gender or sexual orientation, but of people who self-disclosed throughout their answers, more people said they were women than other genders, and there was a huge representation of LGBTI people and disabled people.

The reasons people enjoy Cat Twitter are widely varied. Whereas some people like casually seeing cat photos on their timelines and that’s it, others have deeply personal reasons for following or getting involved in very significant ways. For example, for Pépito who I previously mentioned, there are people who interact with the majority of his content, and indeed there are people who religiously check up on Bilbo’s tweets and ask how he’s doing regularly. Some send him messages, some send him post. What has become more common recently is people following a cluster of cat accounts and specifically enjoying the reactions between them, for example where some cats wish Miya, Hydration Cat, a speedy recovery from her medical problems, or where Bilbo and Kenny say hello. “The crossover episode I always wanted” is something I see in Bilbo’s notifications constantly when this happens. One cat being Retweeted by friends, then leading them into the maze of Cat Twitter was something that around 100 respondents to my survey said was their introduction.

Loss

However, the most common thing that people said was that Cat Twitter provided them an escape from an increasingly daunting and scary world. A growing number use Cat Twitter as a way to break away from intimidating and overwhelming political crises, impending global climate chaos, and from the realities in their local areas. Much has been written recently about the concept of climate grief – the mental health impacts of knowing that humanity is increasingly at grave risk from runaway climate change, particularly on young people. That grief and associated political issues is a major reason why people find refuge with the twitter cats. I know, that’s wild, but that’s what people said.

Lots of people have mental health problems generally – that’s hardly revelatory. Plenty of people responding to my survey specifically said they found Cat Twitter to be particularly soothing for their mental health, and indeed sought it out regularly for relief and an emotional boost. Folks with severe depression, suicidal thoughts and other difficult mental health problems voyaged to Cat Twitter to calm down, to ground themselves, and to escape for a few minutes. The depth which people went into about this was very touching – it is clearly an important part of self-care and mental health management for a significant number of people. Others missing their own pets who lived elsewhere or had passed away found Cat Twitter to be soothing for mourning and homesickness. For people who struggled to form new friendships after moving away from home, Cat Twitter can be a conversation starter with new people, and it was particularly touching to see that it’s sparked deep and meaningful friendships between a significant number of people.

Overall, nearly 60% of people said Cat Twitter helped their wellbeing a lot, with another nearly 40% saying it helped them a little. For something so fundamentally silly, that’s really lovely. A small number said they weren’t emotionally affected by Cat Twitter, and two said it hurt them a little. Cat Twitter isn’t immune from representing and replicating some of the problems of Twitter and internet communication forums as a whole though, so let’s explore that a bit.

Accessibility

Twitter has historically been quite inaccessible; accessibility features have come quite slowly and uptake has been far from unanimous, with features like image descriptions having to specifically opted into by individual users, for example. A lot of Cat Twitter accounts use garbled language to communicate – my own Bilbo included. This can be difficult for a large number of Twitter users to read, especially blind and visually impaired people who use screenreading software, dyslexic people, learning disabled people, and folks whose first language isn’t English. Different accounts have dealt with this in different ways – some use completely plain language, some use image descriptions, and some particularly new accounts tend to use extremely garbled text with high use of diacritics and other linguistic features that make reading pa     rticularly difficult. There has been a general move towards making Cat Twitter more accessible, particularly as so many account owners are themselves disabled, but the current state of access is poor.

Like other areas of society and culture, I think Cat Twitter should be as accessible as possible, and I’m hopeful that we can find better ways of making that happen. Bilbo uses image descriptions now, and is slowly improving his English, but remains inaccessible for some. Twitter’s automatic translation fails to translate context and slang, nevermind the result of a cat’s paws on a smartphone keyboard.

There’s other types of accessibility too – particularly financial accessibility and resources. Now, every Cat Twitter account is free to follow, but it does require a discrete amount of time and resources to run an account, so people who have their energy or time stretched thin are much less likely to be able to participate; this is true of Twitter as a whole, and of unpaid creative work as a whole too.

Now, one way to bring in some income from Cat Twitter is from merchandising, which allows creators to sell items featuring their cat accounts to bring in some bacon. This in and of itself is a time and resources investment, and requires either existing creative skills or the resources to commission artists etcetera to produce, as well as in some cases the time, equipment and skills to manage logistics, production, shipping and taxes that merchandising involves.

2019 is the first year of my own work – trans human rights activism – that I’ve had a salary for, and I started merchandising with Bilbo’s account in 2017, which brought in much-needed money for me to survive on. Indeed, Bilbo merch paid my rent all the way up to late 2018, and was crucial for me being able to support myself up until I was able to gain a wage. However, that was difficult, time-consuming work, with a pretty vertical learning curve, and it was frustrating and slow progress at first. It’s something that many people don’t have the resources to commit to, and is a fairly difficult thing to make profitable. However, modern merchandising platforms like Redbubble and Bonfire make this a lot more doable for first-time creators, and it’s what allowed me to get up and running without the capital costs to buy equipment or large print runs of stickers, for example.

Still, supporting your living expenses through Cat Twitter, like with creators here on YouTube, is the exception, not the rule, and most accounts who do sell merchandise make a modest sum that in no way would fairly pay for their time in running the accounts, and I don’t know anyone meeting all their costs through it. However, Bilbo merchandise has been very successful, and since I don’t need that money anymore due to having a salary, about 90% of income from Bilbo merch goes directly to the artists who design it and Ashley, a friend in Belfast who’s done amazing work making sure packages get sent on time. The rest pays for work space, other fees, and I see about 5% in the end.

This is not the norm. Support those smaller creators.

Ethics

Is it ethical to post your cat online? That’s something I’m absolutely not qualified to fully assess, but there are some general areas we can explore together.  When I take a photo of Bilbo, it’s generally taking a photo of something he’s doing already, with some exceptions. Whether it’s with him peacefully asleep or storming about demanding his dinner, generally his photos are descriptive rather than of prescribed activity. It’s his everyday life. A number of people responding to my survey said they did worry about the wellbeing of the cats on Cat Twitter, and wanted to know they were happy, as healthy as possible, and enjoying their time online. There will always be a spectrum of what pet owners find acceptable for interacting with cats – you quickly discover this when yours has a decently big following on Twitter. There’s one guy who’s adamant that anytime Bilbo yells, he’s trying to say he needs to go to the vet. There’s also a large spectrum of what cats themselves tolerate or enjoy – some cats hate being cuddled, whereas my own boy is the opposite. Bilbo has a thing for armpits. And will cuddle anyone I’m friendly with. Some cats are fine with wearing a bowtie, whereas others will give you an armdectomy for even suggesting it. Generally, Cat Twitter account owners keep their content within the bounds of what’s comfortable for the cat, with perhaps the exception of when they’re being introduced to new toys, equipment, or foods. I’ve seen relatively few examples of cats being distressed, and fewer still of cats being repeatedly distressed – cat fans on the internet are usually quick to raise alarms about cat discomfort. This is perhaps predictable – most account owners who responded to me said they shared their cats with the world because they loved them so much, and wanted to share that love with the world. The idea of hurting Bilbo to get Twitter numbers is vile to me, and this seems to be shared with at least the great majority of Cat Twitter users.

Respondents to my follower survey also expressed concern for the owners of the cats. Accounts can blow up quickly, and like my own experience, often to a much greater following than your personal account ever had. This introduces new stressors to owners, like unwanted messages and attention, “extremely helpful advice” about their cats, and infighting among their cat’s fans. Although the vast majority of account owners said they found Cat Twitter very helpful and positive for them, many worried about that increased attention, and especially about the number of highly emotional and grieving messages they were receiving. This wasn’t a request that they stop, just a worry about there being large spikes in numbers received. Again, this is a problem with having a large Twitter account generally, but the removal of a human being being directly attached to the account perhaps allows people to be a bit more free with their expression of emotions where they wouldn’t be as candid with an account with a person’s face attached.

Is it ethical to sell cat merch? Within the bounds of whether selling anything is ethical under capitalism, most accounts with merchandising are run by marginalised people, and mostly by folks well under their locale’s average income. It’s much easier to establish production standards with local companies, but an account owner said they worried about using large merchandising companies as they couldn’t establish what conditions they were produced in. This is definitely an ethical conflict that isn’t easy to get comfortable with if sticker revenue pays for the roof over your head every month. I know that dilemma well.

Finally on ethics, having a large online following inevitably fosters power dynamics between large and small accounts, and particularly when communicating with followers directly. Cat account owners generally said they were very careful with interactions with followers, and with the content they put out, and this is generally evident in the culture that surrounds Cat Twitter and its audience. Is it ethical to open but not answer emotional direct messages from followers in mourning despite you not having the energy or time to deal with dozens of messages at a time? This is something I personally struggle with a lot, and it’s certainly something that Twitter as a whole doesn’t really have an answer for right now. A heart emoji is better than nothing, but is it living up to your duty of care when people don’t have access to support elsewhere in their lives? Answers on a postcard please.

Parasocial Relationships

A parasocial relationship is a relationship where one party considers knowing the other well in some areas, may follow them online for years, and is deeply familiar with some parts of their life, whereas the other party may not even know they exist. Much has been written and said about parasocial relationships in the past number of years, particularly here on YouTube, and it does indeed seem that a lot of the comment and criticism does also apply to Cat Twitter interactions. When you have over 50,000 Twitter followers, you inevitably can’t keep up with all the notifications and interactions you receive, and indeed some people do become hurt when their love for their Twitter cats isn’t returned visibly. When this happens, it’s usually because of the sheer number of messages and the inherent need to filter them that comes into it, but it can affect how people interact online. I have friends who regularly get bought drinks because they’ve lived with my cat Bilbo in the past, and I regularly am across the world doing work when I meet people for the first time who can quote Bilbo tweets verbatim. It can be startling! It’s cool, but it can be starting.

Some cat account operators did say they worried about not being able to keep up with the changing and growing requests of their audiences, but were clear that their cat’s wellbeing came before all else. Some said they had personal rules about not responding to emotionally heavy messages unless absolutely necessary, as a way to protect their own mental health, or that they had closed their direct messages to non-mutual followers after they reached a certain level of audience online. These approaches are common across many online platform   s today where big accounts struggle to deal with the small but hugely numerous interactions with others, so this isn’t a nuance limited to Cat Twitter. In fact, few of the issues with Cat Twitter are unique to this community.

The Future

Perhaps the most important emotions communicated by the dozens of cat account owners who talked to me and the hundreds of followers who sent in their thoughts are love and joy. Of all the 81,000 words in all those responses, love and joy were the most common themes, and it’s clear that these cats occupy a special place in many thousands of people’s lives, even if that special place is small or fleeting.

Cat Twitter is growing. As more people become involved in the culture surrounding it more broadly, more and more people are signing their cats up to the platform and showing their felines to the world. Some of these are highly original and entertaining, and some of them are very, very much a carbon copy cat of existing accounts. Whereas the success of longstanding accounts may seem daunting, it’s yet to be seen how this new wave of account holders apply their own streak to this community. Cat accounts in more and more languages are popping up, as are accounts with more niche audiences and appeals, and this I think is ultimately a good thing. Everyone deserves an escape from this difficult modern world, and for an increasing number, Cat Twitter offers a small form of that. We need to make sure the cats involved are happy and loved, shown to the world as a way of communicating their owners’ love for them, and not exploited and stressed by the process. We need to make sure that people with terrible politics don’t start using the cutesy language of Cat Twitter and infiltrating it, and we need to ensure that the relatively socially powerful positions large Cat Twitter accounts like my own have, are used responsibly, both on the larger scale and with interactions with individual fans and followers. We need to ensure that Cat Twitter can be a loving, accepting and hopeful place, while also not building relationships so strong that the illness or death of the cats involved is dangerously hard on their fans. Cat Twitter won’t always be the way it is, but I hope it maintains its humour, its love, and its carefree feel.

There’s no way of knowing where Cat Twitter will go in the future, how it’ll adapt to a growing audience, or how it’ll fit into a changing world. As our followings continue to expand in numbers and grow older individually, and as our cats do the same, we have many lessons yet to learn. But I’m hopeful that this little pocket of Twitter, this little warm corner of the internet, can remain a place of love, of escape, and of healing, for years to come.

To quote one follower, “Cat twitter is the next step in the human experience.”

Go pet a cat, or say hello to a cat, or Tweet something nice to a cat. If this is a way we can stay happy and calm in this hectic world, let’s enjoy it.

As for my own boy Bilbo, I dearly hope that he will be a happy boy who enjoys his adventures for many years to come. I hope I can share his love with you that whole time. I’ll give him a kiss from you.