Author: Esther R. Anderson, a doctoral candidate and sessional lecturer in anthropology at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Her PhD research explores how working holidaymakers conducting seasonal agricultural labour in regional Australia encounter senses of place and feelings of community. She is also a big fan of dogs, and co-curates the Dogs of Anthropology Twitter account. You can read more of Esther’s work at her blog, or follow her own Twitter account.
This blog post is part history-of-the-internet, part analysis, reflecting on the legacy of the Facebook group ‘Dogspotting’. My own dogspotting narrative begins in mid-2014. I was three-quarters through writing my Honours thesis in anthropology, about the convergences of digital and physical space. It was a heady time; my days were spent coding, analysing, and writing. I had not yet adopted a dog of my own, but was desperate to do so. I took pats wherever possible, with the exception of service dogs (they do important jobs, and should not be distracted from such work).
Enter dogspotting. This Facebook group has a history that predates social media, or so the mythos surrounding its origins proclaims. A simple Google search reveals something more mundane: an idea, posted on an internet forum in the late-00s: “a blueprint for better living…assigning point values to all the dogs you see in your daily activities, with various bonuses attached for those extra-special spots.”
When the society eventually made its way to Facebook, membership exploded, exponentially. For unknown reasons, it became most popular with my fellow Australians. Perhaps the explanation lies in historic Australian dogs, such as the iconic ‘Red Dog’, a Western Australian kelpie who is the subject of both a book and a popular film, or the fictional Golden Retriever puppy ‘Napoleon’ (1995) who adventures across the Australian wilderness. Then there are classic folkloric tales, such as the ‘dog on the tuckerbox’, or working dog traditions. Another explanation could be attributed to our unique café culture, pioneered by Greek migrants after the Second World War – many popular outdoor eateries have become increasingly dog-friendly in recent years.
Maybe we just love dogs.
Gamification of dogs
But – returning to my story. Dogspotting, arguably, was a tenuous thematic precursor to real-world crossover Pokémon Go. Instead of catching cutesy pocket monsters, group members went about spotting (and appreciating) as many canines as possible during the course of their day-to-day lives. The group aims at the time were simple:
2014 Dogspotting rules via Buzzfeed News: (1) Identify a dog or dogs, (2) spot the dog(s), (3) share spot with group, (4) collect points, (5) HAVE FUN!
Rules included no service dogs, respect privacy, no selfies, no known dogs, no ‘low-hanging fruit’ (animals at places dogs are likely to be, such as dog parks, or veterinary surgeries), no non-dog posts, and no stolen photos, drama, or memes. ‘Spots’ were evaluated by other members (then in the tens of thousands) via the Savoian free-points system (named for one founder, John Savoia), effectively, gamifying dogs.
Arbitrary bonuses were awarded fast and loosely: A dog in a motorcycle sidecar, wearing a helmet, may be awarded a score of ‘+1 safety first’, or a dog at a protest may be given a bonus of ‘+1 fighting for the cause’, and so on.
The 2014 Dogspotting points system (via Buzzfeed News)
Another founder of the group took issue with the free-points system, and the lack of challenge it presented. In his criticisms of the scoring method, and its enthusiastic adoption across Oceania, Josh Boruff invoked colonial and convict legacies. He expressed disappointment that “the Australians proved themselves a lawless people even still, awarding points to one another with reckless abandon”. Boruff, one of many (predominantly male) founders, staged what was interpreted as a coup against the others, implementing what would be referred to as ‘Orthodox Dogspotting’:
Spotting was now a systemic process, with scores determined by the size of the dog in question, whether it was engaged in acts of apparent glory or shame, and whether multiple dogs were involved (‘multispot’).
Controversially, points were not only able to be awarded, but they could also be taken away, resulting in a cumulative negative score. Seeing a small dog, for example, risked a loss of points (-2), as “these rat- and cat-sized creatures diminish the true canine experience” (see the complete Orthodox Dogspotting rulebook, meticulously archived in the annals of internet history). Comparatively, locating an extra-large animal, such as Great Danes or Mastiffs meant +4 bonus. The rules were expansive, and members were encouraged to print them out for convenient reference (at the time, I did), and honestly record their spots in a notebook or ledger. Except for small dogs, it seems, all canines were equal, and points-scoring was to be a much more methodical, controlled activity.
Announcement of the new system, via Dogspotting Worldwide
Under the new regime, masculinity was subtly rewarded. ‘Shameful acts’, causing removal of points, included ‘effete overtraining’ (such as ‘dancing’), ‘shameful appearance’ (dogs wearing non-essential clothing), or ‘shameful transport’ (for those being carried in prams or bags). Most venerable spots involved action, independence, and heroism – distinctly masculine acts. The anti-small dog stance, and obsession with size revealed an almost Freudian contest. Dogspotting, it seemed, was not exempt from heteronormativity and human gender stereotypes, despite some members’ attempts to resist, respectfully referring to dogs of unknown sex with neutral pronouns, rather than an objectifying ‘it’.
A revolution takes place
Some uncritically embraced the new structure, thankful for the control it offered in comparison to the uncontrollable nature of the free-points system. Overall, the change in rules was met with strong criticism, and somewhat dramatically, comparisons to fascist regimes (ironically, under orthodox rules, spotting a dog involved in hegemonic oppression, “being used as an agent of politic or military intimidation or breaking up peaceful protests and union actions” resulted in -50 points).
Boruff seemingly revelled in his role in this internal scandal (via Twitter).
Splinter groups began to form, including the ever-popular ‘Cool Dog Group’ and ‘New Wave Dogspotting’. Dogspotting subsequently developed new rules, adapted from both the free-points and orthodox systems, and equilibrium was seemingly restored. No points could be revoked. The anti-small dog stance was removed. In its latest iteration, dogspotting is a society of equal opportunity: dogs wearing clothes, elderly dogs (‘sugarnoses’), and dogs being carried, are rewarded, along with action dogs. Mention of Boruff, or dogspotting orthodoxy, became akin to Orwellian thoughtcrime.
Recently, moderators of the Dogspotting Facebook group have claimed that this orthodox revision was part of a ‘grand plan’, to remove the ‘messiness’ of the free-points systems (once again, attributed to the Australian contingent of its membership). However, these retrospective and tenuous claims only serve to further muddle the Dogspotting mythos.
The state of contemporary dogspotting
Admittedly, I am no longer a member of the Dogspotting group. I am one of those people who abandoned Facebook altogether. Instead, my online dog appreciation is shared via the Dogs of Anthropology Twitter account, which depicts the intersections of pups and academia. We share photos of anthropologists’ own canine companions and or those spotted in the field, university, or at conferences.
This morning, however, I walked past a place I had once spotted a dog during that initial haze: a pub balcony in the centre of the city, where I saw a Jack Russell looking out onto the traffic, barking with reckless abandon (the original photo is sadly lost). It reminded me of the group, of dogspotting both as a sport and a fast-growing online community…and so I checked up on contemporary dogspotting culture.
The group now boasts over one million members. I looked in the comments of one spot, then another, and another. I was shocked to see that no points were being awarded at all! Most comments were of members tagging friends to excitedly share these wholesome images, occasionally typing out ‘10/10 heckin’ good doggo’. It appears that Dogspotting is now indistinguishable from its splinter group, Cool Dog Group. Wholesome enthusiasm about all dogs is a welcome revision, in part. In the immortal words of WeRateDogs™, “they’re [all] good dogs Brent” (explained here). Although, it is for this same reason, this apparent complete abandonment of any points scoring at all, that I am suddenly nostalgic for the orthodox rules that were briefly implemented in late 2014. Not for the hierarchy of dogs it created, or its invocation of machismo and derision of that which is seen as stereotypically feminine, but for the rules that transformed everyday appreciation of dogs into a wholesome global competition.
After all, everyone can appreciate that all dogs are good dogs.
Featured image by Anouk Doe on Pexel, shared under Creative Commons License.