The Kiddy Pool: The Viral Dog and the Unattainable Donkey

My elder daughter wants a donkey for a pet. “Don’t you think a donkey would like me, Mama?” she asked.

“Of course!” I replied. “What’s not to like?” Then I tried to explain how much donkeys eat, and how we have a very small yard with close neighbors. And we have two cats who might not like being displaced by yet another creature.

But we have a yard in front and in back, she insisted. So really, the donkey ought to be grateful, as am I, that my children are too young for Facebook, too sheltered so far to take this pet protest public, unlike the Cordell children, whose media prowess earned them a puppy. In The Atlantic’s “The Viral-Media Prof Whose Kids Got 1 Million Facebook Likes (and a Puppy),” Rebecca Rosen explains how Dr. Cordell offered the ultimatum described in the headline; he thought he could hold out until the spring, but the kids got their million “likes” in 7 hours.

As the professor himself explains, “Brevity, comedy, charm, and resonance with cultural values (in the 19th century, those were often religious ones) all increased the likelihood of virality. ‘Even 200 years ago, it still wasn’t complex philosophical treatises that were going viral. It was a short little pithy story that taught you a lesson.’” Based on the image, the children and their sign have comedy and charm to spare.

In terms of resonance with cultural values, it oozes cuteness (and we know the internet digs cuteness, as well as creatures who can’t spell, though the Cordell kids seem free of that issue). Their desire echoes an idealized childhood—the rescued shelter dog, the dad who says yes, the kids who grow up in the suburbs with their best canine bud. I don’t think it hurt either that they’re a troop of blonde, blue-eyed kids who look middle class (based on their clothes and the small glimpse of background); those are assumptions, of course, but the image reinforces the picturesque happy domestic sphere. I wonder how the challenge would change if the background were distinctly urban or impoverished. Something to think about. And then there’s the feeling of fulfilling the kids’ dreams, “helping” them in a way that is easy, uninvolved, and essentially meaningless for the participants. Click “like” and be one in a million.

So what, then, is the “pithy story” that teaches a lesson here? Two girls want a dog. Two girls use Facebook. Two girls outsmart their media professor pops and win dog. Is it a story of self-promotion? Of exploiting one’s cuteness for personal gain? Am I just getting cynical about a sweet story where some kids give a dog a loving home? It just feels problematic that the end goal of caring for an animal is somehow connected to gaining popularity with strangers. It’s why I keep saying “winning” a puppy instead of earning one, because whatever these kids have done behind the scenes (and that’s not something I’m privy to), the Facebook scheme alone demonstrates desire, not deservedness.

I don’t know what my daughters could do to deserve a donkey (translation, probably nothing). But I’m going to hold onto the hope that the Cordell kids deserve their dog, and that Milli becomes a meaningful member of their family, and not just a mascot for fifteen minutes of internet fame.

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