When Goats of Anarchy went viral, Leanne Lauricella saw it as a gift from the Instagram gods.
Lauricella, a 41-year-old event planner, had just quit her job and had no real clue what she was going to do next. She had started the Instagram account just a few months prior, in the spring of 2014, after moving from New York City to rural New Jersey and adopting a pair of baby goats. Lauricella loved ‘gramming them butting heads, running around the yard and playing in old cardboard boxes. She’d even acquired a modest few thousand followers. Then in February 2015, on her very first day of unemployment, Instagram featured a picture of her goats on its homepage. The account instantly racked up more than 30,000 new followers. Lauricella decided right then that it was a sign that she was meant to devote her life to her goats.
Her timing was fantastic—goats were taking the internet by storm. There was Frostie, the sickly, wheelchair-bound baby Australian snow goat; /r/goatparkour, a Reddit forum devoted to goats performing feats of barnyard gymnastics; and “goat remixes,” a Buzzfeed-anointed phenomenon that involved remixing pop artists like Taylor Swift with screaming goats. Cats had long held the vaunted position of mascot of the internet. Now goats, it seemed, were launching a viable challenge.
“I equate cats to Paris Hilton,” said Jason Eppink, a curator at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image who curated a show last year about how cats took over the internet. “Why is Paris Hilton famous? Because she’s famous. Asking that made her more famous. It’s a reinforcing concept.”
There are a lots of theories that explain exactly how and why cats became the web’s animal mascot, but a lot of it has to do with the place of the cat in cultures that dominated the early web. In those places, like the U.S. and Japan, cats are popular pets that embody cultural ideals of cuteness. But the internet has changed a lot since cats began clawing their way up the meme throne in the days of dial-up internet and Meowchat message boards. More than three billion people now use the internet, everywhere from rural Kenya to Cuba. And in many of those places—Uganda, pastoral England and Northeast Brazil—goats are more revered than cats.
“When you go to cultures where cats are not popular in daily life, cat memes are not as funny,” said An Xiao Mina, a technologist and co-founder of The Civic Beat, a global research collective for internet culture. “You kind of have to be relevant to be funny.”
The rising popularity of the goat, Mina told me, is reflective of the greater diversity of the internet. In other corners of the globe, memes are dominated by still other animals. In Mexico and China, for example, it’s llamas.
“We’ve always had this urban bias on the internet and that’s starting to change, so it makes sense that internet norms would also change,” Mina said. “It’s almost like as the internet diversifies, cats are making room for all of these other furry creatures to hop around online.”
But if China’s internet is made up of cute llamas and Uganda’s is cute goats and chickens, why is it that goats in particular have crossed over to the mainstream web?
Leanne Lauricella, of Goats of Anarchy, told me that she started noticing goat stuff everywhere online about a year ago. There was Goat Simulator, a viral computer game that lets you pretend to be a goat. Then there was those goats in Maine wearing pajamas. Fusion started a Twitter account devoted to goats. This week, hunky actor Channing Tatum even shared headlines with a goat, after posting a photo to Instagram saying goodbye to his favorite family pet.
For Lauricella, Insta-goat-fame turned her three-acre backyard into a full-fledged farm animal rescue, with 11 goats, a miniature horse, a miniature donkey and a rooster. She subsidizes the costs of running it mainly through animal-themed t-shirts she sells through Instagram and donations from Instagram fans. The rising internet fame of goats—and people fantasizing about getting a cute baby goat for themselves—is what has made her sanctuary possible. Every photo she posts attracts thousands of likes, along with dozens of comments reading some variation of “OMG I need a baby goat right now.” (This actually kind of stresses Lauricella out since goats are fragile and hard to care for. Not pictured on her Instagram: baby goats eating all the drywall on the barn walls or chomping off her ponytail.)
Lauricella suggested that the goat’s present popularity has to do with the backlash against urbanized life and the allure of farmers’ markets, hobby farming and DIY-culture. Lauren Berliner, a digital culture scholar at the University of Washington-Bothall, agreed. Goats, she told me, are a link between the suburban and rural, between the developed world and everywhere else. Sure they’re popular in Uganda, but maybe your hip neighbor in suburban Seattle has one, too.
“It’s indicative of our yearning to connect with nature right now,” Berliner said.
Also crucial: goats are easily anthropomorphized. Like cats, they have faces that at times seem to convey human-like emotion. So when you see baby Goat of Anarchy Prospect staring out the window at the blizzard and read Lauricella’s caption suggesting that he wants to go build a baby goat-sized snowman, you chuckle, because, you know, goats don’t build snowmen. But you can also relate, because it totally looks like that’s what Baby Prospect is thinking.
“There’s something about the expression of the goat that people seem really compelled by,” Berliner told me. “It’s about their humanity and the caricature of their humanity all at the same time.”
It was goats’ human-like qualities that propelled the very first viral goat video—Fainting Goats—way back in 2006 and the first anthropomorphized goat star, an adorable baby goat named Buttermilk, in 2012.
“They have those funny facial expressions and behaviors that are perfect for the internet,” Mina told me.
Goats probably aren’t actually going to replace cats on the internet. For one, while the global goat population is larger than the population of cats, goats just aren’t as popular as domesticated animals. Many people have access to cute cats to make cute cat videos. Far fewer people have real-life access to adorable baby goats. Goats of Anarchy, among the post popular corners of Goat Internet, has about 168,000 Instagram followers. Meanwhile, Grumpy Cat has well over a million.
But interest in goats is growing. Google Trends data shows that after an abrupt spike and decline in 2013, searches for goats have pretty much grown steadily since, both worldwide and in the U.S. In the U.S., the most searches came from rural states like Idaho. But the general pattern of increase held steady even in metropolitan areas, like New York City.
For cats, Eppink explained, there is an overarching philosophy that dictates their popularity online: it’s not so much about the cats as it is about us. Online, a cat doesn’t just stand for a cat. It stands for being a savvy internet user.
That theory works to explain the rising popularity of goats, too. On the internet, goats aren’t just goats anymore. They are the symbols of a new, more diverse internet. Sharing a goat video is a nod to being in the know, to recognizing that we are living on the post-Cat web, a place where goats, chickens and llamas can go viral, too.
Plus, as Lauricella put it, “if you don’t like baby goats, there’s something wrong with you.”