It’s been an agonising series of weeks after a string of grievous events in various parts of the world. While I have been tracing vernacular responses to global grieving events on Instagram since 2014 – some of the case studies are archived here – this has been difficult to do of late between my personal loss and the onslaught of public grieving. Self-care first, right?
Of late, global tributes on trending hashtags have been featuring a more prominent disdain for, rejection of, and critique on public grieving in memes and thoughts&prayers en masse.
In this post, I trace the #thoughtsandprayers hashtag on Instagram and the content posted for a ten-day period between 10 July 2016 and 19 July 2016. Screengrabs were taken on 19 July 2016, 1700hrs, GMT+8.
As the site of the most recent tragedy, #PrayForNice featured prominently on the #thoughtsandprayers stream.
Many of these tributes were similar to those from #PorteOuverte in November 2015.
Other recent events were also on the stream, such as the Baton Rouge shootings,
the Istanbul attacks,
and the Orlando massacre.
Similar to the emblems catalogued in earlier #PrayForX streams, #thoughtsandprayers featured users adopting celebrity icons to promote their cause,
sharing inspirational messages,
and documenting symbols of solidarity such as remixed cartoons, posters, religious statues, and allusions to loss.
Although there was less evidence of overt spam and self-promotional material on #thoughtsandprayers as compared to the earlier #PrayForX streams, some users who were expressing grief and support still used selfies usually unrelated to the event, carefully postured artful poses of themselves, and throwback holiday photographs of affected sites to signpost their solidarity.
Saturation and Satire
Above all, saturation fatigue regarding the newest onslaught of passive “internet solidarity” and satirical remixes of #thoughtsandprayers were displayed in brilliant comics.
At times, users adopted the persona of a higher power/presence to portray angry or humorous responses.
Some users adopted the #firstworldproblems approach to expose the casualness and frivolity at which people were jumping on the #thoughts&prayers bandwagon.
Other users simply displayed their outright rejection of users sprouting #thoughtsandprayers on social media, alluding to a displaced sense of pseudo-activism, and inflated impression of aid, and a general ineffectiveness despite participation in a highly visible and populist activity that still promotes passive solidarity from a distance.
A handful of users mobilised #thoughtsandprayers as a meme to shed light on ineffective political governance and leadership, and the cyclic routine of public grieving.
Speaking of memes, users are also using #thoughtsandprayers in an ironic manner to display contempt for developments in politics, and in a humorous manner to express tongue-in-cheek suggestions to better the state of political participation.
Global grief events aside, a small pool of users use #thoughtsandprayers sincerely when posting about personal loss or hardship. Although these images are publicly-accessible on the #thoughtsandprayers stream on Instagram, it was not immediately clear if these users intended for their images to circulate in the mass outpour of grief and signposting of solidarity. Because the content of their images seemed personal, I have pixelated the faces featured. Interestingly, the only four examples of this during the period I tracked exclusively featured children.
Based on my work on global grief events, I have developed a register of visual tropes most viable for social media virality during social movements, or what I term a “grief aesthetic” on Instagram. The most prominent of these include national landmarks of cultural significance to the grief event, emblems borrowed and redesigned from a lexicon of political statements such as coloured ribbons, and #PrayForX typography. (full paper to come)
In these works and at AoIR2016 this October, I will be exploring the shift from “public grieving” to “publicity grieving” and introducing the phenomenon of “grief hype-jacking”:
While the “grief aesthetic” elements on Instagram have emerged as vernacular norms of acceptable “public grieving” visibility practices, some users tap into this global current of attention in less palatable ways.
In “public grieving”, users sincerely partake in a global expression, narrative, and dialogue of a grief event through the use of high visibility trending hashtags.
But in “publicity grieving”, users opportunistically harness the attention currency of high visibility trending hashtags to promote themselves (i.e. to invite ‘likes’ or ‘followers’), their brand (i.e. to improve their public persona, especially for Influencers), or their wares (i.e. to market a product or service through product placement, advertorials, or spam).
I term this phenomenon of bandwagoning on public tributes and high visibility hashtags “grief hype-jacking”, as users wrestle to (mis)appropriate highly public channels of collective grief for self-publicity. Perhaps it is for this reason that the backlash against #PrayForX and #thoughtsandprayers memes has been growing.
More on “grief aesthetics” and practices of “grief hype-jacking” another time.
How do you feel about public grieving and publicity grieving in response to global tragedy? Have you experienced saturation fatigue yourself? What other things have you noticed about the rampant use of thoughts&prayers?
Here’s a roundup of all the talks (six talks in five cities, to be exact) that are happening this June and July from the wishcrys factory of brain.
Feel free to beep if you’d like to read any pre-prints or WIP versions of these. As usual, I’ll be haphazardly snapping the conferences on-the-go at @wishcrys.
Amazing sushi aside, Fukuoka was a lovely time of rest and recuperation because I got to reunite with some of my acadpals after a very trying first half of the year. I opted out of the usual conference revelries and spent most of my time hunting down good food and music in pubs.
My co-author Kai Khiun and I presented a paper on “brats” in the digital landscape of Singapore. In true blue internet researcher legitimacy, we first met on Facebook after being introduced by a mutual friend. KK and I then caught up once in late 2015, discovered multiple convergences in our interests, and decided to author a paper for the International Association of Communications (ICA) conference. We’ll soon be submitting this to a journal, so akan datang.
Liew, Kai Khiun, and Crystal Abidin. 2016. “Si Gin Na (“Brat”): Social Media & Juvenile Insolence in Singapore.” New Media and Citizenship 2016 ICA Pre-conference, Fukuoka. June 9, 2016. <Event>
This paper explores social media’s role in performing, reflecting, and representing juvenile deviance in the highly wired but stringently policed society of contemporary Singapore. Reputed for both its intensity in social mobilization and control, the “soft-authoritarian” paternalistic government has been active in intervening with youth culture in favour of “nation-building”. However, since the early 2000s, social media has given especially digital natives instantly networked platforms to project their voices that were unimaginable to their predecessors. Through the surveys of the more controversial episodes from digital and social media posts by youths and post-teens, this article demonstrates the seriousness in which these other juvenile articulations are taken close to two decades reflect the significance of youth in mirroring and moulding the public discourse in the republic via the internet.Taking a literary-culturalist standpoint of these juvenile expressions not as stripping, but describing the nakedness of the “emperor’s new clothes”, the authors propose to appropriate the colloquial Singaporean Chinese Hokkien term of “Si Gin Na” (brat), to flag the dynamics of youth and new media in Singapore.
At the ICA, I also presented some of my work on Influencer culture and intimacy, this time dialoguing with old school but cornerstone work on parasocial relations. It was a 0800hrs start and getting up and out and ready on time was a tremendous challenge. The published paper is available here.
Abidin, Crystal. 2016. “Communicative <3 Intimacies: Influencers and Perceived Interconnectedness.” International Communication Association (ICA) Conference, Fukuoka. June 10-13, 2016.
Around the world, many young people have taken to social media to monetise their personal lives as “influencers.” Although international news reports have variously described these commercial social media users as “bloggers,” “YouTubers,” and “Instagrammers,” I conceptualise these high-profile Internet microcelebrities (Senft 2008) as influencers regardless of their digital platform. Influencers are everyday, ordinary Internet users who accumulate a relatively large following on blogs and social media through the textual and visual narration of their personal lives and lifestyles, engage with their following in digital and physical spaces, and monetise their following by integrating “advertorials” into their blog or social media posts. A pastiche of “advertisement” and “editorial”, advertorials in the Influencer industry are highly personalised, opinion-laden promotions of products/services that influencers personally experience and endorse for a fee.
Although influencers are now a worldwide phenomenon, this paper investigates a subset of them, namely women influencers of the “lifestyle” genre in Singapore. Based on my fieldwork and drawing from Horton & Wohl’s work on parasocial relations (1956), I observe how influencers appropriate and mobilise intimacies in different ways (commercial, interactive, reciprocal, disclosive), and describe a model of communication between influencers and followers I term “perceived interconnectedness”, in which influencers interact with followers to give the impression of intimacy. The practices investigated and analyses developed in this paper are not unique to Singapore and may be mapped onto larger Influencer ecologies. However, as a small nation of just over five million (YourSingapore 2013) with a high IT penetration rate (iDA 2015) and relatively developed Influencer industry, it is hoped that this study of influencers in Singapore can serve as a microcosm for future comparative studies of influencers globally.
The next week in Singapore, I attended my first Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) conference. My co-author Connor Graham and I wrote a paper on the history of the digital camera in Singapore, inspired by some work from undergraduate research that we co-supervised last year. I gave the paper solo, but being neither a historian nor an STS scholar, the genre of writing and style of presentation was a bit of a challenge. In a surprising twist, I was awarded runner-up/honorary mention for the The Joan Cahalin Robinson Prize. It was a little bit awkward. This status update will explain the cake as accompanying image:
“Soooo it’s the SHOT2016 award banquet now and I got honorary mention for a thing but I was in the middle of eating red velvet cake when they announced my name so I looked across the table at my friend and smiled and then never stood up to go on stage because I was still eating my red velvet cake then the awkward silence passed as they went to the next award. Some cake.”
Any way, we’re currently revising the paper after some insightful feedback from historians and STS scholars in our session, and will be submitting to a journal soon!
Abidin, Crystal, and Connor Graham. 2016. “History of the digital camera in Singapore 1996-2004.” Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) Annual Meeting, Singapore. June 22-26, 2016. <Event>
This essay presents a history of an object: a narrative of the evolution of the digital camera in Singapore during the period 1994-2006. This period was a time of dramatic increase in prosperity in Singapore as a nation and of increasing affluence among individual citizens, a time when the nation consciously and conscientiously was moving towards First World status. This period was also one of intense technological change for the nation, a change that was connected to the evolution of the Internet.
The purpose of this essay is to establish the conditions and context that contributed towards the citizenry’s extensive and frequent use of photography in social media and elsewhere in the recent times, specifically post 2006 when social media use became prevalent in Singapore. We argue this ‘use’ marked a marrying of two distinct technologies: the digital camera and the Internet. The digital camera gained dramatically increased traction in people’s lives over the period studied, as did the Internet in various forms. After seriously entering the market in Singapore in 1994, also the year of the World Wide Web’s introduction to Singapore, and becoming available to consumers, by 2006 digital cameras were small enough to be converged into many mobile phones. This marked a convergence of capture and display technology with technology supporting connectivity. Sales of digital cameras also increased substantially within this period: from 10,000 to 265,000 units between 1998 and 2004. Thus we posit that a close study of the digital camera supports the tracing of the creation of the conditions and context for the mobile photograph, a changing relationship between photography and the photographer and their changing roles and meanings. Over this period, photographs moved from being heavy, obdurate and durable to being lightweight, portable and ephemeral.
Through examining primary and secondary sources, this essay will closely examine government IT and educational policies in Singapore and their context over this period, the trajectory of technology development and how digital cameras were portrayed to the citizenry in the traditional media. We pay close attention to the portrayal of the capabilities of digital camera technology and the infrastructure’s possibilities. In this analysis we expect to show that, although there were certain constants in how the digital camera was portrayed, such as its status as a material object of desire, the emphasis of portrayal changed over this period from centring on the consumer as being a specialist professional engaged in paid work to a ‘leisured’ amateur. In addition we expect that over this period the consumer was represented as being embodied in state-sanctioned normative relationships, despite the apparent reduction of the body through digitization in Singapore at the time and her increased exposure to global forces through the increased availability of the Internet. In contrast to the advertisements of the Brownie camera described by Olivier in 2007, we expect that there was little sense of folklore or magic in the way the camera was portrayed. It was represented through appeals to rationality and functionality. Through our close examination of the connection with state policy at the time we will suggest this portrayal does not reflect a straightforward rejection of both traditional norms and pragmatist politics, but instead displays these norms and politics with a veneer of a modern, materialist ethos and outlook.
This week, I am in Amsterdam. In fact, I am literally lying in bed by the window and typing this post from my budget hotel room. I am super psyched to be attending a Celebrity Studies event for the first time, which is surprising considering that most of my research thus far has focused on microcelebrity. My paper will look at how established Influencers are growing and grooming (literally) their own offspring as a new generation of inherited microcelebrity. The published paper is available here.
Abidin, Crystal. 2016. “Micro-microcelebrity: Branding babies on the Internet.” 3rd International Routledge Celebrity Studies Journal Conference: Authenticating Celebrity, Amsterdam. June 28-30, 2016. <Programme>
Babies and toddlers are amassing huge followings on social media, achieving microcelebrity status, and raking in five figure sums. In East Asia, many of these lucrative “micro-microcelebrities” rise to fame by inheriting exposure and proximate microcelebrification from their social media Influencer mothers. Through self-branding techniques, Influencer mothers’ portrayals of their young’ children’s lives “as lived” are the canvas on which (baby) products and services are marketed to readers as “advertorials”. In turning to investigate this budding phenomenon, I draw on ethnographic case studies in Singapore to outline the career trajectory of these young children (under 4yo) including their social media presence, branding strategies, and engagement with their followers. The paper closes with a brief discussion on some ethical considerations of such young children’s labour in the social media age.
Elsewhere in the world, my collaborator Mart Ots will be presenting two of our co-authored papers. The first paper is a micro-analysis of how Influencers as consumers are innovating with new social media advertising formats.
Mart is from the Business School and focuses on marketing and advertising, while I’m an anthropologist and ethnographer who focuses on internet culture. It was a bit of a steep curve learning each other’s vocabulary, and trying to look at the same phenomena from different vantage points. But I quite enjoy our working style and the frankensteinesque writing we are cultivating. A+ collaboration is A+ because this is our sixth paper/project together.
Ots, Mart, and Crystal Abidin. 2016. “Consumer-led innovation in social media advertising formats.” Annual Conference of the European Media Management Association, Porto. June 2-5, 2016. <Programme>
On Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and weblogs, consumer activity is increasingly institutionalized, guarded by rules and norms. Consumers take on tasks previously performed by trained media workers, but they also create new activities, emerging as a new breed of media workers, institutionalizing new fields of the media and advertising industries and their associated practices (Dolbec and Fischer 2015). It has been described how amateur workers develop new ethical norms and rules for publishing, by taking journalistic/editorial decisions on what content to publish and how, within their new institutional domain (Abidin & Ots, 2015).
This paper is focused on a specific group of stakeholders – everyday Internet users who manufacture themselves into a new form of social media microcelebrity known as the ‘Influencer’ (Abidin 2015). Since 2005, many young women have taken to social media to craft ‘microcelebrity personas’ as a career – “a new style of online performance that involves people ‘amping up’ their popularity over the Web using technologies like video, blogs and social networking sites” (Senft 2008: 25). In their most basic capacity, Influencers produce advertorials on blogs and social media platforms in exchange for payment or sponsored products and services (Abidin 2015). Owing to their power to shape purchase decisions, their clients have progressed from small home businesses to bluechip companies including Canon, Gucci, and KLM. Until recently, the most effective advertorials are those that are seamlessly woven into the daily narratives Influencers publish on their blogs and social media, such that readers are unable to tell apart ‘paid opinions’ from ‘unpaid’ sentiments (Abidin 2014). However, along with the maturity of the field, there is a gradual standardization of new advertising formats.
The conducted study explores how semi-professional microcelebrity Influencers create advertising market innovations. Researchers have previously described how consumer fans help firms innovate (e.g. Füller et al 2008), and how fan cultures celebrate their favourite brands by creating their own advertisements (Muniz & Schau 2005; for overview see Ots & Hartmann 2015). This paper takes a slightly different approach – rather than seeing consumers as co-creators, it demonstrates how new actors outside the traditional media and advertising industries, make innovations that compete with the incumbents. We focus on these vernacular advertising innovations in the age of social media, and seek to understand how Influencers orientate towards a youth market in the saturated, visually dominated attention economy of Instagram. The findings include a typology of innovative advertising formats emerging outside the traditional media companies, along with their associated publishing rules as defined by the semi-professional Influencers.
The second paper that Mart will be presenting looks more closely at how Influencers rationalise and practice advertorial disclosures on Instagram. The fieldwork on this project was such a joy, and drawn mainly from the well of fieldnotes I could not accommodate in my dissertation. My challenge was learning Mart’s field, and mass reading a lot of new theory and concepts from Business scholars in order to analyse and reframe my data in new light.
Abidin, Crystal, and Mart Ots. 2016. “Microcelebrity influencers and advertorial disclosure: Practicing the advertising/editorial divide on Instagram.” 15th International Conference on Research in Advertising (ICORIA), European Advertising Academy, Ljubljana. June 30-July 2, 2016. <Programme>
This paper explores the phenomenon of everyday Internet-users creating new advertising formats on social media platforms such as Instagram. Data was was collected via large-scale ethnographic fieldwork of online ‘microcelebrity’ Influencers in Singapore between 2011 and 2015. The findings showcase how these semi-professional Instagram Influencers signal the separation of personal opinions from those initiated by their commercial sponsors via six types of recurring advertising disclosures. In our analysis we further elucidate their understandings, motives, and practices in negotiating the advertising/editorial divide.
Alright folks, that’s all for now. I’ll be off all of July for a long break to do non-work things… such as getting married.
How has your May been? This month has been pretty tough on me, but we all learn to get by and do life as it comes our way. I bring you more serious scholarshipping and exciting updates from my bubble.
Also, after much nudging by my favourite @jilltxt, I have taken to Snapchat to share research ramblings on the go. See you on @wishcrys. Obviously, I’m still trying to work out my sticker-to-excitement ratio.
New article published with the East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, available here.
Some behind-the-scenes snippets:
1) I wrote and submitted this in April 2014. It was published 24 months later in April 2016. This is apparently a good average for academia.
2) 2014-wishcrys was not yet conscious of OA politics, so this digital copy is courtesy of Joel. Thanks dude.
3) I’m a small-framed Asian woman who doesn’t power dress, and am often told “omg you’re so cute”. I usually can’t tell if it’s a compliment or microaggression. Long story short, angst can be rather productive so here is an analysis of how Influencers intentionally do cuteness.
4) Long live emoticons (^.^)
New book review published with the Mobile Media & Communication journal, available here.
Finally, the recent newsletter of the Australian Anthropological Society (AAS) features happy announcements that my thesis buddy, Kara Salter, and I have officially completed our PhDs. Read our abstracts (pp10-12) and the latest updates from the AAS here.
Kara and I literally shared most of our PhD milestones – we inhabited the same office and sat next to each other, shared a supervisor, submitted our theses on the same day, and were conferred in the same week. I am so glad we got to do life together, halved sorrows and doubled joys included.
More procrastiprogress updates next month, when I’ll be off to present four papers in three cities.