The Longform

December 9, 2021

Nuggets and Noms

A pizza box sits on a table. Moments later two curious faces enter the frame, excited by its contents. The two keep glancing at each other while building their anticipation for what lays inside. Each speaks in a gibberish only the other can understand. With a lift of the lid, the pair are shocked to discover it's empty. First there's shock. Then there's bellyaching. The pair turn to the camera and send gibberish accusations at whomever is filming. Finally they slink away off camera, defeated again.

This entire sequence plays out in less than 20 seconds. The narrative is tight, the lighting perfect for the indoor scene, and even when spoken in complete gibberish the viewer knows exactly what is being said. But this is no run of the mill video. This Instagram video is one of many starring not human beings, but plushie stuffed animals. In this case it is two Ikea sharks. It is a world unto itself where animated creatures come to life, have their own language, and constantly look for food in the funniest ways possible.

This is the story of Blahaj and Plushie Instagram: one of the most wholesome places on the internet.

A Trip to Ikea

To understand the oddity of Plushie Instagram, one must venture to Ikea. The Swedish furniture chain is famous for its flat-pack furniture that is affordable but also requires lots of assembly. Ikea caters to a wide audience. They have furniture, housewares, plants, decor, supplies, and nearly everything one needs to take a living space from empty to fully-furnished. One relatively-unknown section is their stuffed toy area.

Nestled squarely between the baby and kid sections of the store resides a virtual zoo. Large metallic bins hold equally-large plush animals. Elephants, monkeys, dinosaurs, and more are ready for purchase. However, one stands out from the rest. Item number 903.735.90 is their BLÅHAJ stuffed shark. Measuring over three feet long, this shark is made to be giant and huggable for children. In fact, a child hugging the shark is the image Ikea features for the product.

The Blahaj shark debuted in the early 2010's, was discontinued, but permanently brought back two years later. When the company designed the plush shark, they (knowingly or not) gave it a face that could convey different looks depending on how it was posed. This is similar to a poster wherein a character's eyes seem to follow you no matter where you stand. The combination of enormous size and the ability to look happy or sad or tired was a perfect mix. The stage had been set for people to "adopt" a shark and have fun with it.

Developing the Blahaj Personality

This whimsy of posing giant stuffed sharks in funny scenarios inside an Ikea went viral in 2014. A Tumblr account sharkhugger posted a photograph of six Blahaj arranged as if sitting at a table. The post gained over 5,520 likes and reblogs in seven years. This led people to not only want to go out and buy a plushie from Ikea, but to also put their own sharks in ridiculous situations.

On a road trip across the country, in 2013, I thought of a fun way to mark the places we’ve been; taking photos of [our Klapparhaj shark] Stanley! We toured lots of national parks, and new cities, and at each new place, I took a photo of Stanley.

Stanley the Shark

People from across the world wanted to share their sharks doing anything. Many of the photos would put the shark in a situation normally reserved for humans. It is common to see photos of these large sharks seat belted in a car, reading a book, singing, or even joining virtual meetings online. The humor is easy to achieve from something as simple as snapping a photo of a shark laying on its back. Due to how the shark can be floppy, and a face of ever-changing looks, the shark can look exhausted from a long day of work.

As time went on, ideas around what a Blahaj's personality would be began to take shape. Soon, it was established that they were always hungry. Because it was so funny (and common) to see pictures of sharks laying on a couch, they were humorously dubbed as lazy and this laying around nicknamed "whatevering". The personalities continued to form with a love for snacks and a never-ending well of love for their human owners. A Blahaj was both a whiney child bellyaching for pizza and a comforting grandmother with endless hugs to give.

Formation of a Community

People began posting other photos of sharks and eventually, thanks to the photo-centric nature of Instagram, a home had been found. Dubbed "Plushies of Instagram", a makeshift community formed. Everything has a hashtag on Instagram and this helped quickly bring together "shark content" from many plushie photographers. Soon, the personalities of sharks were also mixing into their own language. Sharks now always had a preference for chicken nuggets while also calling any food "noms".

Most places on the internet can be toxic or ruined by people who have nothing better to do. Politics, current events, differences of opinion, desires to compete & be better are all things that are destructive to fandoms and communities. Surprisingly, the plushie section of Instagram has been a refuge of wholesome happiness. It has been, and remains, this small niche corner of the internet that hasn't been sullied by the outside world.

Everyone is supportive of one another. Accounts frequently promote one another and celebrate any victory no matter how small. Some accounts run "events" to coincide with real events such as "Plushie Olympics" and pitching ideas on "Shark Tank".

We have had so much fun hosting events like the Plushie Olympics, Shark Appreciation 101, and teaming up with other accounts to create duets, comics, and movies.

The Blahaj Bros

This support system is explained best by Brucie Noms, an Ikea shark account going since 2014.

A lot of plushie humans are super talented! [The account] Toothie the Shark with their handmade sweaters, shermannandoscar and their love of cross stitch, stickysharks, Mr rabbit_universe & petsharknado with their drawing skills, shinjinana and their mom's sculpturing skills, marumarufufu and their amazing video editing skills and many more.

Sharks_family_daily also promotes other shark accounts by creating an online magazine [called] Sharquire. Whenever accounts steal blahaj images, this community stands up for anyone affected. Blahaj really brings good people together!

Brucie Noms

Nothing is done to get "likes and subscribes" or sponsors or for any ulterior reasons. At times people will promote things they do exceptionally well such as drawing sharks or incredible needlepoint crafts.

It’s nice to be part of such a wholesome community. It has allowed me to make less serious art (despite having a BFA) as a stuffed shark who runs an Etsy shop.

Shermann And Oscar

But there is no marketing of these things as the primary reason for being a part of the fun. The sharks, plushies, and snacks come first. Having fun is the number one rule of the community.

Surprising Returns

In researching this article, one word came up again and again: Positivity. I heard from nearly 30 people to gain insight toward their experiences posting Ikea shark or plushie content to Instagram. The overwhelming sense of pride in finding a community was mentioned first almost every time. Many stories echoed each other. A person would start an account, not expecting to have anything happen, then get drawn into a world where everyone was welcoming.

I quickly noticed how many people around the world were showing love toward each other through their plushie. Love, support, joy, beauty, food, etc..... all shared. And I found challenges, games and various groups that awarded badges and plushie mail. I suddenly felt safe in a world full of fear, sadness and confusion.

HiPpO

The bonds that form become so strong that it is common for accounts to send "plushie mail" to one another. This is real mail sent from person to person usually of a postcard but sometimes are care packages or crafts they make.

Plushie mail has made a comeback with pen pals; a seemingly dead art.

Timmy McFatty

When 2020 went sideways and the world was in COVID lockdown, the plushie community was also an outlet for many. I've mentioned before how we've entered a time where we need more positivity these days.

Covid, loneliness and mental health would be impossible without plushie Instagram and all our friends!

321Teddies

Additionally, there are many accounts ran by people who frequently travel. This gives way to accounts meeting up. Not only do people share excitement when their plushie meets another, but the humans who tag along enjoy seeing the generosity in person.

Traveling the world full time we have met some incredible people and plushies who have shown us around their beautiful home cities. This had given us a unique insight into places we never could have know about. We've been invited to stay in people's houses and taken on tours all over the world. We have also been contacted by the official Paddington Bear company who reposts our content regularly, they even invited us to London to meet them.

A Bear Called Paddington

Near Miss

At the end of September, the plushie community was buzzing not only on Instagram but also on Twitter (where accounts are more scattered and random). A person who was not able to find a Blahaj Ikea shark asked Ikea about availability. They tweeted the company's UK customer service to ask for information. The reply they sent was one of shock: Blahaj was set to be discontinued in April of 2022.

It is easy to chuckle at people getting very worked up over something like this. But this is 2021 and the internet age. Everything upsets somebody. It reached a point where even Business Insider was reporting on it with this headline: Ikea is discontinuing an $18 blue shark stuffed animal, and it sent Chinese social media into a total meltdown.

The biggest debt crisis of the decade might be looming large over China, but that's not what social media users on Weibo, the country's Twitter-like platform, were talking about Monday.

Instead of discussing real estate giant Evergrande's $300 billion in liabilities and its impending collapse, Weibo users were in full meltdown mode over the possibility that an $18, 39-inch stuffed toy shark called Blahaj might be permanently pulled from Ikea's shelves. 

Business Insider

It took about a week for the dust to settle, but multiple tweets, calls, reports, and people bombarding Ikea's global customer service yielded definitive answers: Blahaj would only be discontinued in certain regions, but not everywhere. One Twitter user compiled a list making it easy to see where the shark could still be purchased. While this was still bad news for many people living in the affected countries, the news was better than a worldwide discontinuation.

The Future

Some regions of Ikea embrace the Blahaj shark more than others. For example, in Japan they recently ran a campaign where they fully furnished tiny spaces using only Ikea products. The real estate agent for the homes? None other than Blahaj himself. This region of Ikea went all in, complete with full home furnishing TV episodes posted to YouTube and multiple posts to Instagram. For a time, visitors to the Tokyo location could even see his "office" and get a business card.

In other areas such as Germany, Ikea offers Blahaj drinking glasses. Even more countries have blue Blahaj reusable shopping bags for sale. In the US (and most other regions) Ikea stops at the stuffed Blahaj itself. No other swag or shark-related items ever hit the shelves. For a short time they offered a small version of the Blahaj (coined "Smolhaj" by the Instagram community), but it was limited to a few months of availability.

Given the immense numbers of the community and the pure love for a simple stuffed shark, it is nice to see Ikea lean into it even if it's in a single country. But even if the shark was discontinued everywhere and abandoned by Ikea, the people have already found their wholesome corner of the internet. One with fun photos, people with genuine care for one another, and a place where a love for snacks will never die.

The Shiver

It is impossible to know all about Ikea sharks, plushies, or the sense of community without knowing the accounts themselves. In preparation for this article I heard from nearly 30 accounts, all with amazing stories. I can only tell a fraction of the story and it is enhanced by seeing it first-hand. So, for further reading / context / endless enjoyment, here are all the plushies who helped contribute to today's article:

321Teddies sharky.sharklife
abearcalledpaddington haitheshark shermannandoscar
bigbrownlovemath hippo_hasit stanleytheshark
Biteytheikeashark iamwinnietheshark the_blahaj_bros
bluebird4503 InstaBlahaj* theskye_aesthetic
Brentfordbearandfriends Leo_Cunningbear_and_friends TimmyMcFatty
brucie_noms official.curiousjoe tomsretrogames
bunnyballandlyra palloturpa we_are_blahajs
Djungelrun Pomwonderfulpenguin Yolandalife12

Note: Quotes have been edited for clarity and time.
*I and my significant other run this account. I have only mentioned my account here in order to provide an unbiased article.



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