I last made an internet friend in middle school, when so few people used AIM that my real-life friends and I traded contact lists and began chatting strangers. One time a boy asked for my number and called my house. I panicked a few seconds in and hung up. We never spoke again.
But I have always been fascinated by online communities, especially connections that begin behind anonymous handles and then morph into real world friendships. From time to time, group pictures from meetups float to the front page of Reddit — person after person who felt strongly enough about their online world to bring it into reality.
I had never felt that intense of a connection with the people I encountered online.
That general stranger-danger opinion of online contacts feels like it has started to lift in recent years with the proliferation of online dating sites. My friends talk openly about meeting people on Tinder and OK Cupid. Moving from the virtual to the real world is becoming more structured, more accepted. But I had yet to find a nook or cranny where I found myself at home.
It turned out that my nook was filled with cats. Lots and lots of cats.
Enter a cat
Eight months ago I adopted a cat — a fluffy orange tom I named Hobbes after a dear childhood favorite.
A prolific photographer, I quickly had more photos of my precious fur-baby than I was willing to reveal to my Facebook friends. I started an Instagram account dedicated to Hobbes and shared it with the friends who would understand what I thought was my special brand of crazy cat lady. They tolerated me internet gushing over my cat, and even rewarded it with showers of likes.
At the time, I knew of a few Instagram-famous cats and dogs. There was @nala_cat, who has more followers on the platform than world-famous Lil Bub and Grumpy Cat combined. I also loved @marutaro the shiba inu and @hello_oskar, a handsome tuxedo who explores the California coast on a leash. I chuckled to myself as I followed them. Cats following cats.
But then something odd happened: Unfamiliar cats started following Hobbes’ account. I followed back, and followed more. Within a day, Hobbes had more followers than my personal Instagram account. And nearly all of them were cats.
Down the rabbit hole
In these early days, running the account was a small investment that brought immediate return. I could post a picture of Hobbes sitting on the bed and ask, “Which movie should we watch today?” and within minutes have dozens of likes and comments. Hobbes alternated between sassy quips directed at his “humans” and quotes from “Calvin and Hobbes.” For a while I paired photos with lines from Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher, but it turns out no one wants to hear depressing musings on life from a cat.
Over time, I noticed the same people (or cats) commenting on my pictures over and over again. I started commenting back. I knew their cats’ names and “voice,” and started looking forward to seeing what certain accounts posted each day. My Instagram stream turned into a medley of cats satirizing current events, celebrating #caturday and making cutesy jokes. It felt a lot like Twitter, except everyone was a cat.
As the months wore on, my focus shifted from entertaining my friends to pleasing Instagram’s universe of cats. My content became more sophisticated. Some friends and I collaborated on a 10-panel noir piece and this weekend I am running “House of Cards” quotes on top of cat videos. I whittled the number of pictures I posted a day down to two, a number I gleaned from looking at the most successful cat accounts.
As I got deeper into cat Instagram, I joined its rituals. I entered photo contests to get Hobbes featured on accounts with more followers. Messages of “adopt, don’t shop” and “ban declawing” washed over me. I mailed cats handmade bow ties, and they sent me Christmas cards. I found myself using emoji — lots and lots of emoji.
Today, Hobbes’ Instagram account hovers at around 4,500 followers. Every picture I post gets 300 to 400 likes and, depending on the caption, a dozen or so comments. Among the thousands of cat accounts on the site, it’s a modest number. But it’s enough to give me that constant drip of reward social media sites are geared to provide. I post something, and people listen and respond.
Accidental cat people
About a month ago, I did grow tired of upkeeping Hobbes’ account. Writing captions, even if they are dumb cat jokes, takes a surprising amount of energy. I handed the reins over to my boyfriend for about a week and went back to curating my personal Instagram. It was nice for a day or so, and then I missed cat Instagram. I found myself explaining running jokes to my boyfriend and feeling personally responsible for ensuring Hobbes responded. I missed my friends.
The accidental-cat social media manager story is a common one. No one is singularly a cat person, the way a gamer can be a gamer or an athlete an athlete. In the real world, everyone has other identities. Charlene Dahilig, the Sacramento, California-based human behind the beloved @omgdeedee Instagram, said her account was originally private for more than a year.
“I was mostly posting pics of Gary, even at that time,” Dahilig said. “My sister told me that he could be a star and that I should go public, so I did. I wasn’t sure if it was just me who thought he was so unique, though.”
Gary, a white cat with a beard-like black splotch on his chin and mustard-yellow eyes, is not what you would call a classically beautiful feline. Dahilig’s captions present him as a cantankerous and vain, but also lovable, house panther who bosses his “intern” Margo the cat around. It is one of the best known accounts on cat Instagram.
Ruth White, a Hollywood, California, human who has adopted three squish-face Persians from shelters over the last 10 years, said her boyfriend convinced her to start her Instagram account, @squish_n_duffy.
“I didn’t even want to do Instagram. I thought it was so dumb,” White said. “And here I am, 23,000 followers later, organizing Instagreets.”
Friends, in good times and bad
White and a group of Instagram friends get together every few months to talk life and their pets. Many bring their cats.
“I think people think cat people are supposedly introverted and the cats stay at home. There’s this idea that you can’t get a bunch of cats together or mayhem will ensue,” White said. “When you get with a group of people and you all have one thing in common, even if you’re shy or reserved, with your love of cats you can’t help but just engage.”
White recently lost Squish, her first cat. When she adopted Squish 10 years ago, the then-1-year-old cat was so sick White was afraid to name her. Her temporary name of “the squish-faced cat” became permanent.
After Squish died, my Instagram feed filled up with tributes to the tortoiseshell Persian. Everyone had messages of condolences and support.
“To have this community around me that cared so much about me, and checked in on me, and sent me notes, flowers, and just did the most thoughtful things. …” White trailed off. “I was overwhelmed by their kindness. In some ways I’m a stranger, except for that we’re almost always in each other’s daily lives.”
Dahilig said the community support is her favorite part of Instagram. If a cat needs an expensive medical procedure, other people often step in and crowdfund it.
“The response to cats in need and the response when someone loses a pet is truly overwhelming,” Dahilig said. “People know what you’re going through, and I think it helps people through their grieving.”
If you had asked me a year ago to comment on cat pictures 20 times a day, I would have laughed. But I get it now. Behind every cat, there is a person you follow for their humor, their photography skills, their whatever, the same way you would anywhere else on the web. It’s just that here, in my corner of the internet, everyone happens to like cats.
I haven’t yet made the leap to meeting an Instagram friend in real life. But I wouldn’t mind doing it. This time, I won’t hang up.