Witnessing Publics



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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 British orangutan charity in 2014, I sat down to discuss my research with the acting office manager. “Alice” had a background in charity work and had herself recently arrived to cover the director, who was on leave. 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 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 call the 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 North1—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 an 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 forms of 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 of work 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, which draws 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), physical 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 area filled with issues, causes, and other projects that not only assemble but also produce context-specific 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 with each other nor in full-bodied political activism, such users share only by a common sense of investment in the fate of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra. Yet despite the seemingly impersonal, incidental nature of their online 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 inspiration from an 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 the media 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 only analyzing the 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 whereas much earlier work 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 have joined, and arguably superseded, these media-forms as dominant cause-related outlets.
Like other “Web 2.0” technologies, these platforms are built around an infrastructure and (idealized) culture of 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 new challenges and possibilities—key among which is the opportunity to examine how issues and claims are apprehended, appropriated, reproduced, and personalized by their intended (and possibly unintended) audiences. In exploring these processes and, 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 organizations located across the global North that pursue holistic conservation strategies, e.g. campaigns against deforestation or efforts to secure protected land for orangutans; and 3) rescue and rehabilitation centers that save displaced, injured, or captured orangutans, treat and “rehabilitate” them, before ideally returning them to the wild.3
Despite the diversity of (and, some conservationists would argue, disparity between) these myriad agendas and approaches, parties across this spectrum commonly, if selectively, cooperate and collaborate with each other. Such 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, and other posts that now forms a significant part of many organizations’ outreach and publicity efforts. Cumulatively, these constitute a discernible field of activity that encompasses a regular cast of players—orangutan bodies and their supporters—and a recurrent set of tropes, narratives, and affective and praxiological conventions. It is further strung together by the connections—and ethos of connectedness—between different organizations, many of which “follow” each other on Facebook and Twitter, and occasionally circulate the same material.4 While often extensions of offline relationships, such connections can also engender new alliances and other possibilities (such as a number of annual virtual events) that could only exist online.
While informed by the volunteer stint mentioned earlier, as well interviews and discussions with orangutan charities, scientists, and conservationists, the bulk of the research for this article has taken place on social media. Conducting digital ethnography in this lively, profusive space entails a peculiar form of participant-observation—one less like sitting in a village forging “deep” ties with social others than like hopping erratically between public 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 certain groups or individuals; rather, they are public, “persistent” (boyd 2014:11), acquirable, and shareable by different users dispersed across the world, thereby framing their often ephemeral online activities and interactions. 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, for reasons on which I cannot expound here (but see, e.g., Russon 2009, Wilson et al. 2014). Standards and procedures 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 orphans who lack basic survival skills, they remain on site for several years while they are taught to live in 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 programs5 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 Ketapang, a rescue and rehabilitation center in West Kalimantan 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 national broadsheets like Britain’s Daily Telegraph to the Huffington Post. IAR also maintains an impressive everyday social media presence, with a dedicated YouTube channel, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and Pinterest board. Its orangutan-related posts and tweets—curated and disseminated by a dedicated team in its UK head office6—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 many of its counterparts. As such, they serve as prominent entry-points into the world of orangutan-related causes, and are regularly (if selectively) shared by other organizations in order to draw attention to larger conservation issues.
Both Budi and Jemmi have, to use IAR’s language, 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),7 the caption to which read:
BUDI AND JEMMI ARE BEST FRIENDS!

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
CE: putting them together was the best idea ever!! look at their eyes. true happiness
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 “cute” posts that circulate on the social media-scape of orangutan conservation. Most appear to be off-the-cuff interjections, exclamations, and affirmations in a digital love-fest in which everyone shares—or is assumed to share—the same sentiment. The objects of their admiration, whose lives are chronicled through regular updates, are carefully framed to accentuate their cuteness, playfulness, and cuddleability—in short, what their mostly Western audiences are likely to associate with innocent, loveable children. Although organizations largely try to avoid portraying such orangutans as variants of human children, such stories and images nevertheless tend to evoke child-oriented responses from 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 various 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 to lovingly 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).
Read through this lens, it is unsurprising that pictures of cute orangutans engender such strong, “heart-bursting” reactions—that desire to cuddle them, or that inarticulable “aww” feeling that some posters channel into emojis. Many users take an unabashed pleasure in gazing at these images and sharing them with others. But as some of the comments above suggest, their pleasure is also tinged with pain and pity. For many supporters, Budi and Jemmi are not just cute babies but individuals with heart-rending stories: of “being orphaned and traumatized” and spending “lonely lives in captivity”. Their status as such stems from their embeddedness in a larger narrative about environmental destruction, political apathy, and local ignorance—all of which make cute images and sad stories legible on social media as conservation “issues.”

Producing “the plight of the orangutan”
The social media-scape of orangutan conservation is rife with villains, from corrupt politicians profiting from commercial deforestation to cruel villagers who kill orangutans or keep them as pets. However, the most prominent of these is palm oil, a common ingredient in many consumer products and fuels. Approximately 90% of this global commodity is produced by Indonesia and Malaysia, with both Borneo and Sumatra serving as major oil palm frontiers (see, e.g., Sheil 2009). Over the last decade, oil palm corporations have come under critical scrutiny by environmentalists and conservationists, many of whom have harnessed the viral capacities of digital media to lay bare—and in some ways fashion—a causal link between palm oil production, deforestation, and orangutan extinction.
An early, memorable example of this strategy was Greenpeace’s viral campaign against the multinational food giant Nestlé, which it accused of “us[ing] palm oil from companies that are trashing Indonesian rainforests, threatening the livelihoods of local people and pushing orang-utans towards extinction”. In March 2010, the activist organization premiered a Youtube advertisement entitled “Give the orang-utan a break”—a snide play on the slogan associated with Nestlé’s popular Kit Kat bar.8 The video drew a startling visual link between consuming Kit Kat (which contains palm oil) and killing orangutans by showing an office worker blithely snapping off and biting into what turns out to be a bloodied orangutan finger. Imploring viewers to “Stop Nestlé buying palm oil from companies that destroy rainforests”, it urged them to boycott the product and inundate Nestlé with messages. The video went viral; in the acrimonious online battle that ensued, industry observers widely concurred that Nestlé had “take[n] a beating” (Steel 2010). A few months later, Greenpeace claimed victory when Nestlé suspended its relationship with a blacklisted palm oil supplier and reiterated its commitment to buying only sustainable palm oil.
While not the first to propound the causal chain between oil palm, deforestation, orangutans, and palm oil-containing products (see, e.g., Buckland 2005), this 2010 campaign appears to have been remarkably effective in generating and consolidating what is now the orthodox narrative throughout the social media-scape of orangutan conservation.9 Interestingly, this narrative is seldom laid out in linear detail; rather, it gets disseminated in pithy fragments that, over time, add up to much the same thing. A typical example of this occurs every Easter, when organizations play on the occasion to hammer home their palm oil message. On March 16 2016, for instance, the UK-based Orangutan Protection Foundation (OPF) posted a winsome image of a baby orangutan peering over a log, and the words, “When buying your Easter eggs, please think of me and buy PALM OIL FREE”. The caption added: “Please choose the forests and those who dwell within them over chocolate this Easter. Thank you #SaveTheOrangutan #ConflictPalmOil #Deforestation”.10
The invocation of the palm oil narrative gave emotive and political charge to what would otherwise have simply been a cute image: this was not just a baby orangutan, but a victim of human greed that viewers had the power to save by making the right consumer choices. Like images of suffering children—that powerful motif around which many “deep, transnationally circulating [humanitarian] imaginaries” (Malkki 2015:78) revolve—such orangutans become incarnated on social media as embodiments of innocence and “pure need” (ibid.:82; see also Bornstein 2001, Suski 2009). Strikingly, however, rather than spelling out the link between palm oil, forests, chocolate eggs, and orangutans, OPF’s post presumed a degree of extant knowledge—of complicity—on the part of its viewers, most of whom would indeed have encountered fragments of the same narrative elsewhere on social media.
In the run-up to Easter, for example, OPF’s Facebook timeline alone contained several posts alluding more or less directly to this narrative: a photograph of six orangutans in the OPF’s sponsored “forest school” in Indonesia (“we may not have our mums, but at least we have each other” ); two news stories about the devastating impact of Borneo’s annual forest fires, which are often blamed on the land-clearing practices of oil palm corporations; and a link to an activist film, Green (2009), about the tragic fate of an orangutan displaced by commercial deforestation. More sober palm oil-related articles also featured on the Facebook and Twitter feeds of OUTrop and the Orangutan Land Trust11 in the same period, while IAR took the opportunity to promote its virtual orangutan adoption program, which it styled as “an animal friendly” alternative to chocolate eggs.
These examples point to how the social media-scape of orangutan conservation operates as a “circulatory” (McLagan 2006:192) space in which myriad elements—arresting images, narratives of suffering and injustice, forms of moral praxis—are continually being drawn together, made visible, “formatted into issues and circulated” (McLagan 2005:224). In this space, the outputs of different orangutan bodies—even those with contrasting approaches—are often mutually reinforcing, complementing and corroborating each other as they circulate and overlap. Adding an extra layer of complexity to these processes, however, are the ways in which such outputs are taken up and circulated by individuals. Many orangutan supporters, for example, retweet or share specific posts to their own networks, often with personal glosses. A South African lady who shared the OPF’s Easter egg post to her Facebook timeline thus wrote: “Please, please read your labels carefully—so many chocolates and sweets contain palm oil. Please, please only buy ones that don’t—for the sake of the human, animal and plant forest dwellers”. In a further comment, she added a list of websites that outlined the link between palm oil, deforestation, and orangutans.
At other times, comments threads and chains of tweets can themselves become sites of peer exchange, as happened with IAR’s Easter post:

JB: Wait....palm oil is used in chocolate. Nooooooooooo! I love chocolate :(


SLF: It's used in everything from chocolate to shampoo, toothpaste to bread .There are chocolates that are Palm Oil free & yummy ones too.You don't have to miss out just check all labels & check Palm Oil free web sites for clarification & examples of Palm Oil free ones ��
JB: Oh man! I had no idea! :(
SLF: To check the palm oil content of products on supermarket shelves, download our free barcode scanner app for ios and Android. http://www.palmoilinvestigationsapp.com/ �� Palm Oil Investigations is a great site, Google Palm Oil & there are a few really good ones & they will be posting lots of Palm Oil free Easter treat ideas for chocolate lovers.
TC: Great idea with the barcode scanner, but it's not available in the UK. Is there one for the UK out there?
SLF: Check out some of the Palm Oil free sites & hopefully there is a UK one available or in the works at least ��
The interactive affordances of social media thus enable a disparate range of internet users to not only learn about the threats facing orangutans, but also actively participate in efforts to alleviate them. I suggest that these follow-on exchanges, to which orangutan organizations themselves also contribute, constitute the afterlives of original cause-related posts, which get disseminated, (re)interpreted, and embellished as they move between users. Cumulatively, all these activities produce a specific online version of “the plight of the orangutan”: a multiply-scaled story of individual tragedy and hope set within a context of rapid anthropogenic environmental change. Replete with its own logics of culpability and responsibility, it forms the affective and political backdrop against which specific stories, appeals, campaigns, and news-pieces are charged with meaning and urgency. The upshot of this is the transformation—transfiguration, even—of the likes of Budi and Jemmi from merely cute orangutans into innocent, deserving victims, and their social media viewers into “witnessing publics” (McLagan2003, Torchin 2006) who are morally, even viscerally, compelled to save them.
Producing “witnessing publics”
The process by which “witnessing publics” emerge on social media can be observed in responses to a video that IAR posted about Udin, a baby orangutan who had been kept as a pet by a villager, “locked up in a small, dark cage with nothing and no one to comfort him”.12 Like others of its ilk, the video juxtaposes photographs, captions, and an evocative soundtrack, chronicling Udin’s journey from his rescue, when he had “lost the will to live,” through to his slow recovery at IAR’s center, concluding with an appeal for donations to “support the ongoing care of baby Udin and to help us save others like him, before it’s too late”.
Responses flooded in instantly, with most posters professing to be horrified by what one described as “unbelievable crimes by moronic heartless ‘humans’.” Like the comments on Budi and Jemmi’s album, their remarks were expressly emotional, and further fuelled by Udin’s cuteness and helplessness; as supporters often point out, orangutans should be enjoying carefree childhoods in the forest, not enduring captivity, pain, and misery. One man thus wrote, “My eyes immediately wanted to tear up when I watched this heart breaking video of Udin,” while another poster commented: “I have never seen such sad eyes... Poor little one and shame on humans... ”. Meanwhile, many users drew an explicit link between the distress elicited by the video and their decision to do something about it.
FH: I have just donated what I could for this baby. My heart breaks for him. Darling one. Thank you for caring so well for him xxxx
LL: Oh God! How can people be SO CRUEL? My heart is breaking!! So very, very sad ���� will be donating as soon as I get home from work.
Such remarks were joined by several others that sought to channel the emotional surge generated by Udin’s video into consumer action and awareness. Although oil palm was never mentioned in the video, these supporters joined the dots themselves by linking Udin’s story to the dominant narrative. MW thus posted: “we must stop buying palm oil. That is why the forests are disappearing and the orangutans in danger”, while LR wrote—possibly with Greenpeace’s 2010 campaign in mind—

I hope everyone commenting on here makes a constant and full effort to avoid palm oil because that is the direct cause of this […] [T]his little creature is the price paid for you to enjoy a packet of biscuits or a chocolate bar. So if you're commenting on here about how sad it is while regularly chowing down on a kitkat then take a look at what YOU are funding.


These comments work on the same visual and affective logic that underlies rights media more generally: that “seeing causes feeling, the prickling of conscience, and doing” (Allen 2009:169-70). Braided together with the palm oil narrative, such arresting images “emotionally engage and persuade their audiences of a cause’s moral worth” (McLagan 2003:606). But whereas human rights ideology incites empathy and action by appealing to a common, shared humanness, the responses above are arguably driven by what Milton calls “egomorphism”—that is, the perception of non-human animals as other selves, as “like me” and not just human-like (2005:261; see also Alcayna-Stevens 2012, Candea 2010). Despite organizations’ (somewhat uneven) efforts to avoid the pitfalls of excessive anthropomorphism, many social media users appear to perceive orangutans as, in effect, persons whose “inner world[s are]…available and perceivable” (ibid.:265) to other persons. These babies, we thus read repeatedly, are traumatized, have “sad eyes,” “take comfort in each other,” must show “resilience”—just as human subjects, not just human organisms, do.
Such perceptions do not dissolve posters’ awareness of human-animal difference—quite the opposite, as suggested by scores of comments about how horrible humanity is—but they do subsume it within a more encompassing framework of interspecies affect and moral responsibility (see also Sowards 2006). In this way, they produce quite a different figure to that of the generic orangutan victim: that of the orangutan as an individual person(ality) with his/her own biography and character. The constant interplay between these two figures on social media is, I suggest, what makes the likes of Budi, Jemmi, and Udin so appealing—and so ethically demanding—to their human beholders. These charismatic apes render the palm oil “problem” both intimate and immediate: pictured “at stroking distance” (Bousé 2003:124) on users’ screens, they “charge” the social media-scape in which their images circulate, turning it into a space not just of information but of moral intervention. In the process, they produce a third crucial figure: the social media user as witness and not just onlooker to suffering, who is “morally oblig[ed] to act” (Torchin 2006:215).
And act many social media users do. Apart from circulating organizations’ posts, supporters can also donate money, adopt orangutans, purchase items for them,13 sign petitions, support campaigns, fundraise, and even volunteer at certain centers and projects in Borneo and Sumatra. All these actions, virtual and otherwise, are routinely posted on social media, not simply as accounts of individuals’ activities, but often as ways of spurring others into action: by calling attention to irresistibly cute orangutans with painful biographies, by asking relatives and friends to donate to causes through strategic tags and shares, by challenging networks of “followers” to match one’s own fundraising or awareness-generating efforts (see Author n.d.).

Such activities pivot on the mechanics of visibility and the blurry “public/private” divide on social media. In an (idealized) “private public sphere” where users routinely “engage in practices of public ‘life streaming’” (Hirschkind et al. 2017:S7),14 orangutan supporters are aware that what they post, like, and share will probably be seen by the other members of their online networks. This awareness, I argue, gives rise to a small-scale, outward-facing, personal politics (Author n.d.) that is fuelled by and seeks to kindle that same sense of interspecies attachment and responsibility in others. Tellingly, most interventions on this social media-scape are addressed not to fellow supporters, but to users’ own personal contacts, whom they often try to move with the same combination of pleasure, pain, and pity examined earlier.


More than making “ethical claims” (McLagan 2006:606) on their supporters, orangutan-related posts thus enable internet users to make claims on each other: to gather up more and more participants into a buzzing hive of witnessing and moral praxis. Access and inclusivity are central to this project, which is premised on the assumption that potentially anyone can become an orangutan supporter. As the OPF tweeted: “What does it mean to be an Orangutan Protector? Well, it starts with a little bit of knowledge...” (January 10 2016). But there is another more complex side to the story. If interspecies attachment—that urge to cuddle and protect—fuels the formation and intervention of “witnessing publics” online, it can sometimes become dangerous. As the next section reveals, the constant spectre of this possibility—and the concomitant need to tame it—can give rise to quite different configurations of human-animal relations, social dynamics, and politics on this social media-scape.

Take your stinking paws off me”: re-erecting the species divide


In October 2015, the Indonesian Center for Orangutan Protection (COP)—which works with various organizations in the global North and has a large constituency of Australian supporters—posted on Facebook a photograph of a baby orangutan being bathed in a sink by three white women and the words,

“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”

This sort of hands-on tourism is NOT for the benefit of the orangutan, it is for the benefit of the human, is very detrimental to orangutans & is purely a revenue raiser. PLEASE put the welfare of the orangutan over your desire to cuddle one. Do the right thing.15

Its caption contained a web-link led to a longer document16 produced by the Orangutan Project, which operates at a popular wildlife rehabilitation center in Malaysian Borneo. Written for its international volunteers, the piece explains “why no contact [with orangutans] is the best policy.” In brief, it argues that humans risk transmitting various potentially fatal anthropozoonotic diseases to “to our primate cousins” through unprotected contact, and that there will be “habituation and behavioural implications” for orangutans if they get too used to humans while being prepared to return to the wild. As the narrative unfolds, it veers from scientific into ethical territory:



You should always ask yourself – is touching the orang-utan something you feel will benefit its life, or is it something that you wish to do simply for your own experience and pleasure?
This post is on the more civil end of a gamut of messages that regularly surface on social media to condemn similar instances of inappropriate contact, such as when orangutans are kept as pets or used as performers in films and zoos. Such messages point to what we might call the dark side of cuteness: the danger of taking the impulse to protect and cuddle, which images of cute or suffering orangutans elicit, to its logical physical conclusion. For to do so is to establish what these posts portray—and in many ways define—as inappropriate interspecies interaction that may be tempting and gratifying for the human but ultimately disastrous for the orangutan. In its stead, such posts advocate a necessary segregation of human and animal: one styled as an unselfish act of love that puts orangutans’ welfare above people’s ignorant fantasies. Crucially, this form of human-animal detachment is not the negation of a relation but a cultivated, ethical stance (Candea 2010): a specific way of relating to orangutans that, the messages imply, humans need to learn.
Such no-contact messages propound quite a different configuration of human-orangutan relations to the manifestations of interspecies attachment examined earlier. Both are, of course, premised on what may be seen as a quintessentially “Western naturalist” assumption of the ontological partition between humans and animals. But whereas the latter constantly elides that divide through the invocation of intersubjective intimacy, the former repeatedly, insistently reinscribes it. These contrasting impulses, I argue, encapsulate a key, long-standing tension that pervades orangutan conservation more generally:17 Although much of the moral and affective “pull” of orangutan causes derives from romantic notions of interspecies intimacy, love, and responsibility, the entire point of conservation is to save them from humans; to keep them in “the wild”, where they can roam safe and free as “nature” intended. While zoos and rehabilitation centers blur that line (see, e.g., Palmer et al. 2016, Parreñas 2012, Russon 2009), the ideal human-orangutan relationship—as defined within orangutan conservation—is one of non-contact, whereby the two parties stay firmly on their respective sides of the nature/culture, animal/human divide.
This tension permeates the social media-scape of orangutan conservation, where—thanks to the spatio-temporal affordances of Web 2.0 technologies—cute images and no-contact messages constantly jostle for space in the same corners of the internet. On sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the contradictory ethnographic moments that I experienced weeks apart can easily be juxtaposed within seconds on a single thread, timeline, or playlist. In this way, such digital spaces become sites for the ongoing (re)production of two opposing impulses: one to cuddle, the other to draw back. If images of cute or suffering orangutans momentarily draw users into a sense of interspecies intimacy, a “no-contact” post can sternly jerk them back within minutes, re-erecting that all-important species divide.
The constant push-and-pull of such contrasting impulses resonates with Alcayna-Stevens’ observations in her ethnography of a Catalonian chimpanzee sanctuary (2012). Noting that keepers routinely invoked and undertook what appeared to be starkly contrasting practices—treating chimpanzees as fundamentally unknowable nonhuman others one minute and as knowable selves the next (2012:92)—she asks: how should anthropologists deal with such apparent paradoxes? Her response is not to resolve them by incorporating them into a single (dominant) anthropological account, but, rather, to suspend these possibilities as distinct “worlds of intent” (ibid.:88) between which keepers move, and about which they make epistemological and ontological claims. To this end, she deploys the notion of “doublethink” as a heuristic through which anthropologists can appreciate, but not actualize, the “comings-in and -out of existence of what would appear (when placed side by side) to be incommensurable practices” (ibid.:92).
“Doublethink” is in some ways a useful device for apprehending the dynamics of the social media-scape of orangutan conservation. By framing interspecies intimacy and species difference less as paradoxes to be tamed than as equivalent possibilities, it becomes easier to see how and why many orangutan supporters often toggle unproblematically between the impulses to cuddle and draw back. Both, I suggest, are distillations of disparate “worlds of intent”, one presentist (to comfort and care for), the other prospective (to return to the wild). Distinct but not incommensurable, these worlds are ordered around different temporal orientations, with the first being seen as a non-ideal but necessary prelude to the second. Here, Udin the orangutan, Udin the innocent victim, and Udin the wild orangutan(-to-be) are not the same thing: they are different figures, implying different relations, that segue in and out of prominence with the ebbs and flows of social media.
“Doublethink,” however, can only take us so far. While rendering different (possible) worlds heuristically equivalent for the anthropologist, it does not account for how our subjects themselves might order their worlds in various non-equivalent ways. Yet, as I shall now suggest, some of these ordering efforts can have very real effects on the social and political dynamics of social media.


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