When will I be famous? Oscar the whippets bid for Instagram fame

Petfluencers rule the internet. Can Emma Beddington transform her gloomy pet into a social media sensation?

Grumpy Cat, the internets favourite seemingly furious feline, died in May, to a global outpouring of sadness, an emotion she would presumably have appreciated. The demise of the creature whose peevish underbite launched a thousand merchandising and sponsorship deals, from cereal and soft toys to video games (not to mention a surprising number of tattoos), has doubtless left a gap in her owners the Bundesens hearts, but it has also opened up an opportunity in the petfluencer (sorry, its a thing) market.

This is excellent news for me, because times are tough for freelance writers and I have decided my bad-tempered elderly whippet, Oscar, needs to start pulling his weight. I adore him, but after 10 years of freeloading, 98% of which has been spent asleep and eschewing affection, the final straw came at Easter when he ruined a carpet to the tune of 785 after stealing and eating a rotten kebab.

The digital pet landscape may be far more saturated than it was in Grumpy Cats heyday, but opportunities still abound for enterprising animals (or more accurately, their anthropomorphising owners). Why? Because we live in an age that idolises them: an age of handbag dogs, emotional support peacocks and luxury cat hotels. Animal influencers have real financial clout, attracting brand partnerships, sponsors and merchandising opportunities. Its easy to see why. Animals dont get gropey at parties or turn out to be horrifyingly racist; they simply make us feel good. US superstar pets can earn up to $16,000 for a social media post. In her book Influencer, digital guru Brittany Hennessy wrote she once paid a dog $32,000 for two Facebook posts, one Instagram post, and one tweet. There are whole years I have earned less than that.

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Times are tough for freelance writers and I have decided my elderly whippet needs to start pulling his weight: Oscar. Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

Pet influencers are big business here too, according to Paula Stewart of the Urban Paws agency. Pet lovers are more engaged than celebrity audiences. If an animal posts a product online to sell, were getting much higher returns. Urban Paws represents Instagram big hitters Bruno the Mini Dachshund (a perky, often-accessorised sausage, @brunotheminidachshund), and Maine Coon Life (two magnificently angry-looking cats, like ultra-fluffy Kray twins; @themainecoonlife). They organise brand partnerships with HarperCollins and Warner Music; a number of Stewarts clients are now full-time petfluencer wranglers.

The newest growth market is micro-influencers, animals with between 5k and 20k followers, as Sasha Wilkins (@libertylndngirl), more of a macro-influencer herself, with 46.5k followers, explains. Big brands are moving more towards working with micro-influencers than really big influencers, because the micro-influencers have super- engaged audiences.

This, I hope, is where Oscar can carve out a niche and where I, an avid consumer of animal content, can help. Like many online, I am exhausted by Twitter the buzzing of a million hornets and revolted by the wholesome humblebragging of Facebook. Human Instagram is a demented envy factory, but animal Instagram (equally artificial, admittedly) is a sweetly uncritical place of #noseboops and #snoots where furred and feathered friends like each others naps and snacks. I follow numerous animal accounts, from a motley crew of elderly dogs (@wolfgang2242) to a woman who inexplicably lives in a house full of foxes (@juniperfoxx) and @nevillejacobs, Marc Jacobss chic bull terrier. I have also tried and rejected several more, including Pumpkin the Raccoon, Jill, a sweet but boring squirrel, and several capybaras. Surely knowing the fine line between repetitive and inconsistent, funny and annoying, will help?

Paw-quoi
Paw-quoi pas? Emma Beddington with Oscar, hot new Instagram star @je_suis_ouipette Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

There are, however, problems. Firstly, Oscar answers to no one (Most of my pet influencers are exceptionally well-trained, warns Stewart). My 10-year-old can sit, theoretically, but chooses not to and acknowledges no other commands. He is no Gigi Hadid either since an Alsatian attacked him last year: hes crazy-paved with scars and bald patches. You dont have to be beautiful to succeed on Instagram; endearingly ugly works too. Tuna (@tunameltsmyheart), a chihuahua-dachshund cross with an overbite and expression of existential dread, has 2 million followers. However I fear Oscar falls between the two camps and as his besotted personal assistant, I am well placed to say his sparkling personality will not make the difference.

This is the biggest problem. Oscars permanent expression is one of stony disappointment, and its not just an expression: its his personality. He doesnt like cuddles, fun, me, or other dogs. He doesnt want to play, Logan, he never wants to play, a man says to his wolfhound puppy (rather pointedly, I think) as Oscar dodges his giant paws in disgust when they meet in the park of a morning. He recently refused to be stroked by a bereaved whippet owner, staring balefully into the distance and tilting his head to evade pats. Mine was much friendlier, the man said, sorrowfully. But if Grumpy Cat taught us anything, it is that looked disgruntled on the internet sells and looking disgruntled is Oscars forte. Can I monetise his sepulchral #snoot? Time to find out.

Day One

I start trying to crack the micro-influencer market by talking to one. Elle (@grrlgenius_), a French bulldog, and minder Coco Quill, a digital marketer, have 17.1k followers and have worked with brands including Barbour and Diesel. Quill started the account in 2012 to connect with the Frenchie community, but Elle (a clown dog wrapped in a philosophers coat) found a keen following. Quill is very clear its work as well as fun, editing pictures, engaging with followers and managing the commercial side. It can be flattering when a brand you like wants to work with you it can also be gruelling.

Her advice for a would-be petfluencer? Have a strong tone of voice and look at your grid [your most recent photos] as a magazine.

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I am followed by a dog called ego (Nietzsche): Oscar reflects on his reading. Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

I know what Oscars voice will be: a pretentious French philosophy bore, with a craven desire for internet validation. There will be no cuteness and no boops or zoomies (hound Instagram vernacular for short bursts of running), just bleak philosophical quotes and pictures of Oscar doing what he does best: nothing, while looking like a thwarted Old Testament prophet.

I create a @je_suis_ouipette Instagram account tagline: Hell is other people. And dogs. And squirrels (especially squirrels) and recycle an old photo of him asleep. I mention him on my own account once, but vow that his future growth must be organic. Later I add an Instagram Story in which he quotes Jean-Paul Sartre, staring at the camera in grim displeasure.

I follow some of the biggest pet names online to see how they do it. Global celebrity Doug the Pug (@itsdougthepug; 3.8m followers) keeps it simple with short captions and cute costumes; @jiffpom, a perfectly teased Pomeranian, who at 9 million followers clearly doesnt even have to try any more, just signs each post with a heart emoji.

There is, of course, nothing new about our weird relationship with animals. In 1826 Zarafa, Frances first giraffe, became a national celebrity, sparking a craze for giraffe-inspired fabric, porcelain and even towering hairdos; a clear forerunner to Doug the Pugs range for Claires Accessories. Harry Whittier Freess eery early 1900s photographs of costumed cats are uncannily reminiscent of the #cute content we love today, while back in the 1970s photographer William Wegman was snapping his lugubrious Weimaraners in wigs, raincoats and blouses in poses that would set Instagram on fire today.

Day Two

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As M Sartre said, existence is essence. Oscar, Instagram Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

Were at 101 followers and at 6.15am Im Googling ontological errors of Cartesian rationalism. I need to post at 8am, the best time according to Paula Stewart. Bus to work, 8am till 9am, then sitting down and having your dinner, 6pm to 7pm. A lot of Instagram success turns on mastering the platforms mysterious algorithms and the numerous tricks of the trade include this one. Sasha Wilkins explains: Post when you think your community will be most engaged, because the more people who like it in the first period, the more likely it is to show up. For Stewart its also about getting your head around the little tricks with hashtags and the Instagram features. If you use their features, they promote you more.

The various features are bewildering, but I eventually manage to add a Jacques Brel song to one of Oscars Stories. No one comments. Are you buying him followers? a friend asks, so I investigate: I can get 1,000 for only $12.95. I message my editor to see if the Observer will let me buy Oscar popularity on expenses; she shuts that down instantly.

Day Three

I fear were being held back by our lack of photographic and modelling skill respectively. Usually when Oscar sees my phone, he starts to lick his genitals; at best, he glares angrily over my shoulder. If our grid were a magazine, it would be called something like Forbiddingly Beige.

I contact Matt Townsend, who photographs whippets as @trianglefaces, for some tips. You see a range of quality. A lot of people are happy just snapping away, a lot of close-ups, a lot of nose boops What I do with my little one (@poppet.the.whippet) is hang around her with my camera all the time so shes happy its in her face. Townsend edits his own shots, but rates the Lightroom app; I download and stare cluelessly at it. Its like the flight deck of a Boeing 787.

The
The oppo: Ru, the Boston Terrier owned by Vogue editor Edward Enninful and Alec Maxwell (@ruenninful), showing off in a Chanel dog blanket. Photograph: @ruenninful

Townsend recommends @allaboutlloyd_, a grey whippet with a ravishingly minimalist feed. His owner, Paz Oh, is a jewellery designer. Im trying to explore this minimal, very monochrome look. I like things really simple, so it came naturally. Despite a series of brand collaborations with the likes of Jaguar and Anouska Hempel, shes refreshingly relaxed about the whole business: More planning, less fun. The posts that are more spontaneous get more likes. Her main tip is treats. Cheese works well, or sprats. She also recommends using a blanket (skinny dogs hate hard surfaces) and exploiting the Stories feature. People love seeing the reality of the dog moving, those moments sometimes work better in videos.

I post a Story of Oscar trudging through the rain, quoting Verlaine. My friend Annie replies: I fear hed become tiresome down the pub, musing on the pointlessness of alcohol when all is dust, etc. Oscar also gets his first sex spam message. If anyone is having a stranger week than me, its the person (bot?) sending a dog erotic pictures.

Day Four

Instagram is all about engagement: following, liking and commenting on the right accounts to lure them back to yours, so Wilkins, whose miniature dachshund @lovelylettice also has an account, gives me a whistlestop tutorial. The truth is that its a bit like other peoples children: theyre not that interesting unless theyre particularly cute. But we love our dogs so much were happy when other people appreciate them. You need to comment on as many posts as possible. The most successful Instagrammers I know literally spend four hours a day liking and commenting on other peoples posts.

Paula Stewart knows engagement works; she has been experimenting with her tortoise, Jeff. I spend an hour every night interacting with other people. With his tireless liking and commenting, @jeff_the_tort has far outstripped her conventionally cuter, but less engaged dogs.

Bark
Bark star: bull terrier Neville @nevillejacobs Neville is the dog of Marc Jacobs he is a Bull Terrier Photograph: @nevillejacobs

I try to engage in the pretentious spirit of Insta-Oscar, commenting on a whippet post captioned morning snuggles with this is like a Lucian Freud, and complimenting so many hounds with an expansive mon ami that Oscar sounds like Poirot. Soon, however, engagement fatigue sets in and the quality of our comments plummets. Beautiful dog! Adorable! I write, mechanically, adding multiple insincere heart-eye emojis. At several points during this process I find myself imagining explaining my job to my stepfather, who gets his news from Le Monde Diplomatique and his kicks from translating Turgenev.

Day Five

Matching each picture with a philosophical aphorism was madness, it transpires: I spend hours combing the internet for suitably pretentious quotes. I bet theres an existentialist take on rod for your own back but if I have to look at brainyquote.com again, Im going to set fire to my phone.

Im also mired in finding the right hashtags, following Wilkinss advice to look for ones where Oscars posts will reach like-minded hounds, but not get lost in the crowd. Go for #whippet and therell be 5m posts, but go for #intellectualwhippet and itll be relatively niche.

I find a selection of mid-level tags to add to my posts to no discernible effect. In the evening I realise the picture I am about to post our best yet, he doesnt even look furious includes a nice shot of Oscars nose: #boop I type, death in my soul. It gets a rubbish 92 likes.

Day Six

Its the weekend, so my husband provides artistic input and an extra pair of hands: we shoot Oscar reluctantly sitting on a wall and looking disappointed at a river. As I edit the shots, I realise we didnt do his collar up, spoiling the look, and remonstrate with my husband.

Its relaxed! Hes casual! he protests. Thats not how Instagram works, I screech, like the harpy I have become. Later I brush past him and he recoils in horror: You smell disgusting. I have been trying to bribe Oscar into sitting on a cushion so I can tag its creator on Instagram in the hope shell repost to her followers. This is my life now, sprat-scented and devoid of integrity.

Our follower count stalls at 199; eventually I beg a friend to get us over the 200 mark. Another friend messages me: @waltergeoffreythefrenchie, the screaming Frenchie, charges $50 for a personalised Insta message! Its something to aspire to, I suppose.

Day Seven

We gain a few followers through my constant anodyne commenting, but lose several more, presumably discouraged by the crushing nihilism of Oscars feed. By mid-afternoon, hallucinating long-faced dogs, I forget my principles and tweet a desperate plea for follows on Twitter. I enjoy the subsequent dopamine rush as we climb to 269 followers. This is our final tally: by any metric, a complete failure. We also have one failed brand collaboration: a dog bandana company messages to ask if were interested in modelling; I reply enthusiastically, but never hear from them again (was it the Nietzsche?)

Stewart sympathises. Ive found it incredibly difficult, much harder than I thought it would be, she says. There are more dog owners than any other animal in the UK and everyones trying to make their dog famous. Ive been stunned by the sheer amount of work influencers put into getting and staying successful; I notice @jeff_the_tort has left encouraging comments on most of our posts, including one on Camuss Myth of Sysyphus: Lets roll that boulder through Tuesday, too!

I think its time to retire from content creation. Were exhausted and confused and one of us is licking his testicles. Petfluencing is a pups game. I do, however, have a fairly vivacious tortoise; perhaps Jeff could give us some tips?

Follow Oscar on Instagram @je_suis_ouipette

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