Social Petworking, Power and Big Data

As many of you know, one of my interests is nonhuman animals and more specifically, pets. It's often taken for granted that Sociology revolves around humans, forgetting the prominent part that animals can play in our everyday lives. From visiting zoos and watching cat videos to eating meat or hunting, many of us interact with animals in a meaningful way.

Along those lines, I recently stumbled across the website 'I Know Where Your Cat Lives', a data visualisation which maps photos of cats posted online across the world. The creator claims it to be a 'data experiment' which highlights the locational information captured by metadata on sites such as Instagram. It also draws attention to our will to photograph cats and share them, a trend often deemed 'social petworking' ( a phrase coined here).

So why should it matter?

Geographical data collected from the likes of apps make us question privacy by showing where a photograph was taken, in this case from a pet-keeper's home. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, this information which may have once been considered private, can easily circulate across space and time. So, I Know Where Your Cat Lives alerts us to the nature of surveillance as digital technologies allow our activity to become traceable and used for profit-making pursuits such as personalised marketing. 

According to Bauman (2007, p.6), we are becoming confessional because revealing details about ourselves (and our pets) is the norm "to stay in the game of socializing". The PetPlan Pet Census (2011) revealed that 64% of pet owners share photos of their pets online, perhaps due to pets' inclusion in our identity practices, embeddedness in our routine and status as companions. 

The use of cats in the visualisation is telling, as a means of engagement and encouraging us to 'play' with the data rather than having to navigate the sinister undertone made explicit had the photographs been of people.  We are well versed in using interactive maps online to suss out geographies, so this is taken one step further to reveal activity within a household. Pictorial content appeals to the ordinary person as a way to understand issues (Beer, 2013), coupled with the entertainment value of animals as juvenile, playful and cute. There is something funny about cats in relation to humans it seems, which is ironic as the message about power and control underpinning big data is far from funny. 

Bauman, Z. (2007) Consuming Life. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Beer, D. (2013) Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Ch.5.