The first time I saw Mr. Pokee, a coffee cup-sized hedgehog with 1.9 million followers on Instagram, I naively thought he was somehow special. It has a fluffy white belly fur and likes to frolic on its small, stocky paws. He frequently poses in front of heavily modified nature scenes, as if photobombing a Windows desktop. Sometimes he is holding a small teddy bear or wearing tiny socks. When he smiles, he shows the cutest and least threatening fangs.
But when I hit the blue Follow button, I was surprised to see Instagram pull down a menu full of other hedgehog influencers that I might like. There was Koala, who wears glasses and poses in elaborate sets designed to resemble scenes from Harry potter. There was Wilbert, who makes the ASMR hedgehog while munching worms in front of a mini mic. There were hedgehogs carrying small hats, the hedgehogs pass little vacation, hedgehogs posing in front of festive banners that said things like “HAPPY EASTER” and “PROUD TO BE IRISH”. The daily_dose_of_hedgehogs and daily__hedgehog accounts aggregated the best of the week’s hedgehog content and put some of it to music.
I followed them all. And then the algorithm continued to give. Hedgehogs have started to appear in my listings. cinnamon posed with a small towel over her head during her spa weekend, courtesy of Hotels.com. Ichigo seemed to smile at a wristwatch. Maple, a brand representative for two stores, told “DM for #collaborations” in her bio. Another pig, Lionel, posted sponsored articles for Cadbury Chocolate, a national drugstore chain, a weighted blanket company, a PBS Creatures of the Woods docusery, on 2020 Sonic the hedgehog movie, a cafe in South Carolina and a brand of carpet cleaner specially formulated to remove pet stains.
As I approached 100 tracked hedgehogs, the algorithm began to suspect that I too had a hedgehog, or at least that I was in the market to buy one. He suggested accounts selling hedgehog products, hedgehog supplies, and in some cases, real hedgehogs. A store in the UK offered a music festival themed set, including a tent, lanterns, a set of pint glasses and two “mini resin burgers”. Some hedgehogs’ biographies were linked to Etsy stores, where they sold their own accessories.
My hedgehog’s count kept increasing. One hundred and fifty, 200. I created a new account just to keep track of all — hedgehog.fan12, because hedgehog.fan has already been taken and 12 is my lucky number. I started to wonder where the hedgehogs would end up: would Instagram ever suggest, say, hamsters instead? But follow-up after follow-up, the algorithm served more. I stopped at 553.
These weren’t the kind of hedgehogs you might encounter in the British woods, I learned. (This is not likely to happen anyway: the UK’s rural hedgehog population is estimated to have declined by at least a third since 2002.) These were African pygmy hedgehogs, imported for West African first time in the United States decades ago, and now generally high nationally. Although humans have made some of the world’s 17 species of hedgehogs as pets, this one is by far the most popular. And you would be hard pressed to find a better animal for online content. African pygmy hedgehogs fit in your hand and their tips are not painful. Hedgies – that’s what hedgehog fans call themselves and their pets – say animals are “pokeys.” As if a succulent had legs. One account called them “lap cactus”.