Yesterday afternoon, (what felt like) everyone in the world got together on Twitter to cheer on a small raccoon that had climbed the side of a 23 story building in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For a little while, everyone huddled around the #MPRraccoon hashtag, holding their breath and waiting to see if the little guy would make it.
FYI: The little guy made it. He started climbing down late last night, changed his mind at some point, and headed upwards again. Early this morning he made it to the roof of the building, where live traps with bait had been laid out, and he was captured. He’s going to get some care (if he needs it), and he’ll be released safely somewhere where he won’t bother anyone. Read all about it.
Also, here’s a gif of the little guy cresting the roof of the building, the reaction in a local newsroom when the raccoon makes it to the roof, and an update from the UBS building about the raccoon being safely caught for release.
It’s easy to sneer at something like this. “OMG, it’s just a raccoon,” sneerers say. “They’re awful, mean little rodents. They’re vermin,” and et cetera, et cetera. And that’s true enough. Raccoons are often nasty, aggressive little critters who kill things and get into your trash and make a nuisance of themselves.
But they’re also super cute, you guys.
Amusements aside, it’s interesting to look at why things like this happen on Twitter.
About the time I checked in on the hashtag, this tweet was the top result for anyone clicking on the tag on Twitter:
What you see here is a small raccoon perched on the window ledge of a very high building. It’s cute, and it looks a little concerned and tired.
It’s small, and human minds automatically interpret that as “young.” Human minds automatically empathize with young things – we’re hardwired to care for babies. Small animals trip all the same triggers that human babies do. Humans see small animals and our hindbrains go “BABY, OMG” and we want to take care of them. It’s why we have pets.
Also, as the photos showed, the raccoon was way, waaaay up high, on a rather small ledge, so it’s clearly not safe.
You click on the tag and the first thing you see is a fuzzy animal that your brain immediately interprets as “BABY IN DANGER.” And you’re hooked.
So now you’re following the hashtag on Twitter, and your immediate impulse is being reinforced by hundreds, and then thousands of other people who are experiencing the exact same thing, and empathizing with you while you experience it. If you’re tweeting about it yourself, as you’re almost certainly going to do, then you’re likely also getting lots of Twitter feedback in the form of comments, retweets and likes.
Receiving those – particularly if you’re not used to a lot of activity on your tweets – is positive reinforcement. And positive reinforcement gives you little dopamine hits. Dopamine is the pleasure drug in your head (it’s more than that, but for the sake of simplicity…). So you’re watching this thing happen, with tons of other people, who are all tickling your pleasure centers, and you’re completely emotionally invested in the situation, now.
Add to that the fact that this particular instance is completely innocent. There are no real shades of gray in this spectacle. It’s a small scared animal in a bad situation and you’re just cheering for it to escape the bad situation safely. There’s almost no way to be the bad guy here. You can cheer for this little guy, and there’s no real way to feel bad for doing so.
It’s innocent and harmless, a completely black and white situation with clear good and bad outcomes, and there is precious little of that going around these days.
Plus, there’s community. You’re one among thousands participating in this event, and more, it’s an event that escapes all our current divides and tribalism issues. Everyone is cheering this little raccoon on: Republicans and Democrats, straight people, gay people, religious people of all sorts, people from around the whole world, and none of the things that usually divide us apply to the situation we’re rooting for.
We’re all in this together, rooting for a clear, innocent, good outcome, and nothing we usually argue about matters. And something like that is basically pure heroin right now.
Of course we all spent 12+ hours rooting for a masked rat on the side of a building. Society – particularly in America – is positively desperate for a reason to get together on something. Strife and stress are not good for us, and our brains seek ways to make them stop. We want to get along. It’s a built-in feature. So when something comes along, like an adventurous little raccoon, that gives us a way to do that, we’re all in.