This August, I had the honour of representing the School of Social Sciences at the UWA 3MT. Earlier this week, I was invited to give the speech again at the UWA Postgrad and Honours Expo. This is my attempt at summarising my entire PhD into 2 minutes and 55 seconds. Are you ready?
You know those people who peer intently into their phones, crashing into things? In just 5 seconds, some of them can convince you to buy diapers, Prada, plastic surgery, and even an education. And yet they’re not salespersons. They’re not professionals. In fact, some of them are only 18 and they’re mainly women! I call them influencers, and they know exactly how to capture your eyeballs.
Social media has become so much a part of our lives. I mean, they’re practically extensions of our bodies. Now I see some of you nodding and smiling, cos you’re addicted to Facebook, aren’t you?
By consistently documenting their daily lives on blogs and social media, influencers create Internet personas to interact with readers online and even meet them in person. They cultivate long-term relationships, build interactional intimacy, and gain your trust. But they also embed products and services into these narratives. Then they tell you that you too can get a taste of their lifestyles, if only you buy these products.
What I study is the attention economy, or simply put, the business of gaining and sustaining someone’s interest. Here, the selling point is not market value, but social value. While market value is the price a product can fetch, social value is one’s ability to command attention and influence people.
But what makes influencers so charismatic? To find out, I spent 18 months conducting anthropological fieldwork with these women, engaging in publishing practices, attending face-to-face fan meetings. And in the spirit of true dedication, I even ate, pooped, and slept with my cellphone!
I discovered that influencers used three core strategies. To offset the commercial nature of the exchange, they enact intimacy online and offline. To remain accessible, they reveal behind-the-scenes of real life, not just glamour. To remain in the business, they form alliances and cliques to cooperate, not just compete head on.
Mainstream media, publishing houses, and even government agencies are now engaging influencers to curate and disseminate information. Although birthed in Singapore, the influencer model is being exported to the rest of Asia, Australia, and the UK. Even the men are coming on board.
But what does all this mean for you and I? In a broader sense, I am studying information flows at the grassroots level where social media has democratized the authority of information. Understanding these flows allows us to rethink how knowledge is formed and disseminated.
Five seconds may seem like a short time. But in the short time we’ve shared, weren’t all your eyeballs stuck on me?