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Baby Grogu on the Disney+ TV show, The Mandalorian, sells toys. ISIS fighters recruit followers by posing with kittens and cats. Japanese corporations and other entities use Kawaii culture and yurukyara mascots to promote products and initiatives. Smokey Bear preached fire safety for the U.S. Forest Service.

What do all these things have in common? Using the power of cuteness to influence, sell, project a softer image, or motivate the public to social good.

Objectively quantifying “cute” presented a problem for researchers studying emotions in social media, but ARLIS researchers found a way.

“We felt there was a need for both gestalt measures of cute social media content and more fine-grained measures of cute attributes and the emotional reaction they trigger when viewing social media posts, which we developed,” said Ewa Golonka, first author and publication lead for the ARLIS team. The co-authors included Kelly Jones, Nick Pandža, Patrick Sheehan (Department of Human Development & Quantitative Methodology), Susannah Paletz, (College of Information Studies), Anton Rytting, and Michael Johns (Institute for Systems Research).

The team pursued developing “cute” social media measurements as part of the Emotions in Social Media project led by PI Susannah Paletz and co-PI Anton Rytting and funded by the Minerva Research Initiative and the Office of Naval Research grant.

The researchers investigated how different emotions influence resharing content in Polish and Lithuanian socio-political social media. The project studied emotions of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, amusement, wonder, nostalgia, relief, love, pride, empathic pain and hate. It also studied the nuanced emotion dubbed “kama muta”, which is Sanskrit for “moved by love”. Picture of cute puppies

The team created and tested new tools to measure cuteness characteristics in social media contexts called the Cuteness Attributes Taxonomy (CAT); and the emotional reactions they trigger called Heartwarming Social Media (HSM).

Nine native Polish speakers living in Poland used the newly developed instruments to annotate 1,875 Polish tweets for the presence of cute content and for the emotional reactions they evoked in them. The researchers conducted statistical analyses to validate the newly developed measures.

“Having reliable measurements of cuteness will enable future studies of the power of cuteness in online settings,” Golonka said. Paletz added, “Also, when studying social media, there is a lot of awful content that researchers often have to pore through. We deliberately wanted to examine some of the more positive content for both breadth of coverage and for the mental health of our researchers, and we also discovered that cute content had been understudied in the academic literature on emotions and on social media.”

Having objective measures is important because cute social media content evokes emotional reactions which can be used to influence and manipulate social media users.

The ARLIS team plans to use the newly developed instruments to study the role of cuteness in social media sharing and other engagement. They will test the hypothesis that the amount of cuteness in a social media post, the intensity of the emotion it elicits, and certain characteristics of cuteness will predict sharing and other engagement behaviors on social media. 

Read more about the validation study, The construct of cuteness: A validity study for measuring content and evoked emotions on social media,” in Frontiers in Psychology.