On July ninth, Jason Wagner tweeted the location of a raccoon cadaver to 311 Toronto, a municipal initiative which collects non-emergency requests for City services. By the end of the day, #DeadRaccoonTO was trending, and the animal — now covered in flowers, condolence messages, and small offerings — had been honoured with a candlelit vigil. Nearly a month later, Olenka Kleban carved a sculpture for CNE’s butter sculpture show case. Why would any of the participants have engaged in this bizarre endeavour? The answer lies in the current popularity of collaborative curation, the architecture of Twitter and Instagram tags, and in the history of butter sculpting.
I’ve composed a Storify of the events here.
Without presuming Kleban’s intent, we can use her art as a jumping-off point for examining why the people put so much time and effort into the tag.
Western butter sculpting has been practiced since the Renaissance, but its golden age was in the early twentieth century, primarily centered in North America. Although the two certainly aren’t mutually exclusive, twentieth century butter sculpting was primarily a commercial act rather than a purely artistic one. Spurred by competition from the rising oleomargarine industry, dairy companies were desperate to promote a pastoral image of their product — an image of a farm untouched by time, with maids hand milking cows and churning butter beside their bushels of children. This was almost entirely a fiction, as changes in industry health standards and new technology meant that dairy farms were becoming almost entirely factory based. The related, secondary purpose of these sculptures was a comforting signifier of muchness. They were monoliths, often weighing upwards of a thousand pounds. In Britain, citizens were still eating rationed food (Pamela Simpson, 1-20). North American butter sculptures assured its populace that all was well, that the world wasn’t changing after all, and that they were still living in a land of plenty.
Another contemporary artist, Jon Rafman, whose work is heavily centered around digital technologies, points out in his piece, Still Life (Betamale), that the essential appeal of many technological narratives is centred around the comforting fantasy of disappearing into absurdity and overindulgence. There is comfort in having an excess of anything — whether it’s an excess of food, or an excess of grief. #DeadRaccoonTO certainly contains this. There is too much grief over something too small, an expenditure of time and effort which comes to very little, and a healthy dose of the morbidly bizarre. It’s an invocation of a new pastoral fantasy made possible through the digital age— an imagined, timeless world in which people are constantly connected through networked communities, and in which absolutely anything distressing can be afforded collective mourning. It tempers any fear felt in the offline sphere by assuring participants that horror is rare enough to warrant this degree of attention. We don’t walk into the countryside to find the sublime, anymore — we lose ourselves in tangled internet communities.
A photograph of one of Rafman’s Montreal exhibits.
There are a number of technical details which made #DeadRaccoonTO possible. One of them is the similarities between Twitter and Instagram’s tags. They have almost identical functionality — they organize posts into a searchable stream, which creates a conglomerate text written by multiple writers. This text is ephemeral, existing only for the length of time a user is ‘inside’ the tag. The tags are also highly visible on each post. On a very basic level, this means that it is possible for participants to tag Instagram and Twitter posts with the same tag, which allows activity on both sites to blend organically. As a result, the apparent impact of the event is increased, as it is now spread across multiple platforms, and text and images (the respective strengths of each platform) are both in play.
The symbiosis of factors also has some interesting effects. Because it is necessary to tag a post if one wishes for it to be seen, and because of the high physical visibility, they function as badges of community membership. It is difficult to engage with the text without becoming one of those authors in the ephemeral stream. When we combine this with the enforced brevity of the medium — both Twitter and Instagram have short, enforced character limits — we find something that is not unlike the networked communities that Morrison describes in her work on mommy blogging. Although participants of the tag don’t have the same surplus of time in which to form communities that mommy bloggers do, the fact that each post contains so little content on its own means that communication is necessarily formed through a network of posts (Huberman, Romero and Wu 2). Temporal brevity also helps. The popularity of a tag often rises and falls within a matter of hours. This rapid pace accelerates the creation of group identity. Morrison found that networked communities form “a satisfying and coherant group identity in which to contextualize … personal experience.” (41) This certainly does appear to be the case with #DeadRaccoonTO — the people who gathered around the tag were expending real time and emotional labour. They often expressed feelings of belonging to Toronto, whether or not they actually lived in that city. They were joining together in the digitally enabled catharsis that Rafman alludes to.
We can see that this works by looking at the inverse. A third microblogging site, Tumblr, has tags with almost identical functionality but a different presentation — they aren’t highly visible on each post. This means that users use tags less frequently, and it also means that the accelerated formation of group identity didn’t happen there. As a result, #DeadRaccoonTO didn’t take off on Tumblr. Its tag primarily contains screenshots of the activity on Twitter and Instagram. Several pieces of art are present in the tag, however — the same distance and slowness of speed that prevented Tumblr from fully engaging in #DeadRaccoonTO gave artists enough time to work.
An important final factor, which we can see across virtually all platforms — including butter sculpting — is corporate interest in the medium. Corporations are increasingly recognizing social media sites as lucrative opportunities for discerning social trends (Paroubek and Pak 1-7). Corporate interest often lends a sense of legitimacy to platforms — we live in a capitalist country, and are highly attuned to capitalist interventions. This is part of the reason that news organizations, such as the National Post or our own Guelph Mercury, felt comfortable reporting on #DeadRaccoonTO. Again, we can investigate this by its inverse — events on social media platforms which are not useful to corporations, such as Ello or AO3, rarely attract any interest. Corporate activities also affect the kind of content that people produce, and to that end it’s interesting to watch the degree of marketing that went into the creation of content for the tag. For example, one of the coworkers invested in creating the hashtag specifically picked a pleasant photo of a friendly-looking raccoon to frame, worried that too high a degree of morbidity would cause interest to disintegrate. Unsurprisingly, one of the longest lasting practical effects of the tag event was a collection fund for wildlife protection. #DeadRaccoon was a salable piece of media.
#DeadRaccoonTOstill exists as a tag, with a handful of people throwing mostly neglected content into it whenever current events permit the reference. It’s still possible to donate money to the wildlife fund. The raccoon is gone — Kleban’s butter sculpture is gone. Ultimately, what all of this comes down to is a strange new construction of ephemeral community, an odd expression of grief, and the gathering of strangers around an unconventional axis. It’s our new pastoral fantasy, neither good nor bad. As a twitter user at the vigil succinctly explained — it is what it is.
Huberman B, Romero D, Wu F. “Social Networks that Matter: Twitter under the microscope.” Social Science Research Network. (2008). Web. October 2015.
Pak A, Paroubek P. “Twitter as a Corpus for Sentiment Analysis and Opinion Mining.” Université de Paris-Sud. Web. October 2015.
Simpson, Pamela. “Butter Cows and Butter Buildings.” Winterthur Portfolio. Web. October 2015.
Rafman, Jon. “Still Life (Betamale).” (2013). Web. October 2015.