Too Cute to Cuddle? “Witnessing Publics”and Interspecies Relations

on the Social Media-Scape of Orangutan Conservation

At the start of a volunteer-cum-fieldwork stint with a small orangutan charity in 2014, I sat down to discuss my research with “Alice,” a new member of staff who had a background in charity work. When I explained that I wanted to understand why people gave time and money to orangutan causes, she nodded with immediate recognition. “I’ve been surprised,” she said, “but it’s really easy to get people to donate. They all love cute orangutans!” A few weeks later,however, we found ourselves staring at an email from a member of the public asking how to obtain an orangutan as a pet. For once, Alice’s eloquence and unflappability deserted her. Unsure if it was a hoax or a genuine enquiry, she spluttered, “B-but…how do I tell them that it’s…just…not what we do?!”

These two moments cut to the ethnographic heart of my article: what I callthe contradictions of cuteness that get played out in popular engagements with orangutan conservation. As Alice succinctly put it, cute animals are powerful hooks through which the public can be drawn to orangutan and other conservation causes. But the orangutan-as-pet email highlighted another issue with which orangutan organizations routinely grapple: the excesses of cuteness, and what are construed as the inappropriate relational configurations to which it can give rise.Whereas the desire to “give [orangutans] a huge cuddle!” (to quote one Facebook user) is accepted and even encouraged by some organizations, actually cuddling an orangutan is deemed beyond the pale: as unacceptable behaviour that threatens orangutans and must be discouraged.

What should we make of these apparently contradictory impulses? How is the perilously fine line between them drawn and negotiated by various parties?This article addresses these questions by exploring how such impulses are apprehended and (re)calibrated on the social media-scape of orangutan conservation—a lively digital field that has given orangutan causes unprecedented reach and visibility over the last decade. I shall argue that this field is framed by a set of distinctive affects, sensibilities, and praxiological conventions through which diverse internet users—mostly Euro-Americans living in the global North[1]—can not only learn about but also participate in what is widely construed as an urgent, morally compelling project of “saving the orangutan.”

Such participation, however, is not always straightforward. As we shall see, this social media-scape is marked by a persistent tension between two contrasting models of human-animal relations—interspecies intimacy on the one hand, and an inviolable species divide on the other—which give rise to quite different politics and subjectivities. Attending to this tension, I suggest, can reveal not only how orangutan causes are crafted and made publicly legible, but also the complexities of digital “participation”—and more specifically, how social media can exclude and hierarchize as much as they promise to foster inclusion and democratization (see, e.g., Mason 2011, Shirky 2008).

Ethnographically, then, this article seeks to contribute to a growing corpus ofwork on the multiple “practices and beliefs…at the very heart of Western naturalism,” which, as Candea and Alcayna-Stevens (2012:37) point out, are often oversimplified and homogenized in anthropological depictions of “other” ontologies. Following their counter-injunction to take seriously rather than flatten out such diversity, I will foreground the fluctuating, contextual nature of orangutan supporters’ conceptions of human-animal difference as they play out on social media. Doing so, however, raises a further question: just why are these conceptions, as well as users’ interactions, often so morally, emotionally, and socially loaded? Addressing this demands a broader analytical agenda thatdraws together the emergent anthropology of social media and earlier work on rights-oriented media activism.

Figuring “witnessing publics” on social media

Since the mid-2000s, ethnographies of social media have largely clustered around two contrasting approaches. Whereas the first treats social media as “contiguous with and embedded in other social spaces” (Miller and Slater 2000:50) such as transnational diasporas (e.g. McKay 2011), localities (e.g. Miller 2016, Postill 2011), and teenage lives (boyd 2014), the second highlights social media’s relational and organizational novelty—their capacity to generate and sustain new political arenas, revolutions, and forms of protest in an “age of viral reality” (Postill 2014; see also, e.g., Gerbaudo 2012, Gerbaudo and Treré 2015, Juris 2012).Between these two ends of the spectrum, however, lies a sizeable and relatively under-studied gray areafilled with issues, causes, and other projects that both assemble and produce particular constituencies of participants (Warner 2005). It is here that we find “issue-specific public[s]” (Yang and Calhoun 2007:212) such as the individual supporters who populate the social media-scape of orangutan conservation. Neither interested in forging “strong” social ties nor in full-bodied political activism, such users share only a common sense of investment in the fate of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra. Yet despite the seemingly impersonal, incidental nature of their activities, their participation in this sphere is often highly “charged” (Fattal 2014:322)—affectively, morally, politically.

Part of my aim, then, is to shed light on that murky terrain between everyday sociality and full-blown activism on social media, which has received relatively little anthropological attention (but see, e.g., Postill and Pink 2012). More ambitiously, however, I also seek to account for how the “digital socialities” (ibid.:127) that criss-cross this space become charged with meaning and conviction, and what these processes imply for its political and relational dynamics.To do so, I draw inspirationfroman earlier body of scholarship—the anthropology of rights- and cause-oriented media activism (e.g. Allen 2009, Gregory 2006, Keenan 2004, Kocer 2013, McLagan 2003, 2005, 2006, McLagan and McKee 2012, Torchin 2006)—on which I now briefly expound.

Broadly speaking,contributors to this field explore how certain narratives or images register with and act on their audiences by tracing themedia representations, technologies, and circuits through which specific issues (e.g. famine, torture) are made visible to transnational audiences in ways that spur them into taking alleviatory action. Arguing that “media are not simply conduits for social forces, but rather are key sites for the definition of political issues and communities and the making of active and attentive publics” (McLagan 2005:223), such scholars foreground the “social labor” involved in making rights claims public (ibid.) and the “political work” (Allen 2009:171, Keenan 2004:443) performed by films, photographs, and other material in these processes.

Importantly, rather than onlyanalyzingthe substance of visual and discursive representations, this approach maps the “circulatory matri[ces], or dedicated communications infrastructure”—from organizational practices to film festivals to websites—“out of which human rights claims are generated and through which they travel” (McLagan 2006:192). As narratives and images of suffering move, McLagan argues,

they have the potential to construct audiences as virtual witnesses, a subject position that implies responsibility for the suffering of others. In this sense, human rights images make ethical claims on viewers and cultivate potential actors in the global arena (2003:609).

Many of these insights can be productively applied to digital manifestations of orangutan causes, which are structured around similar media(tions), appeals, and communications infrastructures. But whereasmuch earlierwork centers on film, photography, and websites—the preponderant channels of media activism in the early/mid-2000s—I focus here on social media platforms, notably Facebook (f. 2004) and Twitter (f. 2006), which in the last decade havejoined, and arguably superseded, these media-forms as dominant cause-related outlets.

Like other “Web 2.0” technologies, these platforms are built around an infrastructureand (idealized) cultureof participation: of constant interaction, content-sharing, and “remixing” (Shifman 2011) of material by individual users (see also Beer and Burrows 2010, Bennett and Segerberg 2013).[2]As such, they present anthropologists of media activism with intriguing challenges and possibilities—key among which is the opportunity to examinehow issues and claimsare apprehended, appropriated, reproduced, and personalized by their intended (and possibly unintended) audiences.Inexploring these processes, I thus pick up from where earlier scholarship left off by tracing not only how rights media “make ethical claims on us” (McLagan 2006:606), but also, crucially, what sorts of afterlives those claims can acquire as they move.

Apes in cyberspace

In this article,I use “orangutan conservation” to describe a broad spectrum of models, projects, and mechanisms—many convergent, some conflictual—related to the survival and well-being of orangutans. These include: 1) ongoing scientific research projects on wild orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra; 2) various nongovernmental organizationsthat pursue holistic conservation strategies, e.g.campaigns against deforestation or to secure protected land for orangutans; and 3) rescue and rehabilitation centers thatsave displaced, injured, or captured orangutans, treat and “rehabilitate” them, before ideally reintroducing them to the wild.[3]

Despite their differingagendas and approaches, parties across this spectrumcommonly—ifselectively—cooperate with each other. Such collaborative practices are mirrored and often extended in the social media-scape of orangutan conservation: a loose and fast-evolving cluster of images, videos, appeals, petitions, news-pieces, scientific publications, and other digital artifacts that now forms a significant part of many organizations’ outreach and publicity efforts.Cumulatively, these constitutea discernible field of activity that encompasses a regular cast of players—orangutan bodies and theirsupporters—and a recurrent set of tropes, narratives, and affective and praxiologicalconventions. It is further strung together by the connections—and ethos of connectedness—between different organizations, many of which “follow” each other on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, andTwitter, and occasionally circulate the same material.[4]While often extensions of offline relationships, such connections can also engender new alliances and other possibilities that could only exist online.

While informed by my volunteer stint as well interviews and discussions with orangutan charities, scientists, and conservationists, most of the research for this articlehas taken place on social media. Conducting digital ethnography in this lively, profusive space entails a peculiar form of participant-observation—one less like sittingin a village forging “deep” social ties than like hopping erratically betweenpublic gatherings (in this case, comments threads, strings of tweets, or virtual events like World Orangutan Day), occasionally meeting the same digital faces and picking up certain sensibilities, ideas, turns of phrases, and interactive conventions along the way. These features are not moored to particular groups or individuals; rather, they are public, “persistent” (boyd 2014:11),acquirable, and shareable by users dispersed across the world, and whose activities and interactions they frame. Accordingly, this article does not claim to capture any one party’s perspective(s) on orangutan conservation or to uncover hidden truths about supporters’ varied offline lives. Instead, it strives to illuminate the distinctive affects, sensibilities, and subjectivities that are produced and circulate within this digital space, as well as the ramifications of these processes for its social and political dynamics. We begin, then, with an ethnographic elaboration of Alice’s first point: the powerful draw of cute orangutans.

Eliding the species divide

Saving Budi and Jemmi

Although rescue and rehabilitation centers aim to “return” animals to “the wild,” their work can be controversial and problematic. Variousanalysts, for example, have questioned the long-term cost-effectiveness of reintroduction strategies, the capacity of post-release orangutans to thrive in the wild, and the potential for such schemes to perpetuate misleading impressionsof orangutans and conservation.[5]Standards and procedures, moreover, vary across centers, and many animals become lifelong residents because of their inability to survive in the rainforest.Baby orangutans, however, bring a glimmer of hope to this picture. Often arriving as orphanswho lackbasic survival skills, they remain on site for several years while they are taught to livein the jungle in human-run “forest schools.” Unsurprisingly, such orangutans—who quickly acquire names, biographies, and hopeful trajectories—make ideal poster children for orangutan causes, often becoming linchpins of virtual adoption programs[6] that several organizations run or support to raise funds for their efforts. And as this example will reveal, posts and tweets about these orangutans are pivotal in shaping the affective and ethical contours of the social media-scape as they circulate.

Budi and Jemmi are two of many orphaned orangutans at a rescue and rehabilitation center in Ketapang, West Kalimantan,which is run by the Indonesian branch of International Animal Rescue (IAR)—a charity dedicated to “saving animals from suffering around the world.” IAR’s orangutan program (f. 2009) is one of its most prominent arms, regularly featuring in major news outlets, from Britain’s Daily Telegraph to the Huffington Post online. IAR also maintains an impressive everyday social media presence, with a dedicated YouTube channel, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and Pinterest board. Its posts and tweets—curated by a team in its UK office[7]—are among the most visible and popular features of the social media-scape of orangutan conservation, accruing significantly more likes, tags, shares, and retweets than its counterparts. These do not only coverstories about specific orangutans, but also highlight the larger contextualchallenges—such as deforestation and human-animal conflict—facing orangutan populations today. In this capacity, such posts and tweetsserve as prominent entry-pointsinto the world of orangutan-related causes, and are regularly (if selectively) shared by other organizationsin order to draw attention to wider conservation issues.

Both Budi and Jemmi have tragic biographies, having lost their mothers (possibly to human-orangutan conflict or poaching)and been kept by local people as pets—Budi in a chicken cage, Jemmi in a cardboard box. Shortly after they were introduced in rehabilitation, IAR posted a photo album of them on Facebook (April 6 2014),[8] the caption to which read:


Our two youngest rescued baby orangutans have developed a beautiful friendship! They spend their days together in the day enclosure playing and climbing around on the ropes and branches. If Budi is taken into the day enclosure first he will keep looking back for Jemmi and, if left on his own, will cry until his new friend joins him!

At the end of the day they both make their way back to their shared hammock where they spend the night together. […]

This album garnered over 6,400 likes, 2,427 shares and 352 comments, a small selection of which include:

KA: How wonderful that they have found love and friendship after their lonely lives in captivity - and it has come totally naturally. Just amazing.

GG: oh my goodness ... that is so so cute... look at the ickle pot bellies waiting to be smushed x x x

EF: My heart just burst!!!! What a wonderful Easter treat to see these 2 BFFS [best friends forever] together. Go Budi! Go Jemmi! X

VF-H: My gosh, just like sibling love, amazing. Thank you

IK: I am glad those two take comfort in each other... They badly need this... being orphaned and traumatized.

These are fairly representative responses to the many baby orangutan-related posts that circulate on this social media-scape. Most appear to beoff-the-cuff interjections, exclamations, and affirmations in a digital love-fest in which everyone shares—or is assumed to share—the same sentiment. Although many organizations take pains not to portray such orangutans as variants of human children—IAR’s team, for example, studiously eschews words like “cute” and “cuddly,” and avoids drawing attention to obviously babyish (if practical) devices such as diapers and bottles—these stories and images nevertheless tend to evoke overwhelmingly child-oriented responses on the part of their observers. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see posters lapsing into baby-speak and saying how much they, like GG, want to “smush” these little characters’ “ickle pot bellies”.

Such remarks may be seen, in part, as manifestations of a widespread human response to “neotenous” bodily configurations—round heads, round cheeks, big eyes, and other baby-like features—which, as ethologists and biological anthropologists have noted (e.g. Lorenz 1950, Gould 1980), are evolutionarily designed to elicit feelings of tenderness among their adult beholders. But these responses are also given shape and resonance by the connotations of cuteness within their posters’ own socio-cultural milieus. As Merish (1996) and Ngai (2012), among others,argue, cuteness in Western societies is often entwined with notions of childhood and powerlessness on the one hand, and adulthood and protection on the other: “what the cute stages is, in part, a need for adult care” (Merish 1996:187). Accordingly, Ngai writes, “cute things evoke a desire in us not just tolovingly molest but also to aggressively protect them” (2012:4)—an experience that, she argues, “depends entirely on the subject’s affective response to an imbalance of power between herself and the object” (2012:54).