Sophie, the heeler-mix from Oklahoma, is on the cusp of Internet stardom, or at least an incredible burst of admiration on the photo-sharing social network Instagram.
“Likes” are the currency of the Internet and once her photo gets posted by the Instagram account @dogsofinstagram, she’ll hit the jackpot. Within 10 seconds the photo has 28 likes. Within a minute, it shoots up to 382. Ten minutes later it blasts past 3,000. After 24 hours, the photo has reached 25,591 likes and counting.
“People feel good about dogs,” said Ahmed El Shourbagy.
He would know. El Shourbagy and his girlfriend, Ashley Paguyo, are the Instagram equivalent of talent scouts — the humans behind the wildly popular account Dogs of Instagram.
They look like any other pair of smartphone-toting twenty-somethings from Minneapolis, but they’re anonymously orchestrating one of social media’s biggest dog shows.
Their account, which posts other people’s dog photos, has 600,000 followers. Instagram users submit pics to them by e-mail — 300 to 400 a day — often pleading to see their pooches posted. El Shourbagy and Paguyo, both of whom have full-time day jobs, sift through the digital firehose of cuteness to find the OMG!-LOL! best.
Yet in an era when savvy digital entrepreneurs will gladly grab 15 minutes of online fame, El Shourbagy’s and Paguyo’s names are nowhere to be seen on the account.
They say they’re content to let the dogs shine: the griffon in a plaid shirt, tie and glasses; the pile of snoozing golden retrievers. Their account has become a round-the-clock labor of puppy love, which also has started to reap a financial reward as dog-centric companies beg to advertise.
Before work, at lunch, in elevators, on weekends while out shopping, dog talk rules their lives.
“We do this all the time,” said El Shourbagy, 28.
Gone to the dogs
The sharing of cute animal photos is one of the essential activities of the Internet. More often than not, it seems cats are in the spotlight. There’s Grumpy Cat, Li’l Bub and the celebrity feline list goes on.
El Shourbagy wasn’t necessarily on a mission to boost dogs’ digital lives when he created Dogs of Instagram. In fact, he grew up scared of dogs. Cats are more common as pets in his native Egypt. (He moved to Minnesota with his family in 1995.)
He just loved Instagram and wanted to see if he could create an account that would attract followers. Plus, by then he had Lucy, his admittedly “odd-looking” but charming Boston Terrier-pug.
With a picture of Lucy, Dogs of Instagram was born in July 2011. In search of followers, he started “liking” every dog picture he could find on the social network, hoping to draw people back to the Dogs of Instagram profile.
“I remember getting my first submission,” he said, figuring the account had about 70 followers at the time. “I was like, ‘This is going to work.’ ”
Indeed, a couple of similar cat-centric accounts were catching on at the same time. The now massive @cats_of_instagram, with more than 1.2 million followers, posted its first feline in August 2011. Erin Filtness, of Vancouver, British Columbia, snagged a similar handle, @catsofinstagram, after noticing the canine account, and has since accumulated more than 350,000 followers.
“It’s a crazy world,” Filtness said.
It’s also an increasingly lucrative world.
As social media accounts attract followers, they also attract advertisers. El Shourbagy and Paguyo have worked with Purina, Bark Box and other companies, often posting ads in their Instagram feed as contests to win products.
“Our partners are interested in our finger on the pulse [of dog lovers],” said Paguyo, 26, who started helping with the account in October 2012. “It’s not unusual for us to find something before Buzzfeed gets it.”
They declined to say how much money they make from Dogs of Instagram, but admitted it could eventually be a full-time business.
“People are so passionate about their pets, it makes sense that they’re getting traction,” said Chris Wexler, director of media strategy at Compass Point Media in Minneapolis. “The entire Internet might collapse if it weren’t for cats and dogs.”
El Shourbagy and Paguyo purposely keep their names off the account and post pictures of Lucy sparingly. They say Dogs of Instagram isn’t about one online celebrity, but sharing the cuteness of all — corny as that sounds.
“I never want it to be about me,” El Shourbagy said. “It would ruin the entire point.”
Plus, the anonymity has been kind of fun. In the beginning they kept their involvement quiet, even from their close friends.
They’ve helped make Stephanie McCombie, also from Vancouver, Insta-famous by featuring her German shorthaired pointers on Dogs of Instagram. She now works with them when they need photos for advertisements.
“I wouldn’t mind if they posted about themselves and Lucy, but I get why they don’t,” McCombie said. “But, I do remember when they e-mailed me for the first time and I giggled and thought, ‘Oh, of course, there are really people that run that account.’ ”
Dogs all day
Paguyo said it takes about an hour a day to sift through all the e-mail, then confesses that it takes more time than she tells El Shourbagy. He’s a management consultant with an MBA, always looking for efficiencies. She’s a self-described Type A, and loves to organize photos by topic.
Most of the posting — three to five photos each day — happens on the fly, when one of them is walking between meetings, in elevators. Business planning is tackled in the evening from one of their south Minneapolis apartments.
If they want to get out, El Shourbagy and Paguyo claim a table at Spyhouse Coffee on Nicollet. He sips lattés. She drinks tea.
They toggle back and forth between their laptops and iPhones, sifting through e-mail, checking out other dog lovers’ Instagram accounts.
On a recent evening, a French bulldog with the handle @cesar_frenchie caught El Shourbagy’s eye. “I think Cesar has potential to make really great videos,” he said.
“The only thing is, we have a lot of Frenchies right now,” Paguyo said.
“Omigod, Ashley, Cesar is cute,” he insisted.
While Cesar is a maybe, the absurdity of the conversation doesn’t escape them.
Paguyo points out that the two women studying at the next table have a stack of books with titles like “Discourse in Action.” Adorable dogs seem trivial in comparison. But the “likes” and ever-multiplying number of followers prove otherwise. At this rate, they hope to crack 1 million by the end of the year.
“People are depending on their daily dose of cuteness,” Paguyo said.
The project is still personal and fun, but they’re in awe of its reach. Who knows what kind of advertising dollars lie ahead?
“It feels like we’ve got this giant megaphone,” El Shourbagy said.
Yet they’ve stayed behind the curtain — except that one time El Shourbagy accidentally posted a goofy selfie intended for his personal account on Dogs of Instagram. In the photo, he was brushing his teeth, wearing a T-shirt with a pug on it.
“Half a million people saw my bathroom selfie,” he said. (Both he and Paguyo also have personal accounts with several hundred followers each.)
It was Paguyo who figured out what he’d done when she checked Instagram a few minutes later.
“She was freaking out,” he said. “She was like, ‘Dude, you posted a selfie on Dogs of Instagram and it got a thousand likes.’ ”
They deleted the photo.
After all, it’s about the dogs — and a guy wearing a pug T-shirt doesn’t count.