Online social networks are one of the largest uses of the Web, and growing rapidly. They are also being used actively by pet owners. Just as pet owners are different, we might expect their needs within a social network to differ. In this work, we present an analysis of dog– and cat–owners behavior in pet–oriented social networks. Our results show that dog and cat owners use these sites quite differently. While dog owners focus on their relationship with their pets and looking for advice, cat owners tend to use the site more to build community. Both results show that these pet social networks are already being used to help support the human–animal bond online, and that different types of pet owners would benefit from different types of support within the systems. We discuss the implications of these results for designing networks to support different types of users and what this means for the understanding of passion–based social networks.
Pets are not just companions, but are also reflections of their owners. A number of studies have shown that pet owners’ choice of pet species and breed correlates to their personalities (Kidd and Kidd, 1980; Kidd, et al., 1983). A recent study of over 4,500 participants found significant differences; on the Big Five personality test self–identified “dog people” scored significantly higher on Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness, and significantly lower on Neuroticism and Openness than are cat people (Gosling, et al., 2010). When these owners interact online in the context of their pet ownership, it may be possible to find significant differences in the way they use pet–oriented social networks.
Online social networking has taken off since the early 2000s. Myspace and Facebook rank high in the top ten most visited sites on the Web. There are hundreds of social networking Web sites with well over one billion user accounts spread among them (Golbeck, 2009) — 500 million alone on Facebook. As social networking has become a popular activity for people, a number of networks have been created for pets. On these sites (sometimes cleverly called “petworks”), owners create profiles for their pets that are very similar in form to profiles on most major social networks. Pets can become friends, join groups, and post photos or blog entries.
In this study, we investigate the behavior differences between dog and cat owners in pet–oriented social networks. We found many significant differences. Cat owners tend to make their pets’ profiles have many more friends than dog owners do. Dog owners tend to use the features of the sites that let them share pictures and express their connection with their pets. Cat owners, on the other hand, are much more prolific users of the community oriented features of the sites. This is interesting not only because it illustrates that users who seem very similar and who are using nearly identical sites may take advantage of them in very different ways, but also because it offers new insights into passion–oriented social networks. While these have been studied in particular domains in the past, this is the first study comparing different types of users of passion–oriented networks. This will provide insights into how culture of the users impacts their use of Web site features.
There are several social networking Web sites where the profiles represent pets instead of people. These include Dogster , Catster , and HAMSTERster , and BunSpace  for dogs, cats, hamsters, and rabbits respectively. There are also Facebook applications that allow users to create pet profiles, including Dogbook  and Catbook . In this study we have chosen to focus on Dogster and Catster because they are the largest and because they are owned by the same company so they have identical platforms and features.
These Web sites are something like a pet owner’s enhanced version of a parent’s fold–out wallet of pictures of their children (but shared with people who are actually interested instead of the unsuspecting guy near the water cooler). Pet profiles include plenty of photos of the pet along with personality traits, favorite foods, nicknames, tricks the pet can do, and the pet’s birthday. It is a virtual manifestation of the introductory conversations one might casually have with another person at the dog park or vet‘s waiting room. The networking component connects pets to other pets, but these connections most often do not reflect off–line relationships. Like early social networking Web sites used by people, some off–line connections were represented, but many people added hundreds or thousands of people as friends although they had never met. Users of these Web sites similarly make their pets friends with other pets they do not know and, as in the human social networking case, there are often still filters on who is added as a friend. As one user put it, “[I use Dogster] to see dogs of and share like minded ideas of fellow dog lovers … and to see how much cuter my dogs are than the little yippie dogs”.
Dogster and Catster combined have over three million pet profiles. These sites work much like any other popular social networking site, such as Facebook or Myspace.
To add a pet profile to these sites, the owner must create an account. This account is used to edit the profiles of all pets owned by the user. Once the account is created, owners can add as many dogs or cats as they like. The dog profiles appear on Dogster and the cats on Catster. Pets created under the same account are listed as “family” to one another.
As with all social networking Web sites, pets can make friendship connections (known as “pup pals” or “feline friends”). Pets in the same family are not automatically added as friends and it is extremely rare that a pet will be both family and friends with another. Dogs’ family members are also listed friends less than 0.6 percent of the time and for cats the rate is 2.1 percent. Thus, family members account for less than 0.1 percent of all friends for cats and dogs.
Figure 1: A sample profile from Dogster.
Profiles contain pet photos and personal information, such as breed, location, age, astrological sign, favorite foods, nicknames, and personality traits. The sites also feature groups, which are communities that pets can join. These may be based around anything and common themes include breeds, colors, locations, and health issues. A sample profile from Dogster is shown in Figure 1.
Social networks have become the primary mechanism for online community formation in the last five years, with Facebook reaching over 500 million users in 2010. While originally these sites were places for posting profiles and had limited interaction, users have discovered and created community within them (boyd, 2006), and sites have responded with more community–building features. The public nature of friendship connections in these networks is an important foundation for this community (Donath and boyd, 2004) and is indeed a defining characteristic of Web–based social networks (Golbeck, 2005). These communities are not just imagined online entities with no relation to “the real world”; research has shown that theories of social capital and the benefits of it apply within these environments (Ellison, et al., 2007). The impacts that community interaction has off–line is similar when the interactions occur within these social network communities (Valkenburg, et al., 2006).
Efforts to extend access to “data” will perhaps inevitably create a “data divide” parallel to the oft–discussed “digital divide” between those who have access to data which could have significance in their daily lives and those who don’t. Associated with this will, one can assume, be many of the same background conditions which have been identified as likely reasons for the digital divide — that is, differences in income, education, literacy and so on. However, just as with the “digital divide”, these divisions don’t simply stop or be resolved with the provision of digital (or data) “access”. What is necessary as well is that those for whom access is being provided are in a position to actually make use of the now available access (to the Internet or to data) in ways that are meaningful and beneficial for them.
There have been many studies of how these communities form (e.g., Backstrom, et al., 2006) as well as user behavior and motivations in these online communities, including trust (Golbeck, 2005), risk–taking (Fogel and Nehmad, 2009), and privacy concerns (Acquisti and Gross, 2006).
Current studies of social networking Web sites largely focus on their use in two domains: professional networking and friendship networks (boyd and Ellison, 2007). There has been limited work that analyzes social networking Web sites used oriented around passions. Unlike traditional social networking Web sites, networks, passion–oriented networks tend to connect strangers around a common passion rather than connecting people who have relationships off–line.
Passion–oriented networks differ in many ways from friend–oriented networks, but one of the most important distinctions is that they are partially anonymous. Since a user’s true personal reputation will not necessarily benefit or be harmed based on his or her actions, the implications that social capital theory has for friend–based and professional social networks may not hold in passion–based networks.
Though passion–based of networks have received limited attention in the literature, they are a fast–growing segment of the social networking universe. As a simple example, consider the Ning networks which are focused on connecting people with shared passions with the tagline “Ning lets you create and join new social networks for your interests and passions.” Ning claims to host over one million networks and 27 million registered users (Ning.com, 2010).
However, it should not be assumed that users of passion–oriented social networks all participate for the same reasons. Certainly, one would expect to see different usage of networks when comparing, say, body–building networks as studied in Ploderer, et al. (2008) and photo–sharing communities as discussed in Miller and Edwards (2007). Differences may be found on much finer–grained levels as well.
Indeed, the body of work on passion–oriented social networks is so small, that there are many unanswered questions. In particular, we see a need for research of a comparative nature, both comparing passion–based to friend–based networks and comparing passion–based networks to one another.
3.1. Research questions
How does friending behavior differ between the dog– and cat–oriented sites? On these sites, users make their pets friends with other pets on the Web sites. We wanted to see if this behavior was different between dog and cat owners.
We looked at both the number of friends and the breed characteristics. Off–line, dog owners with their dogs have more social interactions with other dog owners and dogs than cat–owners do; dogs participate in more social activities with their owners (such as running errands, and training) and have more encounters with other pets (through walks and dog park visits) (Gunter and Furnham, 1999). This raises a question about whether this off–line behavior carries over online where the coincidental encounters do not happen, or if friendship between pets online is used for other purposes. We included breed features because research how shown personality differences among owners of different dog breed groups (Coren, 1998; Katz, et al., 1994). Dog breeds are often chosen as a representation of the owner’s personality (Coren, 1998; Katz, et al.,, 1994). Similar results have not been reported for cat owners. Thus, we may expect to see breed attachment among dog owners manifest itself in their friending behavior.
Do dog and cat owners interact differently within the discussion sections on the Web sites? Pet owners interact in fora provided on the Web site. The fora have predefined topics in which messages are posted using a pet’s profile. Often, these posts are in the first–person voice from the pet’s perspective. The purposes of these fora vary widely, with serious health–oriented discussions on one end of the spectrum to “virtual playdates” where people role–play parties attended by their pets on the other. How dog and cat owners utilize these fora provides insights into their goals with using the site.
How do existing theories of social capital apply in pet–oriented social networks? These networks are partially anonymous — users do not reveal information about themselves, only their pets. Thus, implications of social capital theory may be different in these networks. To study this, we looked at results from Gilbert, et al. (2008). They showed that differences between the behavior of urban and rural users of Myspace, a non–anonymous friend–oriented social network, could be explained by social capital theory. We replicated their protocol and compared the same behaviors in rural and urban dog and cat profiles on the pet–oriented social networks. If we see differences in behavior on the pet–oriented social networks compared with behavior on Myspace, it can imply that social capital theory does not apply to these pet–oriented networks in the same way.
Cats and dogs are approximately equal in popularity in urban areas with populations over two million, owned by 30.7 percent and 33.3 percent of households respectively. However, as population decreases, dogs become much more popular. When population is less than 100,000 (hardly rural, but the smallest community considered in the U.S. pet ownership & demographics sourcebook), cats are present in 39.6 percent of households while dogs are in 49.8 percent — over a 10 percent dominance (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2007). Because the number of households decreases in more rural areas, cats are much less common in number than in urban areas whereas dog populations remain closer to their urban levels. Thus, making urban to rural comparisons provides two benefits: it is a baseline for comparing data in pet–oriented Web sites with friendship–oriented sites and it may lead to additional insights about how these two pet subgroups use the sites.
Is there a difference in reasons dog and cat owners claim to love the sites? There is a section of both Dogster and Catster designated for people to describe why they love the sites. The reasons that users post here provide insight into their motivations for using the site. Our other results may offer some insights into differences between dog– and cat–owners motivations, and this analysis will rely on the reasons they explicitly state for loving the sites.
We randomly sampled profiles from Dogster and Catster. Since we performed a direct dog–cat comparison as well as sub–comparisons of urban and rural groups, we created two samples.
The main sample contains 2,000 randomly selected dogs and 2,000 randomly selected cats from the sites. Profile IDs on both sites are consecutive integers, and our sample was gathered by randomly generating integers and accessing the pages for the pets with the corresponding IDs. If there was not a profile available at the ID, the page was ignored and a new ID was generated until we had 2,000 of each type of pet.
For the urban and rural comparison, we replicated the methodology of a study that compared urban and rural use of social networks by humans in Myspace (Gilbert, et al., 2008). The University of Washington’s rural research center has classified zip codes from rural to urban (Hart, 2007). We randomly chose zip codes from this database, using the same thresholds as Gilbert, et al. (2008) to identify the far urban and rural ends of the spectrum. For each zip code, we randomly selected one profile whose location was within 10 miles. For dogs and for cats, we selected 2,000 urban and 2,000 rural locations, taking one profile at random from each location. However, we were unable to find 2,000 extremely rural profiles for dogs or cats. Thus, our sample for the rural populations was slightly smaller with 1,740 cats and 1,669 dogs.
For each pet profile, we gathered all available profile information. This included details like location, pet’s age, breed, astrological sign, favorite things, tricks, and other pet attributes; number of photos and blog posts; social network information that included a list of each pet's friends and “family” (other pets whose profiles were created by the same user); groups to which the pet belongs; and details of the pet’s participation in discussion forums. We aggregated and counted information from the pet’s profiles (e.g., number of friends, number of pictures, grouping by breed, etc.). For forum posts, we performed a content analysis with particular attention to the reasons people used the sites and their self–expressed reasons for loving the sites.
Overall, dog and cat owners use these social networking sites in very different ways. Most of the distributions over the profile features followed a power law distribution rather than a normal distribution, so we used the Mann–Whitney U non–parametric test for significance (a.k.a., the Wilcoxan rank sum). We provide z and significance levels for all measures for which this test was used. For the few measures that followed a normal distribution, we used a Student’s t–test, and only significance levels are given.
Figure 2: Average number of friends for cats and dogs, rural and urban dogs, and rural and urban cats.
While dogs and dog–owners have more off–line social interaction than cats and cat–owners, the opposite is true in these networks. Cats have significantly more friends than dogs — roughly twice as many on average. Cats had an average of 83.2 friends compared to an average of 41.4 for dog (z=-12.3, ρ<0.001). Recall that family relationships are separate from friendships, so these friendships are not a result of the fact that cat families tend to be larger.
When considering the urban and rural samples, we found no significant difference for dogs in the number of friends between urban and rural locations. Both had an average of 39.3 friends (z=-0.1, ρ>0.92). However, for cats, the results were surprising. Rural cats had nearly double the number of friends that urban cats had. Urban cats had an average of 50.6 friends while rural had 98.1 (z=2.6, ρ<0.01). Interestingly, this is the opposite of the results found in (Gilbert, et al., 2008) that showed urban Myspace users had more friends than rural users.
For all the profiles in our sample, we compared the pet’s breed with the breed of each of its friends. Some dogs had multiple breeds. In that case, we counted two dogs as the same breed if one of the breeds matched.
There are many more breeds of dogs (378) than breeds of cats (67). In addition, some breeds are much more common than others. Let P(n) indicate the probability that a randomly chosen profile is of breed n. The expected frequency of the same breed between friends was computed as the sum of probabilities that a dog of each breed would randomly select a friend of the same breed.
Because there are so many more dog breeds than cat breeds, the probably that two randomly chosen dogs are the same breed is much lower (see Table 1).
Table 1: Expected and observed rates of friendship within the same breed among dogs and cats. Cats Dogs Number of breeds 67 378 Expected same breed between friends 0.134 0.022 Observed same breed between friends 0.823 0.269 Observed/Expected 6.14 12.23
Both dogs and cats have friends of the same breed significantly more than would be expected by chance. Dogs were friends within the same breed less frequently than cats, but because the expected rate of same breed friendships was so low, dogs actually exceeded the expected frequency by twice the rate that cats did. Dogs’ friends are of the same breed at over 12 times the expected rate, while cats friend within the same breed just over six times the expected rate.
4.2. Forum participation
Dogster and Catster both have fora for many purposes: health issues, adoption, emotional support, and purely social interaction. There are five main categories: Informative Topics, for discussions on health, feeding, training, and adoptions; Support Center, for support of owners with sick pets or pets who have died; Dogster/Catster Central, for posts sharing photos, videos, blog entries, and for discussing the Web site; Beyond the Virtual Dog Park/Catster Den, for general posts on topics like pets in the news, voting in contests, and other miscellaneous topics; and Social Fun for virtual interaction in the persona of the pet.
The Social Fun section, specifically, the “Virtual Playdate” feature of the Web sites, is an unusual feature where people role play as their pets. In a virtual playdate, one poster (posting from the perspective of one of his or her pets) describes the pet’s virtual house or venue for the playdate. Then, other pets chime in and say what they are doing. For example, after a 160–word description of the virtual house, here is a sample interaction from the Web site (dog names are anonymized):
Dog1: Uhhh.... My Own House Finaly — *Turns on music in Living Room and starts break dancing*
Dog2: Knocks On Door.
Dog1: *Turns Music Down* Who Is it? Looks through Peep Hole and opens door for Dog2
Dog2: Hi Dog1 *Gives Hug* Long Time No See *Stares in amazement of bueatiful house* Man Talk about Luxury.
Dog1: Laughs Yeah i thought it was about time to get my own house do you wanna live here there are like 3 bedrooms that no one is stayin in?
Dog2: Uhh i am not to sure about that
Dog1: Ahh Come on
Dog2: *Pushs playfuly* Of Couse :D *Runs to her room in main level WOW *Jumps onto her bed* Do you Mind *Puts Sign On door saying Dog2s Room*
Dog1: No Not at all dogs that move in here are welcome to add and buy stuff for there room and bathroom.
There are significant differences in the use of these fora between dog and cat owners. As shown in Figure 3, dog owners post many more informative messages than cat owners (40.8 percent vs 19.8 percent). Cat owners, on the other hand, post much more frequently in the Catster Central section (dominated by posts listing reasons they love Catster) than dog owners do in the Dogster Central section (31.1 percent of posts vs. 11.6 percent of posts). Participation in all other categories is much closer between the two groups with percentages within three percent of each other. All values were significant for ρ<0.01.
Figure 3: Forum use on Dogster and Catster. Values are the percentage of posts in each category.
4.3. Users’ expressions: “Why I love Dogster/Catster”
Within the Dogster and Catster Central sections of the forums are subsections where users can post why they love the site. We examined the 20 most recent posts on that topic from Dogster and the 20 most recent from Catster. We classified these messages into groups according to the most common reasons people stated for liking the Web site: the opportunity to share information and photos of a pet, viewing profiles of and making friends with others, helpful advice provided by members, site features, and other.
We found that dog owners’ primary reasons are to make friends and view profiles, to share information through their own profiles, and to receive helpful advice. Among cat owners, nearly everyone mentioned making friends and viewing profiles as a reason they love Catster. Results are shown in Figure 4. These user stated reasons are supported by additional data in some cases. Dogster users listed sharing information and images are more important than Catster users and, indeed, dog profiles have significantly more images than cat profiles, averaging 4.9 images vs. 4.1 (z=7.7; ρ<0.001).
These results suggest that dog and cat owners use pet–oriented social networking sites in significantly different ways.
5.1. Dog owners: Reflecting the pet’s importance
The results discussed above show no differences between urban and rural dog profiles in the attributes we measured. This suggests that dog owners are using the site in the same way, regardless of location.
Figure 4: Reasons users state for loving Dogster and Catster.
Several measures indicate that dog owners use the site to reflect their dedication to their pet. There is background research that indicates this is a plausible explanation. Psychological evidence ties owner personality to their choices in breed groups; it shows that owners feel their dog’s breed (and its inherent traits) are a reflection on and of themselves. There is also much evidence that pets are a representation of the owner’s identity (Beck and Katcher, 1996). Thus, actions that emphasize the dogs’ breeds would make sense in the self–broadcasting world of online social networks.
Dog owners do indeed choose friends for their dogs within the same breed frequently — over 12 times more often than would be expected if friends were chosen randomly. It is important to realize that pictures of these friends appear in the dog’s profile (as can be seen in Figure 1). Many pictures of dogs of the same breed in the friends section would indicate a dedication to that breed by the owner. By choosing dog friends of the same breed, they enforce the personal importance of the breed through the profiles.The qualitative data also supports this. Dogster users were much more inclined to list the ability to post pictures and show off their pet as a reason for loving the site.
5.2. Cat owners: Using social networks to build community
Dogs and dog owners have many more offline opportunities for social contact. Cat owners, on the other hand, have many fewer opportunities to meet others through their cats, since cats do not usually take walks or travel with their owners to communal cat venues. In essence, cat owners are more socially isolated from the community of owners than is the case for people with dogs. However, we found much livelier social interaction from cat owners within these pet–oriented social networks. Cat profiles have significantly more friends than dog profiles, with almost twice as many connections. Catster users also overwhelming list friendships and viewing profiles of other cats as a reason they love the site.
Our theory is that this difference in behavior arises from cat owners’ desires to connect with others who share their same interests in pets. Since the off–line social situations to support those relationships are lacking, the site becomes a foundation upon which to build a virtual community of cat owners. The more isolated a group is from off–line social interaction around their pets, the more actively we found they used the site.
Finally, the participation in Virtual Playdates is significantly higher for cats than dogs. Cats have 1.4 times as many posts as dogs in these threads, even though they have only 40 percent as many members. This indicates that the virtual interaction is more than three times as popular on average in the Catster site.
As further evidence of Catster’s use for community building, a recently completed survey of Catster users (Schally, 2009) provided supporting results. The author found that there is a strong sense of community among forum users. In a survey of 227 users, the Sense of Virtual Community measure (Blanchard, 2007) (score on a scale of 1–4, where 4 indicates strongest community) was 3.43. The same study also found that the largest percentage of respondents — 35 percent — spent between five and 14 hours per week using the site, or roughly one hour per day.
5.3. Passion–oriented and friend–oriented social networks
Our analysis shows that some behaviors are consistent between friend– and passion–oriented social networks. Using urban and rural users for comparison, we found that in these passion–oriented networks, rural users tended to join the sites later than urban users, a confirmation of a trend observed on Myspace. However, we found several differences. The friending behavior in passion–oriented sites is remarkably different from that observed in friendship–oriented sites when looking at urban and rural differences.
We believe this is due to the partially anonymous nature of these passion–oriented networks. Social capital theory explains the differences observed between urban and rural users in myspace (Gilbert, et al., 2008). When a user’s identity on the Web site is not connected to their off–line identity, we would expect the impact of social capital effects to be diminished (if it is present at all). Indeed, the friending behaviors observed in Myspace and explained by social capital theory are not observed in Dogster and Catster.
This indicates that the applicability of social capital theory should be carefully considered in these passion–oriented Web sites which tend to be partially anonymous. It does not apply as directly as it may in friendship–oriented sites, but that does not mean it is inapplicable. Because identity is preserved through profiles, allowing users to build a reputation and relationships in the online environment, the theories may apply. The main difference is that the impact will be totally within the site rather than connecting the online and off–line environment. Further research is needed to understand this connection.
Millions of dog and cat owners participate in social networks that are oriented around their pets. We have shown a significant difference in the way dog and cat owners use these sites. Dog owners tend to have more pictures of their pets and create friends for their pets within the same breed more often than cat owners. Cat owners create many more friends for their cats and participate much more actively in virtual play dates. Rural cat profiles have many more friends on average than urban ones. Synthesizing this with qualitative work and previous studies, we posit that dog owners tend to use the sites to present the important parts of their relationship with their pet while cat owners tend to use the site to build virtual community.
This work was intentionally based on evidence that could be collected from artifacts users left online, both in profiles and in comments. An obvious next step is to talk to users to understand their motivations, interactions, and goals with the site. We have developed theories to explain the clear differences between dog and cat owners’ use of these sites, but surveys and interviews with users could provide more nuanced and well–supported insights. These surveys, along with the data we collected from the site, can be used together to develop a greater understanding of the interrelationship between personality, pet ownership, and online behavior.
About the author
Jennifer Golbeck is Co–Director of the Human–Computer Interaction Lab and Assistant Professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
E–mail: jgolbeck [at] umd [dot] edu
Thanks to Karrie Karahalios and Eric Gilbert at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign for their help in replicating their experimental conditions, and to members of the HCIL, including Chang Hu, Ken Fleischmann, and Allison Druin, for their comments on this work and to Dr. Morgan for his help with revisions.
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Received 20 February 2010; revised 12 January 2011; accepted 20 January 2011.
“The more people I meet, the more I like my dog: A study of pet–oriented social networks on the Web” by Jennifer Golbeck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
The more people I meet, the more I like my dog: A study of pet–oriented social networks on the Web
by Jennifer Golbeck.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 2 - 7 February 2011
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