East Lyme resident has paw in dog-rating Twitter phenomenon

East Lyme — “We’re about to hit 5 million,” says the 23-year-old sitting on his couch in Niantic last week, looking at his iPhone while another sat on the table in front of him. “About four point nine — 7,000 more to go.”

At some point in the next 24 hours, 5 million people would follow @dog_rates on Twitter. Many of the next 7,000 would be new to the social media site; Twitter recently started suggesting that new users of the site follow We Rate Dogs, where the novice tweeters meet canines like Winnie: a cream-colored puppy with plaintive eyes and snow on her nose.

“This is Winnie,” says the tweet under the photo. “She wants to know who threw that snowball. Commends your accuracy but demands a puppology. 12/10 would comfort.”

It’s a classic We Rate Dogs tweet: a mild joke putting human thoughts into a pup’s mouth, a dog-related pun and a rating, almost always 11 out of 10 or higher. The formula has made the account, founded by a college freshman in November 2016, into one of the internet’s most popular and innocuous phenomena and a trend that brands from the New England Patriots to Moon Pies have sought to emulate.

John Ricci, an East Lyme High School graduate who moved back to Niantic after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, has been at the center of the dog Twitter for more than a year.

Ricci’s job is simple. Between 500 and 1,500 people send the We Rate Dogs account pictures of their dogs every day. Sometimes they ask for a rating, sometimes they mention a fact about their pet or include an appeal for it to be featured.

Mostly they just send pictures with no text. Opening the list of messages in the Twitter app on his phone, Ricci scrolls with his thumb through the hundreds of photos of dogs people have sent in during the last several hours.

“The past two days have been weirdly busy,” he mused, still scrolling. “I’m, like, struggling to keep up.”

By the end of the day Ricci will have looked at hundreds of dogs and chosen between 15 and 30, which he will forward to We Rate Dogs founder Matt Nelson in a text message.

Nelson, who left college last year to live at home in West Virginia and run the account full time, chooses about three a day from the photos Ricci sends him, and spends up to an hour composing a tweet using the vocabulary and joke structure he's developed over the last two years as the account has exploded in popularity.

Dogs are called doggos, pups or puppers. A nose is a snoot. The dogs almost always deserve a pat, a snug or at least a boop. And they always deserve at least a 10/10 rating.

Nelson and Ricci have extended the joke beyond Twitter, sharing the dogs on Facebook and Instagram, and posting videos by a network of dog-owning contributors on Snapchat, where the videos disappear within 24 hours.

Ricci said he is now familiar enough with Nelson's sense of humor, and which tweets garner the most retweets and likes, that he can predict which dogs Nelson will choose to tweet about. There are recurring jokes: dogs that blend in with the carpet, dogs dressed up as other animals, other animals that look like dogs and dogs behaving strangely usually do well.

"If a dog's driving a car, he usually does an Uber joke," Ricci said. "If a dog has a little frog on his head, he'll go 'this is the dog and his son.'"

Cuteness also helps.

But the moments that have really pushed the We Rate Dogs into higher rungs of internet fame have been unplanned: the account gained tens of thousands of followers in 2016 when a screenshot of a brief exchange between Nelson and a Twitter user named Brant Walker went viral.

Walker — who goes by @brant on Twitter, contested the rating system on We Rate Dogs, arguing in jest that not every dog can possibly be cute enough to merit an 11/10 or 12/10 rating.

“they’re good dogs Brent,” Nelson tweeted back, and a meme was born.

It’s a world Ricci says he struggles to explain to his family, let alone the strangers on the beach in Niantic who he asks for permission to post pictures of their dogs on the We Rate Dogs Snapchat account.

"Honestly I usually just ... call it social media marketing and just leave it at that,” he said. “I just can’t really explain it.”

Ricci sent Nelson a message on Twitter in 2016 offering to help with the account, which by then had only 200,000 followers. Along with an 18-year-old in Missouri with a sticker decal business, the pair set up a merchandise store that summer and quickly started making money. 

Ricci said his share of the revenue from We Rate Dogs T-shirts, hats, mugs and stickers now makes up 75 percent of his income.

The rest comes from work in what Ricci calls the “Twitter influencer community,” a network of social media entrepreneurs working the market of paid Twitter posts, retweets and access to popular accounts that he joined shortly after graduating from high school.

He found success in college as a sort of self-made marketing expert, retweeting his way into the worlds of online sneaker sales or hip-hop artist promotion until he found a way to get paid to generate engagement. He started with a Twitter account to post excerpts of rap songs or music videos as free, unsolicited promotion.

Twitter shut down that account for violating U.S. copyright law, but Ricci had developed a reputation as an expert in the art of paid social media promotion, and soon music labels and unsigned hip hop artists began to hire him.

After the business became too much to handle alongside schoolwork — “I was just stretched thin and it just got to be tedious, and then I’d had these rappers on the phone yelling at me” — a business partner in Rhode Island took over most of the work, starting a limited liability corporation, hiring a lawyer and turning it into a legitimate business.

Ricci still does freelance work for the company, now called ZC Social, but most of his time is spent on We Rate Dogs and managing social media for a New Hampshire rapper who goes by the stage name JZAC.

He said he has applied almost none of what he learned as a marketing major at UPenn to the Twitter marketing world.

“What I was actually doing, and what I continue to do with Twitter and Instagram and all that — they are not really teaching that, I guess,” he said.

Instead he’s learned from the “community” — a widespread group of people, mostly under the age of 25, who are on a constant mission to find ways to make money and infiltrate the music industry exclusively through social media.

Ricci just signed a second yearlong lease on the Mohawk Drive house where he lives with a roommate and a calico cat, and he’s weighing a move to Los Angeles to manage JZAC full time.

Ricci said he doesn’t see the We Rate Dogs moment fading away anytime soon, though he's as baffled at the success of the account as anyone.

"I can't really explain it," he said. "It's just funny. There's plenty of accounts that share pictures of cute animals."

Ricci speaks reverently about the We Rate Dogs canine celebrities — “I love Atlas,” he said of a fluffy white Samoyed who lives in California and is regularly featured on the We Rate Dogs Snapchat account — though he doesn't have a dog of his own. Yet.

“That’s actually one of my backup plans,” he joked. “I could just get a really cute dog and have (Nelson) post about it, get a sponsorship or something.”

For now, his contributions to the We Rate Dogs machine have been friends' dogs, or dogs he sees on the beach in Niantic.

Later that evening, a post on the We Rate Dogs Snapchat account showed the number of @dog_rates Twitter followers displayed on a computer screen, inching one by one toward 5 million.

In a few seconds the tally went from 4,999,990 to 5,000,001, the camera zooming in and out on the digits. With one finger tap on the screen the scene changed back to regularly scheduled programming: a good dog, doing normal dog things for an audience of millions.



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